This month: Something a little different. In late October I downloaded David Byrne’s new How Music Works for a plane trip (the book is also available for eReaders through various sellers). I liked his past work on PowerPoint, so I was interested in hearing what he might say about music. The surprise: From page one I found I could pretty much substitute the word “content” for the word “music” in many of his ideas.

The parallels to our work with learning and experience were unmistakable and plentiful. By the time I reached the end I had amassed 87 Kindle highlights. Themes I found especially relevant, in 2012, to my work in learning and development:

  1. The problem of capturing tacit knowledge

    “Lots of expressive, textural, and emotional nuances are lost with any notation … if the instructional thread gets broken, if all that’s left is the written music … then what gets passed down might bear little resemblance to the original” (Kindle location 53990).

    The established traditional musical notation does not capture nuance, or demonstrate technique, or otherwise show how a musician achieved a particular unique sound. While notes may exist on paper that show what is done, how it’s done is still social, still largely an oral tradition. We’ve become more aware of this, and are lucky now to have new ways of handing it down. (See, for instance, the thousands of guitar lessons on YouTube). Tacit knowledge is just as big a problem elsewhere, especially given the old 20th century view that the organization “owns” employee knowledge as discrete pieces of information that can be captured in a database. Complete sharing and transfer will never happen via formal written means. You may get the what, but the how is shared through conversation, mentoring, coaching, and talking about our work. Using new tools and nurturing communities of practice (note: this is not “managing work teams”) to support this will help it happen more quickly and help it reach a larger audience.

  2. A concern: The content adapts to the technology

    While, as Byrne notes, new technology can surface new art forms (the two-minute video; text-free storytelling via images on an online whiteboard), the opposite can be true: the art form conforms to the technology. Popular songs continue to be three-minutes-ish long because that’s what would fit on Mr. Edison’s wax recording cylinders 130 years ago. The advent of eLearning has shown us many, many examples of content adapting to technology like authoring tools and tracking methods rather than the other way around. While Byrne finds this positive for music—for instance, new software makes composing and editing much, much easier—it has brought a change to music itself, which we can now create and manufacture with no variance, change in tempo, or good “mistakes.”

    I worry about what this means to our field. So often I see bad compromises made, in which good design and sensible instruction take a backseat to the vagaries and limits of authoring tools. The “data” cart, too, often seems to be driving the horse: During a recent conference presentation on assessment in eLearning, I asked the audience why we assess. Several people immediately said: “For the LMS.” Ouch.

  3. “The music business is hardly in even in the business of producing music anymore. At some point, it became primarily the business of selling objects.”

    Do I even need to elaborate on this one? How much of our training budget goes to things that have nothing to do with “learning”? Why does the LMS cost more than the whole L&D department? How many organizations invest in more authoring tools and asset libraries than they do in people who know how to use them to design more effectively? Why have we fragmented learning into shards of “objects” rather than craft whole, robust learning experiences? My fellow columnist Marc Rosenberg years ago offered the analogy of railroads, which failed because they saw themselves in the railroad business, not the transportation business. Us? We’re supposed to be in the learning business, not the “object” business.

  4. Music is returning to its social roots.

    Historically, music has been created in and for a social context. Recording technology changed that, and the arrival of personal listening devices like the Walkman isolated it even more. But we’re moving back toward shared musical experiences beyond the occasional concert, with tools like Spotify letting us share listening activities and co-create song playlists and publishing media like YouTube expanding the oral tradition of handing down technique. This, along with DJ-spurred trends like sampling music, has shifted the idea of authorship: the music curator isn’t necessarily the singer. There’s plenty here that parallels—well, I wouldn’t say trends, because social learning is not at all new—but recent increased awareness of how people learn in work, with and from each other. We are in many ways seeing intentional efforts to help, or at least to allow, workplace learning to likewise return to its social roots.

  5. Other themes

    I’m out of column space, but Byrne offers much food for thought for those of us who work with “content.” Some other themes:

    • The idea of shared authorship; the movement from lone innovator to innovation occurring in a social context.
    • The biases inherent in software. (Think PowerPoint and learning management systems.)
    • New media shapes perceptions; ways in which technologies and space shape the content. (Think Twitter.)
    • Resistance and threat as media becomes more democratized: “The Church inevitably loses some of its deep cosmic power when the hymns are written in languages everyone speaks.” (Kindle location 5408.)
    • The head of the Muzak corporation: “Our music should be heard but not listened to.” Policy training, anyone?
    • Endless arguments over which is “better”: live music or recorded music. There are plenty of parallels to our work here, including the artificial distinction of face-to-face versus “online” (which can each have 100 varying degrees of effectiveness), different social media tools, different means of collecting data, and the relentless demand for “one right answer” when there isn’t one. Byrne says, “I like a good story and I also like staring at the sea: do I have to choose between the two?” (Kindle location 5579.)
    • Historical objections to innovations, including musical technologies’ “dumbing down” the masses and the blasphemy of “revolving things” that destroy the real experience. Sound familiar?
    • Whether to begin learning experiences—such as music instruction—by building on historical foundations or through relevant contemporary examples.
    • Support for new, community-based, social means of music creation, not more performing arts centers. “Why not invest in the future of music, instead of building fortresses to preserve its past?” Same with a new call to give learning communities support and space, rather than continue to invest in old-school “courses.”

I didn’t set out to write a book review but suppose it’s pretty evident that I’d recommend Byrne’s How Music Works for anyone working in L&D now, particularly those concerned with content and emerging conversations about the social nature of learning. Buying advice: There are a good many images, so the paper version of the book is “pretty,” but the electronic version provides in-context links to actual music samples.

The book

Byrne, D. (2012) How Music Works.; available for eReaders through various sellers

The highlights

My 87 Kindle highlights, some with notes, can be accessed via my Kindle profile at