Prosody: What every CEO can learn from songwriting

Prosody

Without music, life would be a mistake. —Friedrich Nietzsche

(A warning to the reader: I was a political philosophy major in college, and in my spare time, I run a small, unsuccessful record label. That goes part way in explaining this blog.)

In the fourth century BC, Aristotle wrote the first real exploration of dramatic theory, entitled The Poetics. In one passage, he sets out his rules for a good play (what is now referred to as the three classical unities): The action should focus on one main, linear plot, within one place and at one time (within a 24-hour period). Put another way, the plot, place and time of the play should support a single idea, and shouldn’t distract the audience with sub-storylines or jumps across geography or years.

More than 2,000 years later, Pat Pattison, the great songwriting coach from the Berklee College of Music, picked up on Aristotle’s Poetics. In a series of video lectures, Pattison argues that songwriting has only one rule, the rule of prosody: Everything you do in a song—lyrics, mood, rhythm, melody, the choice of instruments, vocalists and style—must promote the central purpose of the song. Every aspect of the song must support the main emotion of the songwriter and answer for the listener the central question: Why did you write the song?

For Pattison, this idea of prosody centers on the strange and wonderful world of songwriting. He demonstrates that the number of lyrical lines, the length of the lines, the rhymes used, and so on, all signal to the listener’s stability or instability, and the writer’s intent to satisfy expectation or to propel you to the next line. The principle of prosody, he argues, forces a songwriter to consider the millions of choices available for any given aspect and answer a single question: What choice helps my audience know why I had to write the song?

As I listened to Pattison’s use of the term prosody, I reflected on all the conversations I’ve had with founders around analogous concepts such as the “nobler mission” or “common purpose.” I concluded that prosody is critical to business as well as to songwriting, particularly when it comes to recovering the Founder’s MentalitySM. One of the best examples of prosody in business I can think of is Innocent Drinks, the leading UK smoothie brand that was founded by three young entrepreneurs and best friends, Jon Wright, Richard Reed and Adam Balon.

Here’s Richard talking about the importance of maintaining focus on the company’s main idea: “One of our most-used phrases is, ‘Always keep the main thing the main thing.’ This means that you need to understand why you’re different, and not let that slip. Our main thing has always been making our drinks the natural way. PJ’s [a now-defunct competitor] used concentrates, which may have been easier and more profitable, but ultimately meant a compromise on taste and nutritional quality. Every decision we made back then, and make now, is based around keeping the main thing the main thing.”

The enemy of prosody is entropy. As companies grow, it is far easier for the leaders to keep saying “yes” and let the ‘main thing’ become the sum of many things. As a result, though, they lose the central emotion, the central reason for the company. They lose focus on the central questions: Why does the company exist? What is the main thing it does incredibly well?

During Apple’s Worldwide Developer’s Conference in 1997, Steve Jobs described what focus really means. In the video, we see him explaining why he stopped so many of his engineers’ pet projects and asked so many to leave (many of whom were later to predict Apple’s doom in local papers). This is before the iPod, the iPhone, the iPad. This is when Apple’s share price was about $4 (it’s about $520 today and has split twice). Here is what he said at the time:

I know a lot of you spent a lot of time working on stuff that we put a bullet in the head of. I apologize. I feel your pain. … But Apple suffered for several years from … lousy engineering management. … And there were people going off in 18 different directions…. The total is less than the sum of the parts. And so we had to decide what fundamental directions we’re going in; what makes sense and what doesn’t. And there were a bunch of things that didn’t. Micro-cosmically, they might have made sense, but macro-cosmically, they made no sense. When you think about focusing, you think focusing is saying yes. … No, focusing is about saying no. … And the result of that focus is going to be some really great products, where the total is much greater than the sum of the parts.

Leonard Cohen, one of the greatest songwriters of the last century, talks about the importance of stripping through all the clutter in his mind and getting to the essence of the idea in a song. “To engage my interest, to penetrate my boredom with myself and my disinterest in my own opinions… the song has to speak to me with a certain urgency. To be able to find that song that I can be interested in takes many versions and it takes a lot of uncovering. … Otherwise I just nod off in one way or another. So to find that song, that urgent song, takes a lot of versions and a lot of work and a lot of sweat. … But why shouldn’t my work be hard? Almost everybody’s work is hard. One is distracted by this notion that there is such a thing as inspiration, that it comes fast and easy. And some people are graced by that style. I’m not. So I have to work as hard as any stiff, to come up with the payload.”

The best songwriters make sure that each song can answer the “Why” question. Through focus, through saying no to the clutter, they stay focused on the central idea of the song, and nothing distracts them. They follow the one rule of songwriting: prosody.

The greatest companies can answer the “Why” question, as in “Why does the company exist?” And the leaders of those companies fight entropy; they use the main thing as the most important lens to say “no” or “yes” to a thousand questions.

The worst companies aren’t the ones that struggle to say “no” often enough; they’re the ones that don’t even know what their main thing is.

This entry was posted in Death of the nobler mission, The paths to Great Repeatable Models by James Allen. Bookmark the permalink.

About James Allen

James Allen is a senior partner in Bain & Company's London office and recognized as a leading expert in developing global corporate and business unit strategy. He is co-head of Bain’s Global Strategy practice and a member of Bain & Company's European Consumer Products practice. He is co-author, with Chris Zook, of Repeatability (HBR Press, March 2012) and Profit from the Core (HBR Press, 2001 and 2010).

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