Should The Next Person You Hire Be a Musician?

Music as a Hiring Heuristic

Hire an athlete for high levels of teamwork, resilience, time management & work ethic.

Hire military veterans for someone that takes ownership, is highly analytical & responsible.

Hire an entrepreneur for individuals who are tenacious, determined & challenge the norm.

Hire a musician for…?

Business leaders use heuristics (shortcuts) like this in recruitment based on the assumption that “if I hire someone from this field, this is what they are likely to be like”.

Of course in reality this is a fallacy, a form of cognitive bias¹— but a useful one. It is very difficult to determine how, or if, a hire will perform well in a role. As you see above, a large component of hiring is increasingly based on intuitive judgements, founded on preconceived trait associations with specific disciplines e.g. the Military.

It is not a perfect system but, given this reality, trait associations when it comes to music have thus far remained unexplored. Such hiring heuristics are ripe for rapid development in the modern era.

The Old School

Stage 1: an effective hire is needed, as always.
Stage 2: high potential candidates present themselves.
Stage 3: What do/should we pay attention to: Education? Experience?

Increasingly — no.

In business: education and experience (as indicators) have fallen from grace in recent years — both in practice & empirically. Research shows that “years of education” (as the dependent variable) have a low correlation with job performance. Moreover — in the volatile, uncertain, complex, and ambiguous world of business — experience can be more of a hindrance, compared to one’s ability/potential to learn new skills

In fact, a study in the journal of organisational behaviour concluded that emotional intelligence is the strongest predictor of job performance — and we see this echoed across professions. The U.S. Air Force, for instance, found that their most successful recruiters scored significantly higher on the emotional intelligence competencies of empathy and self-awareness. Or consider analysis in a 1997 study of more than 300 top level executives, from 15 global companies, which suggests that six emotional competencies distinguished stars from the average: Influence, Teamwork, Organisational Awareness, Self-Confidence, Achievement Drive, and Leadership.

U.S. AIR FORCE (attribution — Marine Corps Times)

While intelligence (experience, education etc) is important for on the job success, it’s a matter of how you are smart. Interpersonal competence, self-awareness and social awareness — all elements of emotional intelligence — are demonstrably better predictors of those who will succeed, versus those who won’t.

And the world is taking notice.

Take the tech sector now favouring graduates with liberal-arts degrees. Or consider the LinkedIn survey of 900 executives, in 2019, where 92% ranked soft skills as equally or more important than technical ability. Finally, the Nobel prize winning economist (James Heckman) demonstrating empirically how non-cognitive skills such as “conscientiousness” (the tendency to be hardworking, organised, and responsible) predict labor market outcomes as strongly as cognitive ability.

The New School

There are more freelancers participating in the gig economy than ever before, and this is only set to increase. It is now not uncommon for us all to change jobs, companies, even industries several times during our working lives.

So, given these realities, it becomes incumbent upon any recruiter (worth their salt) to equip themselves with the tools required to assess & interpret these fundamental soft skills (emotional intelligence) in candidates. This is where such hiring heuristics prove useful. As individuals pursue ever more niche career avenues, the emergence and use of this heuristic based selection criterion is likely to grow.

Given this direction, this article introduces music as a lens for assessing and evaluating such soft skills. In the paragraphs that follow we take a look at the idiosyncrasies musicians most acutely bring to bear in the workplace: Creativity & Conscientiousness.

Form dictates that I begin this section emphasising the importance of creativity. There is a classic study that exemplifies the point.

In the 1920’s the Stanford University psychologist Lewis Terman began tracking more than 1,500 Californian school-kids with IQs generally above 140 — a threshold he labeled as “near genius or genius” — to see how they fared in life and how they compared with other children. What he found was that there was little correlation between IQ & success. Surprisingly the data was replete with high IQ’s that floundered in life, whilst others with lower IQs grew up to become renowned in their fields e.g. Luis Alvarez and William Shockley, both of whom won Nobel Prizes in Physics.

Talent hits a target no one else can hit; Genius hits a target no one else can see.

– Arthur Schopenhauer

We see evidence of this idea, that being smart isn’t necessarily the answer, in practice also. In the 1990’s leading consulting firms, given the fierce competition for talent at the time with the technology industry, were forced to hire a number of candidates without MBA degrees e.g. Boston Consulting Group (20%), Booz Allen and Hamilton (33%) and McKinsey (50%).

Internal analyses found that:

a) “Non-MBAs were receiving better evaluations” at Boston Consulting Group
b) “Non-MBA’s were as successful as those with MBA’s” at McKinsey
c) “MBA’s were no better at integrative thinking than the undergraduates…hired from top-notch liberal-arts programs” at Booz Allen & Hamilton

Creativity was a strand of genius that Terman’s IQ couldn’t measure.

Meanwhile in Adam Grant’s best-selling book Originals, the author reflects that artistic hobbies “train us to think creatively and give us access to new ways of solving problems.’’ He cites research showing that Nobel-laureate scientists are twice as likely to play a musical instrument as their peers, and seven times as likely to draw or paint.

For instance: Einstein described the theory of relativity as a musical thought. Galileo recognised the moon’s mountains through a telescope because of drawing instruction that made him mindful of shading. Finally, Darwin’s theory of evolution by natural selection, would have been impossible without creativity.

Neighbours of El Roque (attribution — Telescopio Nazionale Galileo) | Galieleo’s Nebula of Orion (left) and Nebula of Praesepe (right)

Impressive, yes, however — so far so anecdotal.

How can we judge that this isn’t a simple case of correlation? Causation is what we are after! OK, I hear you. Let’s dive into the empirical evidence and take a look at the creative process, biologically, when music gets involved.

According to Rex Jung (a neuroscientist at the University of New Mexico) creativity relies on the “dynamic interplay of neural networks operating in concert and drawing from different parts of the brain at once — both the right and left hemispheres and especially regions in the prefrontal cortex”.

Consider the musician, whose simultaneous use of complex fine motor functions relies on the coordination of left & right hands on piano for instance: observing tempo, cadence, rhythm, pitch and melody in concert. Since 1995 there have been several studies demonstrating the large extent to which the corpus callosum² in musicians is larger than in non-musicians. Such studies have been corroborated, with evidence showing that this increased size predicted improvement on non-musical applications including improved memory & reasoning.

Andrew Newberg, director of research at Thomas Jefferson University Hospitals maps neural pathways in the brains of creative people. He identifies that the wiring, which allows neurons to transmit electrical messages in ‘genius’ brains, appears to be about twice as dense as that of ‘normal’ participants (What Makes a Genius).

There’s more flexibility in their thought processes, and more contributions from different parts of the brain.

— Andrew Newburg

The reason this article exists is that in this musicians experience conscientiousness is the most effective tool in the pursuit of mastery. Finally, after years of failure (practice), impossibly unplayable wonders of art such as Clare De Lune by Debussy & Ocean by John Butler — a rolling rhapsody of rhythms and rasgueado — become eminently playable.

We’ve seen this in the arts since time immemorial. From the author whose novel is rejected dozens of times, yet goes on to publish a masterpiece: Stephen King, Agatha Christie & JK Rowling for instance. To the cartoonist who survives censorship to continue to challenge power through satire

Musicians epitomise this trait. And some industries have already noticed.

The medical profession as early as 1994, for instance. Studies have shown that 66 percent of music major applicants were being accepted into medical schools, whereas only 44 percent of biochemistry majors got in.

Piano (attribution —Michael Coady MD). Surgeon (attribution — Today Online).

Researchers suggested that medical schools preferred musicians due to work ethic, and the ability to relieve stress more effectively — seeming like more rounded applicants in general. Moreover, researchers studied a group of graduates from 1990 to 1995 with STEM majors and found 93% had taken piano, guitar or other music lessons: three times the average rate of all adults.

Geniuses are those who have the intelligence, enthusiasm, and endurance to acquire the needed expertise in a broadly valued domain of achievement.

— Dean Keith Symington

There is a gap here that is underdeveloped: hiring heuristics for sourcing and/or evaluating emotional intelligence. These heuristics are used intuitively by hiring managers who are selecting for specific trait associations. This article explores the application of such heuristics across disciplines, introducing the case for creativity and conscientiousness as strongly associative trait attributes with music.

A Stanford study found that 75% of long-term job success depends on people skills, while only 25% on technical knowledge. Such soft skills are difficult to assess. This hiring heuristic methodology is a unique framework within which to unpack behavioural nuances/dynamics, in the pursuit of this ambition.

This concept is not without its drawbacks however, e.g.

  • How do I work out how much sport a candidate needs to have played to deliver on the trait associations I expect (teamwork, resilience, etc)?
  • Cognitive bias’ are systematic errors in thinking that affect the decisions and judgments I make, typically leading to mistakes — shouldn’t I be mitigating these?
  • Education & Experience have worked fine so far, why change? (so did the scissor kick for most Olympic high jumpers, before the fosbury flop!)

Moreover, you would be hard pressed (in reality) to find anyone willing to actually hire an individual without at least some relevant experience — beyond the most junior roles. To break into the upper echelons exhibiting sound judgement is likely to be a critical success factor. As are the networks & influence an individual is able to bring to bear.

However, restricting candidate evaluation to benchmarking against stereotypical recruiting routines is risky. Particularly given the primacy of intelligence in those routines: smartness (or experience) is not always the answer.

If you do what everyone else does, you will get what everyone else gets.

― Stephen Richards.

A combination of both approaches is likely to bear the most bountiful fruit. Particularly in the modern knowledge economy, where the war for talent is as fierce as ever. Leveraging the contributions that disciplines, such as music and sport, can make in hiring is a step in this direction.

Most significantly, when the trait associations affiliated with those disciplines are incorporated into assessing fit with: culture, values, mission and purpose of an organisation. The best matches inevitably translate into organisational commitment, job performance, job satisfaction and overarching competitive advantage. Hiring heuristics that foreshadow the presence of relevant soft skills offer a significant contribution.

Industries, such as the medical profession, are ahead of the curve in harnessing the benefits of such heuristics (in the context of music) to better employ/engage effective thinkers, leaders, managers and innovators in their organisations. Google for instance is renowned for hiring former Olympians, with Alphabet (Google’s Parent Company) chairman Eric Schmidt quoted as saying that a “combination of persistence and curiosity is a very good predictor of employee success in a knowledge economy”

Everybody is a genius. But, if you judge a fish by its ability to climb a tree, it’ll spend it’s whole life believing that it is stupid.

— Albert Einstein

The next article (Part II) will look at structural ways to unpack these behavioural nuances, exploring configurations in structured interviewing (which incorporate music) in adapting hiring heuristics to select for specific soft skills.

Stay tuned.


[1] Cognitive Bias — systematic errors in thinking that affect the decisions and judgments we make.

[2] Corpus Collosum — a centrally located bundle of more than 200 million nerve fibers that joins the two hemispheres of the brain and facilitates connectivity between them.



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