Very few things in life are more personal than our taste in music. We love it, we hate it, or we straddle the fence with a diplomatic “I appreciate the talent, but it’s not my favorite thing.” Regardless of whether we click the “like” icon or not, I believe we can learn from the innovators—the men and women of musical genius—from the present and past, and apply the lessons of risk-taking and new ways of connecting with audiences to our work today.

I grew up on the classics of western music from Bach, to Beethoven, to the Beatles. I played the piano and violin (still do) and dabbled in composition. With parental “persuasion,” I attended Saturday morning lessons at a small conservatory in Cambridge—including music theory—while my friends were out doing team sports. We had a record player for 33 rpm LPs and a collection of classical and, of course, age- and era-appropriate popular music—Led Zeppelin, the Beatles, the Animals, and others. Of the classical, Mozart was a favorite and a recording of his 40th symphony was practically worn smooth by the diamond needle because I played it so much.

Was Mozart just a creative genius or was he an innovator? I would submit to you that, indeed, Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart was both.

Deep technical skills

Mozart was born into a musical family in Salzburg, Austria in 1756 and from a very early age demonstrated precocious talent. (If your child wrote a concerto at the age of five, you’d probably share that with your office mates.) He was quickly exposed to the imperial courts of Europe: Paris, London, Munich, Amsterdam, and many others by his father, Leopold who was both dad and “talent promoter.” Wolfgang on violin and his sister Maria Anna (an accomplished keyboard player) were trotted about much like circus performers, for profit. During this time, Mozart learned quickly and eagerly absorbed the different musical styles of German, French, and Italian composers. His early compositions, though he was barely a teenager, were well received.

Mozart, like many of us, was a lifetime learner, first mastering the fundamentals of his craft: harmony, counterpoint, and instrumentation, and then building on them. With this technical underpinning, he could manipulate his music with adroitness and confidence. Sound familiar? Particularly in technical areas, a grounding in the fundamentals is key to exploiting new technology.

Learning from others

Mozart, genius though he was, did not spin his music out of thin air. He had many influences along the way, which he used to great advantage. For example, he met the youngest son of the renowned J. S. Bach—Johann Christian Bach—who had already charted a very different approach than his father. “J.C.” Bach had broken away from the strict constraints of the Baroque, with its attractive yet formulaic style, and created sounds with longer phrases, sustained melodies, and less predictable harmonies. Mozart picked up on this and took it to the next level. Think dial-up 1200-baud modems versus the multi-gig internet, or early “flip” cell phones and their successor, the iPhone. The essence of the technology was there, but it needed the innovator’s creativity to make it happen.

I would posit that innovation does not happen in a vacuum. It is contextual. You look at the world around you and think, “How could this be improved? What if we took a radically different approach?” Mozart probably asked similar questions, perhaps along the lines of “Mr. Scarlatti wrote a fine piano sonata, charming—but I can pen something that will leave the audiences begging for more!” Kind of an 18th century version of “this will totally rock!”

Understanding your customer

As is the case for most full-time musicians, making a decent living can be a struggle. So too it was for composers of the classical era. They were dependent on the largess of the nobility through commissions or serving as court composers-in-residence. Fresh, live music provided entertainment to the wealthy—many courts had their own small orchestras—and the nobility themselves occasionally had enough musical ability to warrant pieces be written specifically for them. Mozart was keenly aware of his benefactors and assuaged their need for either style or brevity, while making it sound beautiful. Meanwhile the income allowed him to produce more adventurous “off-the-books” compositions. That said, most of his work was on a commission basis and understanding the customer was part of the innovation equation. On the other hand, when “management” stifled innovation and creativity, it was time to leave.

Sometimes simplicity with applied innovation can be amazing. Take the child’s tune “Twinkle, twinkle, little star.” It is an English poem by Jane Taylor from 1860, but the tune Mozart knew and applied to the piano was an 18th century French melody “Ah! vous dirai-je, Maman” (ah, would I tell you, mother). His 12 variations (K.265) are both charming and vivacious. Hear a delightful recording by an 11-year old. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=YjXEeA-8FBE

For a modern-day example of applying innovation to a basic chore in order to improve it I would choose retail shopping. Onmichannel buying and new, in-store technologies have made shopping enjoyable again.

Risk taking and recovering from setbacks

Innovators know that to achieve greatness, whether launching a reusable self-landing rocket (Space-X), or cramming Wi-Fi, Bluetooth, GPS, and cellular into a wristwatch (Apple), you have to take risks along the way. Mozart was a risk-taker and was equally rewarded and chastised for his efforts by patrons and the public alike: sometimes he was the hero, sometimes the reprobate. In taking risks, he broke many barriers of earlier classical style: innovative rhythms and syncopation; stretching the envelope of conventional harmony, expanding, almost liquefying the lyrical line of his melodies, (re: the clarinet concerto in A, K.622, Adagio movement), bold harmonies and dissonance (re: the Dissonant string quartet K.465), and lush orchestration (re: the late symphonies 39, 40, and 41)—in a manner not previously contemplated. A key lesson for global innovators from Mozart is that “rethinking the problem” and perseverance under adverse conditions or negative feedback can lead to a place in the history books. So to all you innovators out there, take a moment—a quiet moment—and indulge in some Mozart. You will be better off for it.

More on Mozart and Big Data (symphonies!) and the classical era innovators race in the next installment.

The list of my favorite Mozart is long, but here are a few that I know you will enjoy:

Clarinet concerto in A K.622 https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=YT_63UntRJE

“Dissonance” string quartet K.465 https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=JrHPR6mZ_-k

Symphony No. 40 in G minor, K.550 https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=_JAPx7_ra_A

Piano Concerto 23 K.488 https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=DXeBFhqViYg

Piano Quartet in G minor K.478 https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=kuAQAJYAlj8