The American jazz saxophonist and composer, John William Coltrane once said “The main thing a musician would like to do is to give a picture to the listener of the many wonderful things [s]he knows of and senses in the universe.”

I developed a passion for jazz in my later years, as a result of active listening. Slowly and with persistence, I began to hear a structure that I now understand is inherent in practically all jazz tunes. Often, but not always, the track starts with an introduction to set the mood; the introduction is followed by the melody, which is generally played with an instrument that has the ability to play chords of the tune underneath the melody. After the melody is played, it’s time for the true essence of the track, the improvised solo. The melody stops, but the chords keep going. Then, the soloist creates and improvises a new melody to fit the harmonic structure of the piece. It is while soloing that the musician gives reign to self-expression, personal creativity and inspiration. The rhythm section accompanies (also called comping) the soloist by generating the rhythm and carrying the beat.

It is this sophistication that compels the mind to grapple with the sound, which in turn helps build valuable habits.

While not a musician, I have come to value the beauty of jazz, through active listening. Jazz fosters the five Harappa Habits not only in the musician but also in listeners. But first, Harappa Habits–Think, Solve, Communicate, Collaborate and Lead–are a part of Harappa Education’s mission to unleash the potential of people at the workplace. This budding ed-tech start-up is developing 25 online courses to help equip individuals with cognitive, social and emotional skills to complement their technical skills.

While listening to jazz is by no means a substitute for Harappa courses, it serves as an effective metaphor for what Harappa is seeking to cultivate in learners. Understanding just how listening to jazz propagates the development of these beneficial Harappa Habits engenders palpable appreciation. Let me explain how:

THINK: Chaos or Structure?

Listening actively with a focus on jazz fosters critical thinking in the attempt to decipher form. As I said earlier, I have developed a passion for jazz only in my later years as a result of actively listening to it. It was only when I listened to the music without much distraction, did I cease to think of jazz simply as background music. I found myself wanting to make sense of the organized cacophony of different sounds emanating from my speakers. It was a challenge both for my ear as well as for my mind.

SOLVE: What Notes to Sound Next?

Having finally understood the basic structure audible to a jazz novice, I began wondering how the musicians know the notes another musician is going to play and how to respond. Since jazz is played in groups–duos, trios, quartet, quintet, big band or any other type of ensemble, jazz musicians need to decode the other musicians in the combination to enable themselves to solve the riddle of what to play next. There is always a degree of interplay in any ensemble with one instrument influencing another.

COMMUNICATE AND COLLABORATE: Learning How to Work in a Team

Jazz musicians in an ensemble deal with the unpredictability of each musician’s contribution. Such uncertainty makes jazz a collaborative art form. They cue one another, both through verbal cues as well as non-verbal ones. Verbal cues may be audible to listeners and non-verbal cues such as eye contact, musical communication, and body language, clearly are not. The musicians listen and watch for these cues and respond appropriately (call and response). The result is a musically rich conversation. Ensemble playing also calls for the musicians to take musical risks in creating and responding to improvisation and thus, must establish trust with the other band members.

LEAD: Learning to lead with the Ear

While jazz ensembles don’t have a centralized form of leadership, it has a visionary leadership based on who sets the direction for the group. The leader is also trusting and does not micromanage. Jazz ensemble leaders must be the most attentive of listeners to be able to listen to all the other instruments communicating simultaneously. And most importantly, the leader of the ensemble creates a culture of experimentation and continuous development.

With the five Harappa Habits forming the bedrock of their craft, if jazz musicians were to transition these habits to the workplace, their success would be the envy of the office. Meanwhile, it’s an activity closely associated with this particular collection of habits. Click to listen to playlists that I think serve best when you are building the Harappa Habits of Think, Solve, Communicate, Collaborate and Lead. One can hope that avid listeners of jazz too, have an upper hand in transitioning these habits to the workplace.


Tarini Mohan is a graduate of Wellesley College, US, and is currently an MBA candidate at the Yale School of Management, US. A summer intern at Harappa Education focusing on product development, she loves her cuppa joe, listening to jazz and exploring Delhi’s delightful culinary scene.

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