Best Practices: Music as a Metaphor in Training

In The Music Paradigm, music is used as a conduit for reaching trainees, allowing them to metaphorically address issues that may be difficult to take head on.

By Neal Goodman, Ph.D., President, Global Dynamics, Inc.

Maestro Roger Nierenberg walks into a large conference room. Seated in various locations in the room are sections of a full orchestra he has just met, and seated among the orchestra sections are more than 250 corporate trainees. Nierenberg leads the orchestra in various musical exercises. He is the conductor, but he also is playing the metaphorical role of the corporate team leader, and the orchestra is the team. In a given session, Nierenberg may take on different approaches: aggressive, friendly, apathetic, uncertain, micro-managerial. What participants see becomes immediately obvious:

  • The leader’s approach has an immediate effect on the product (or music).
  • The actions or reactions of all team members (or members of the orchestra) have an impact.

But the deeper lessons are more profound. These lessons vary depending on the training needs of the team. Roger Nierenberg uses his program, The Music Paradigm, for training, leadership development, and teambuilding sessions worldwide.

He is using music as both a metaphor and a conduit for reaching trainees. As he explains, “Music allows you to focus both on detail and big picture at the same time. It allows you to get on the playing field without getting injured and puts you right into the thick of the action.”

Removing the risk of injury is an important aspect of the sessions. As Nierenberg explains, “taking people somewhat out of their comfort zone is critical to deep learning, but when people are taken out of their comfort zone, they often are locked into defensive mode. In the land of metaphor, it seemingly has nothing to do with you on the surface, so the message can be communicated in a non-threatening way.”

In these sessions, groups metaphorically address issues that may be difficult to take head on. The participants and the orchestra interact with each other, and under Nierenberg’s leadership, musicians take on the roles of functional and dysfunctional behaviors. He explains that participants then subconsciously look inside themselves and their organizations.

The messages vary, but some frequent themes include:

  • Breaking beyond perceived boundaries to innovate
  • Blending with the team
  • Empowering team members

For teambuilding training sessions, Nierenberg may ask all the instruments to blend together to sound as one new instrument. Similarly, in a training session focusing on intercultural communications, he might ask all the musicians to emphasize the characteristics of their own instruments and then ask them to blend. He explains that musicians understand the characteristics of the other instruments in the same way one might learn about the characteristics of other cultures.

“Having done this in multiple countries, the similarities are much more striking than the differences” says Nierenberg. “The ability for people to see themselves in the music transcends culture.”

He adds that sometimes the more direct route of learning is to leave your place of work and that by exploring the orchestra with the high-speed behavior, people often see their colleagues more clearly than they would within their workplace.

Now that should be music to managers’—and trainers’—ears.

Neal Goodman, Ph.D., is president of Global Dynamics, Inc., a training and development firm specializing in globalization, cultural intelligence, effective virtual workplaces, and diversity and inclusion. He can be reached at 305.682.7883 and at For more information, visit

Lorri Freifeld
Lorri Freifeld is the editor/publisher of Training magazine. She writes on a number of topics, including talent management, training technology, and leadership development. She spearheads two awards programs: the Training APEX Awards and Emerging Training Leaders. A writer/editor for the last 30 years, she has held editing positions at a variety of publications and holds a Master’s degree in journalism from New York University.