Organizational Improvization beyond the Jazz Metaphor: Indian Music and Music Therapy

This research essay is authored by Cäcilia Bart, student in the master program Organization Studies at Universität Innsbruck.

Foto: Jason Baker, CC-BY 2.0
Foto: Jason Baker, CC-BY 2.0

Metaphors help t o understand organizations from different perspectives. Over the past 20 years the dominant metaphor for understanding organizational improvisation has been that of the Jazz band (Kamoche et al., 2003). However, this focus on one metaphor implies that we have forgotten an important lesson that Morgan (1997) taught us about metaphors: “a way of seeing is also a way of not seeing”.

Although it is hard to define Jazz music because of its different forms, one of the consistent key elements in Jazz music is improvisation. In Jazz there is no clear prescription of what is to be played, but this doesn’t mean that the band has no idea what they are playing. To learn to improvise in Jazz music, you first have to learn the theory and rules. “Jazz players learn to build a vocabulary of phrases and patterns by imitating, repeating and memorizing the solos and phrases of the masters, until they become part of their repertoire of ‘licks’ and ‘crips’ (Barrett, 1997). After years of practicing the patterns, the development for improvisation skills can be started by exporting materials from different contexts, combining, extending and varying the material.

Interestingly, improvisation emerges under a certain form of leadership in the Jazz metaphor. Jazz is the practice of taking turns; the leadership is rotated among band members. Band members are taking turns in soloing and supporting other soloists. Barrett (1997) argues that organizational innovation would thrive if members were skilled at giving others’ room to develop themes, to think out loud and discover as they invent. Here, the Jazz metaphor seems to assume that improvisation is emerging when leadership is rotating. But how realistic is it to apply this rotating leadership in every organization to let improvisation emerge?

An alternative way of understanding improvisation in organizations concerning leadership, Indian music could be an option. Indian music has a lot of similarities with Jazz, but there are also substantial differences. To understand leadership in Indian music and how this is conducive to organizational improvisation, we first need to understand the concept behind Indian music. Indian music in unwritten and is created and produced orally (Holroyde, 1972; Sharron, 1983). The basics of the Indian music exists out of the raga (the melody) and the tala (the rhythm). Of about a thousand different ragas only 30-50 are in common use. Similarly, there are about 120 talas, but only 15-20 in popular use. Indian music is not so much about experimenting with music apart from a given stock but rather the aim is to build new music with a wide set of prescribed instrumental routines provided by the talas (Kamoche et al., 2003).

Where musicians in Jazz focus on coordination and collaboration, Indian solos are filled with competitive activity. In Indian music, players “try to ‘out phrase’ each other without diverting from the tonal order” (Sharron, 1983). In contrast to the Jazz metaphor, leadership is not collaborative, but almost absent because of the competitive activity. This metaphor gives us an understanding how improvisation emerges in a competitive surrounding, where leadership is absent.

By looking at two different metaphors of organizational improvisation, we now see that improvisation can emerge both in competitive and collaborating surroundings. But Indian music and Jazz are not the only two metaphors for understanding organizational improvisation. Another, relatively new form of improvisation is music therapy.

Music therapy is used in many different settings such as psychiatric care, education, and care for elderly and physically disabled people. Patients are singing or improvising on different musical instruments to stimulate emotional and behavioral change and to create a new identity (Kamoche et al., 2003). Music therapy assumes that everybody is able to improvise, and that this ability is realized by playing on simple instruments or by singing. This is different from the Jazz metaphor, where players need to become experts regarding rules and patterns first, before they can develop skills in improvisation.

In music therapy, the nature and the role of leadership is important for successful improvisation. Leaders should create an environment that is conducive to improvisation, and should encourage members to play music. Instead of rotating leadership or competing for leadership, we can see that improvisation can also emerge when leadership plays a more prominent integrative and decision-making role.

Taken together, all three different metaphors for understanding how organizational improvisation can emerge are thus associated with different styles of leadership. Maybe we understand the Jazz metaphor the best and we can identify ourselves with this metaphor the most, but Jazz isn’t the perfect metaphor for understanding organizational improvisation. There is no ‘one and best’ metaphor for organizational improvisation. As has been shown, there are different metaphors and each one contributes in a different way. We should look beyond the Jazz metaphor, for the same reason that we looked beyond the machine and the organism metaphors to describe organizations.


  • Barrett, F.J. (1998) Managing and improvising: lessons from jazz. Career Development International. Vol. 3 Iss: 7, pp.283 – 286
  • Holroyde, P. (1972). The Music of India. New York: Praeger.
  • Kamoche, K., Cunha, M. P., Vieira da Cunha, J. (2003). Towards a Theory of Organizational Improvisation: Looking Beyond the Jazz Metaphor. Journal of Management Studies, Vol. 40, pp. 2023-2051. Available at SSRN:
  • Morgan, G. (1997). Images of Organization. 2nd ed. Newbury Park, CA: Sage.
  • Sharron, A. (1983). Time and space bias in group solidarity: action and process in musical improvisation. International Social Science Review, 58, 4, 222–30.

One thought on “Organizational Improvization beyond the Jazz Metaphor: Indian Music and Music Therapy

  1. Very interesting essay! According to Morgan (1980) “any one metaphorical insight provides but a partial and one sided view” (p. 611). By comparing all these different models of improvization in music, the metaphor itself opens up to broaden its view of the matter.


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