Isomorphic Sounds

Jonathan L. Friedmann, Ph.D.

Organizational competition is largely shaped by two countertendencies. The first and most obvious is specialization. This is, broadly speaking, the method through which commercial enterprises procure a niche in the competitive environment. Examples include regional specialties, like maple syrup from Vermont, targeted specialties, like children’s cereal, service specialties, like themed restaurants, and so forth. Profitability seems to depend on this separation from the pack. In a marketplace of so much sameness, distinguishing features are key.

Yet, the desire to be different cannot be divorced from the need to be the same. The ways in which organizations resemble each other are, in fact, more crucial than the ways in which they differ. There must be a common baseline of substance and form. This second tendency, called isomorphism, allows the consumer to recognize a gas station as a gas station, a pair of pants as a pair of pants, a tube of toothpaste as a tube of toothpaste. Without a suite of essential similarities, products would obscure themselves into oblivion.

The tension between specialization and isomorphism cannot be reduced to a mathematical formula. Variables such as ad campaigns, charismatic leadership, and “right place, right time” defy such simplification. Still, it is clear that without a high degree of conformity, uniqueness has no structure within which to shine. Abstract weirdness does not sell.

The same applies to music. Technically, musical creativity is not bound by hard and fast rules. The individual artist is free to explore any conceivable manipulation of sound. However, as composer and fellow blogger John Morton cautions, the matter is a bit more complicated. In order for music to sound like music (and thus have a chance of selling), it must conform to established norms. Over time, these norms yield a slew of regional and cultural stylesthe very existence of which demonstrates the power of isomorphism.

Almost without exception, the identifying attributes of a musical style emerge through a natural process of transmission, reception, and repetition. The resulting mainstream serves to regulate musical tendencies and expectations, thereby enabling stylistic recognition and generating resistance to deviation. Put simply, conformity is a driving force of music.

So where does specialization fit in? In general, musical evolution embraces adaptations but shuns random mutations. Subtle steps are more effective than giant leaps. The plotting of musical timelines with period-defining “greats” obscures the many measured steps in between. Aside from a few anomalous examples, rule-breaking musicians have little hope for success. They are labeled “ahead of their time”—a marginalizing euphemism for departing too far from stylistic norms and skipping too many evolutionary steps. In truth, any musician can be a radical innovator. It’s just not good for business.

Visit Jonathan’s website to keep up on his latest endeavors, browse his book and article archives, and listen to sample compositions.

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2 thoughts on “Isomorphic Sounds

  1. John Morton

    Interesting, Jonathan. Specialization, of course, is also a result of the expansion of knowledge. One person just can’t know it all any longer. Your comments about ad campaigns reminds me of Ford’s Edsel. It was produced after the most intensive market research effort the company had ever embarked upon but it totally bombed. Interestingly, a good example now will set you back megabucks. Technically, it wasn’t a bad car, either. I wouldn’t mind one!

    Reply

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