Design Thinking for Music Entrepreneurs: Using Empathy to Connect with Audiences

This semester, I am teaching The Entrepreneurial Musician at the New School, Mannes College of Music, a required entrepreneurship course that helps master of music candidates to explore how to create meaningful and sustainable careers in the arts.  Last week, we learned about design thinking, a 5-step human-centered design process whose aim is to design products and services that fulfill an emotional need of the intended user; thus, instead of “If we build it, they will come.”, the approach is to build is so that they come. It all starts with empathy for the intended audience.

For our students, the target audience was their peers, i.e., 20-something non-music majors who are also part of the millennial generation.   We used the 5-step Design Thinking process  to explore innovative solutions to the problem of why our students’ peers who do not study music are not attending classical music concerts.

The 5 Steps of Design Thinking:


Understand the needs of your audience and the problems that they have with regard to your product or service, through interviews, observation and interaction with your audience;


Synthesize the inputs from your audience interviews and articulate the main problem of your audience members in your subject matter area;


Brainstorm a wide variety of solutions and pick the one that best satisfies the needs of your target audience;


Create a quick prototype of your solution that tests one variable of the problem that you want to solve for your audience; and


Test your prototype with your intended audience and use the feedback to improve your prototype until you come up with a solution that really works.

Design thinking is taught at the Stanford D. School and they have a terrific bootleg that you can download.

How Design Thinking Can Help Classical Musicians

As applied to the classical music field, design thinking can lead to innovative ideas for new programs and services.  Design thinking also facilitates collaboration since it works best when the team that is designing the new program or service includes people with different strengths and expertise and the team leverages their strengths to create something new.  Not surprisingly, design thinking is a great way to create a bond among the team members. And for music students, the idea of rapid prototyping and testing helps to get over perfectionism because the prototyping process is inherently quick, risky and experimental—and a lot of fun!

This week, I will focus on how our students applied the Empathy stage of Design Thinking.  Next time, we will explore the process by which our students built their prototypes and tested it out.

Empathy and Design Thinking

Empathy is the ability to put yourself in someone else’s shoes and sense what he or she is thinking and feeling.  Having empathy means that you can put aside your own feelings, beliefs and agendas to understand where the other person is coming from.  Empathy is a powerful way to gain perspective of a situation so that you can understand the needs of another person and then build rapport, communicate effectively, dialogue and gather information.

Design Thinking starts with empathy in order to understand the needs of your target audience so that you can design something that solves their problems.

For the first part of the assignment, the students went to various locations on the New School campus to interview non-music students about their experiences with music in order to understand why these students were not attending classical music concerts.

The goal was to get into the heads of these potential audience members in order to create a program or a service that would be of value to non-music majors at the New School.  In order to leverage different strengths and experience, the students worked in groups of 3.

It is important to remember that our music students are also college-educated 20-somethings so that they have a lot in common with their non-music New School student peers. The big difference is that our students love classical music.  Moreover, our students want their peers to attend their events so they were highly motivated to find out more.

Our students had just 40 minutes to conduct interviews.  They then came back to class and we shared our findings:

Profile of Non-Music Major at the New School:

  • Lives in New York
  • Age 20-something
  • Likely to be foreign-born
  • New to NY
  • Listens to music with varied degrees of frequency
  • Listens to music on iPhone or iPod
  • Typically listens to music on headphones
  • Does not know a lot about classical music
  • Likes a variety of genres including pop, rap, jazz and reggae
  • Goes to hear live music with friends because it’s fun
  • Tends to go to live rap and pop concerts

Our audience research also uncovered the following reactions from non-music majors:

  • A few like classical music
  • A few are receptive to classical music
  • Most don’t listen to classical music
  • One likes jazz
  • One likes to dance
  • One person was highly educated in classical music and loved going to concerts
  • Often listens to classical music to relax or as background music while working
  • One person associated classical music with “vintage”
  • One person attended a live Andrea Bocelli concert at Lincoln Center

The things they like about music:

  • Live music is fun and festive (this came up many times).
  • Live music creates community.
  • Live music with your friends makes you feel welcome.
  • It’s fun to sing along at a live pop concert.
  • Music is the soundtrack of your life.
  • Going to concerts with friends and dancing is fun.
  • Classical music is good for calming down.
  • One person thought that the Metropolitan Opera was “cool”.
  • Pop stars are attractive and cool.
  • One person might attend a free classical music concert.

The problems they have with classical music:

  • It needs a visual element (this came up several times).
  • They don’t know much about classical music.
  • Classical music is boring.
  • One person got restless listening to classical music because the pieces are too long.
  • The venue is too antique and needs to be more modern.
  • It’s too elitist.
  • There is no engagement with the performer or the composer.
  • It is not interactive.
  • Classical music is too slow.
  • Classical music is too dark.

With this information in mind, the students worked in their groups to define the biggest problem that their target user had with classical music and design a prototype that would solve this problem.

Stay tuned for how the process played out!