Project Management Institute

What does a conductor of an orchestra actually do?

Mustafa Cumhur Öztürk, Aselsan Inc.


Projects cover various functions during their life cycles. Each function has its own characteristics. Similarly, orchestras contain various instruments and each instrument has its own sound. Project managers and orchestra conductors are both expected to manage these functions/instruments in harmony and present a deliverable which will satisfy their customers/audiences. This paper looks at the coordination side of project management by using the analogy between a project manager and a conductor, and aims to reveal a new perspective to the project manager’s special features that (1) helps in noticing the crucial role of PM in the success of the project and (2) provides a new window for looking at the new trends for project management methodology. The first part of the paper discusses the conductor’s and the project manager’s ways of doing their jobs. The systematic view, communication, and the coordination are three common special features to be discussed specifically. The second part of the paper discusses the main conclusions of this analogy and gives examples derived from this analogy. Finally, we emphasize golden words for project managers and give suggestions on communication management strategies.


When you watch an orchestra, two things will most likely come to your attention: The magnificent harmony and the conductor’s gestures. A conductor shapes a musical interpretation, forms ideas about a compelling way to perform a piece, and leads a group of musicians in such a way that those ideas are realized (Chicago Symphony Orchestra). The answer to the question of how that musical interpretation is shaped will give clues to the creation of the magnificent harmony. To put it simply, a conductor will take responsibility for the following: accuracy, ensemble, tempo and dynamics, phrasing, balance, and style.

When you observe a project, again, two things will most likely come to your attention: A perfect completion (within scope, budget, time, and quality) and the way in which the project is managed. A project manager is responsible for this perfect completion, as well as for the project’s overall objectives and leading the project team. This responsibility can be framed with four actions: plan, motivate, communicate, and monitor. (Bruce & Langdon, 2000, p.9)

Successful project management involves treating the project as a system of people, capital, energy, and so on. As a system, if one element changes, then there is an effect on other elements. (Rosenau & Githens, 2005) The project manager is the one who should manage the change, and one of the crucial tools that the project manager should use for change is the effective communication.

Conducting the Orchestra

The Structure of the Orchestra

Musicians and Instruments

A full-sized modern orchestra consists of more than 100 musicians, usually playing anywhere from 18 to 25 different kinds of instruments. The instruments are divided into four overall “sections”: the strings, woodwinds, brass, and percussion. Within these sections there are groups of instruments that are also called “sections.” Here is how the sections break down, with the standard number of players per section (Chicago Symphony Orchestra):

I. Strings


1. Violins


a. First violins


b. Second violins


2. Violas


3. Cellos


4. Double basses


II. Woodwinds (sometimes just called Winds)


1. Flutes (One section member specializes in piccolo.)


2. Oboes (One section member specializes in English horn.)


3. Clarinets (One section member also plays bass clarinet,


4. Bassoons (One section member specializes in contrabassoon.)


III. Brass


1. French horns


2. Trumpets


3. Trombones (One section member specializes in bass trombone.)


4. Tuba


IV. Percussion


1. Timpani


2. Other percussion instruments


Musicians get their jobs in most professional orchestras through a competitive audition process which has at least two stages: preliminaries and finals. Only the most highly qualified candidates pass on to the finals. For the finals, the music director (conductor) joins the audition committee. He or she may consult with the committee, but in most orchestras, the music director has complete and final authority to choose the winner of the audition—or to decide that none of the candidates is acceptable (Chicago Symphony Orchestra).


A conductor directs rehearsals and performances by an orchestra. His or her primary responsibilities can be grouped as follows (Chicago Symphony Orchestra):

• Accuracy—The conductor must ensure that the composer’s intentions and instructions are faithfully carried out—that is, everybody is playing all of the right notes and rhythms.

• Ensemble—The conductor must make sure musicians play together, in precise rhythmic and musical coordination.

• Tempo and dynamics (speed and volume)—The conductor’s job is to interpret the composer’s—that is, choosing general levels of tempo and volume as well as to ensure the realization of the composer’s intentions.

• Phrasing—Tempo and dynamics are part of phrasing, but so are such elusive factors as “direction,” “emphasis,” and “pacing,” all of which affect the shape and coherence of musical phrases or passages.

• Quality of sound—The conductor is at all times responsible for the kind of sound that the orchestra produces. The orchestra’s sound should always suit the music.

• Balance—The conductor must make sure that what should be heard is heard, that different but simultaneous musical “lines” are at the proper volume levels relative to their importance, and that one instrument, voice, or group of instruments doesn’t inadvertently drown out any others.

• Style—The conductor must elicit from the orchestra an overall character of performance that is best suited to the composer, the period, and the piece.

Main Phases of Conducting


A conductor could have some particular works to consider, such as programs dedicated to one composer or a series of guest performers. He or she may also be involved in the auditioning process for new musicians (WiseGEEK).


A conductor does a large part of his or her work away from the public eye, in study and in rehearsal. By the help of this study, the conductor formulates his or her interpretative ideas, and it is in rehearsal that he or she communicates those ideas to the musicians—in both word and gesture—and sees that they are brought to fruition in the performance (Chicago Symphony Orchestra).


The most important thing that a conductor of an orchestra does, however, is conduct music. The arm movements that a conductor uses during a performance may appear to be a lyrical reaction to the music, but to the musicians it means something completely different. He or she controls many of the more subtle elements of music, such as tempo and dynamics. The basic timekeeping movements performed with the baton allow the musicians to know when to come in and how fast or slow to play (WiseGEEK).

Success Factors and Special Features

The first crucial success factor for a conductor is the qualities of the beat. Expansive gestures, tight gestures, large or small gestures, and motions that are smooth, choppy, delicate, or violent all convey different information, showing the importance of the communication side of the conductor. With a successful conductor, the quality of sound that the orchestra produces is influenced by the qualities of the beat, by the character of the conductor’s physical gestures, which are the main communication tool of the conductor. And these physical gestures are not limited to the hand with the baton, but also include complementary gestures of the left hand, as well as the body language. Right and effective communication brings the magnificent harmony.

The second critical success factor is the judgment, intelligence, and musical imagination (Chicago Symphony Orchestra). The conductor’s musical imagination and intelligence can’t yield a magnificent harmony without effective coordination and leadership.

The Analogy: Managing the Project vs. Conducting the Orchestra

Systematic View

Analogy 1

The conductor is responsible for the sound that the orchestra produces. He or she should be concerned with the musicians not at the performance stage but at the pre-performance or rehearsal stages. He or she should mainly concentrate on the harmony at the performance stage. If the conductor tries to focus on each musician/instrument during the performance, this will most likely lead to low quality in harmony. The orchestra is a perfect proof of the main property of a system—that is, synergy: The whole is greater than the sum of its parts.

Conclusion to Analogy 1

Similarly, especially during the execution phase of a project, project managers need to have a grasp of the whole project. In other words, the project manager must be able to see the “forest” without ignoring the “trees” (i.e., the details) (Frame, 2002, p.13).


Analogy 2

The conductor uses various ways of communicating with the musicians and the audience. Although the main tool seems to be the baton, the gestures and the motions of the conductor make the performance approach the perfection.

Conclusion to Analogy 2

The better the communication, the more smoothly the project will flow (Bruce & Langdon, 2000, p.54). The project managers, similar to the conductors, have various tools to communicate. They should take lesson from the conductor’s power of conveying information with just a small gesture.


Analogy 3

The orchestra is one of the visual examples of how coordination plays a crucial role in gathering the pieces to make a whole. Each instrument should be coordinated such that the composer’s work of art could be converted into a unique impressive sound from the musical notes.

Conclusion to Analogy 3

Considering the various functions to be coordinated in a project, the project manager should act as a conductor of an orchestra in order to achieve the perfect completion of the project.


Analogy 4

Considering the phases and activities of the conducting process, each phase and activity should be planned by the conductor. Poor capability on the part of the conductor will most likely lead to the dissatisfaction of the musicians. For example, if a conductor announces that there will be a rehearsal the following morning, those musicians who had other, personal plans will be dissatisfied about having to cancel these plans.

Conclusion to Analogy 4

Similarly, poor planning in a project will most likely lead to the dissatisfaction of project team members. Employees cannot plan their private life unless detailed planning in their project is made. This analogy reveals one of the unnoticed effects of poor planning.

Technical Knowledge

Analogy 5

Does the conductor have to know how to play all or some of the instruments?
Does the project manager have to know the technical details of the project and have a technical background?

Conclusion to Analogy 5

The project manager’s having technical knowledge might bring a valuable approach to the technical problems of the project and provide him or her with the advantage of being able to have discussions on technical issues. The main disadvantage would be the limited time available for the project manager to spend on first-priority project management issues if he or she was devoting time instead to technical issues.

Golden Words for Project Managers Based on the Analogy

  • Planning has many indirect benefits as well as direct ones, such as improving team motivation. Do not start without planning.
  • Communication is the key to managing a system. Any lack of communication may result in the loss of harmony in the orchestra and in the project.
  • Project management is an art, just as conducting an orchestra is. When deciding on your project managers, your first and most crucial criterion must be their project management capability, not their technical knowledge or background.
  • Always evaluate the decisions on the basis of the whole system. A small change in an activity may cause a big variance in the whole system even if the activity is not on the critical path. Always consider the system.

Final Words

As we have seen in our analogies, the selection, training, and success factors of a project manager are similar to those of an orchestra conductor. Just as one of the musicians in the orchestra cannot be assigned as conductor, one of the project team members or a subject matter expert cannot be assigned as project manager unless he has project management expertise. Also, just as conductors cannot be evaluated according to their musical knowledge and experience, project managers should not be evaluated based on their technical knowledge or experience in a particular business. The main criterion for evaluation of project managers should be similar to that of conductors—how he or she leads the project team to the objective. And it is clear that a systematic view with coordination and communication skills is required for this criterion.

The improvement requires measurement. If you cannot measure, you cannot evaluate, you cannot decide on which area to focus, and you cannot prioritize the jobs. However, some important issues, although crucial, are very difficult to measure, such as the ones discussed in this paper. For example, how can we measure the benefit of good communication?

One general approach to explain the importance of these issues is taking surveys and then evaluating their results. There are a great deal of papers that base their arguments on project managers’ answers to the survey questions. This paper aims to reveal some well-known and some lesser-known arguments by giving an analogy, with the main analogous characteristics listed in Exhibit 1.

The foundation stones of the composer–project manager analogy

Exhibit 1: The foundation stones of the composer–project manager analogy

Bruce, A., & Langdon, K. (2000). Project management. New York: Dorling Kinderslay Publishing.

Chicago Symphony Orchestra. (n.d.). Discover classical music—terms. Retrieved March 10, 2009, from

Frame, D. (2002). The new project management. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.

Rosenau, D. M., & Githens, D. G. (2005). Successful project management: A step-by-step approach with practical examples. Toronto, Ontario, Canada: John Wiley & Sons.

WiseGEEK. (n.d.). What does a conductor of an orchestra actually do? Retrieved March 10, 2009, from

This material has been reproduced with the permission of the copyright owner. Unauthorized reproduction of this material is strictly prohibited. For permission to reproduce this material, please contact PMI or any listed author.

© 2009, Mustafa Hafızoğlu
Originally published as a part of 2009 PMI Global Congress Proceedings – Amsterdam, Netherlands



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