Music and the Brain

Music and the Brain

Music and the Brain

What do Bela Fleck, Phil Collins, Billy Corgan, Noel Gallagher, Paul Simon, Tony Iommi, Glenn Frey, Ringo Starr, Paul McCartney, Seal, Joe Perry, Jimi Hendrix, Cole Porter and Kurt Cobain have in common? Besides the fact that they are all left-handed, they all have amazing ‘feel’ on their respective instruments and I would venture to suggest that there is a direct correlation between these traits. While one cannot draw lines in the sand between right or left-handed players in generalised terms, lateralisation of brain function is often understated, especially when it comes to great musicians.

What is it exactly that drives such musicians to push the boundaries in terms of pioneer songwriting, an intense attunement to the feel and dynamics of their instrument coupled with a sublime heightened musical awareness when it comes to improvisation? If we examine the careers of the small selection of right-brained southpaws mentioned above a definite pattern emerges.

In my humble opinion, it comes down to handedness and hemispherical cognitive dominance, having witnessed this across many bands in live settings that have left-handed members, some who are occasionally not even left-handed players. As a lefty player and songwriter myself, I have spoken to many musos who honestly attest to the power of handedness. However, if I am painting many players with the same brush for the sake of hypothesis here I sincerely apologise.

When I was 15 years old my best friend showed me the open stringed intro to Nothing Else Matters. I picked up his guitar and repeated it exactly as he had done, only to look up and see the shocked expression on his face – when asking what the matter was he was taken aback by the fact I was holding his guitar “the wrong way round”. It just seemed perfectly natural to me, the first time I ever handled a guitar. Shortly afterwards I had worked out the cheeky lead guitar piece to System of a Down’s Sugar, by ear, on my first sitting with a guitar.

It was already apparent in those early days that I had a natural feel and ear for music, and here I am 12 years later and have never looked back. Original vocal melodies have always naturally occurred to me, whereas it is comical to see sometimes how contrived and mechanical the process can be for those of the more left-brained persuasion. Some are born, many are made.

When I examine live performances I see how much more in touch lefties are with their instruments, almost subliminally displaying the ‘every note matters’ fundamental principle of guitar playing. There is an injection of extra feel in their playing and intuitive songwriting that I suspect right-handers will never be able to fully actualize. This is not to put down right-handed guitarists at all – applying the analytical side of the brain provides vastly different results in music: usually a higher technical capability as seen in exemplars such as Vai, Satriani and Hammett. Whereas lefty woodshedders are a much more rare occurrence, what southpaws lack in speed they often make up for in ‘feel’ and being able to apply a completely original take to rehashed ideas.

Throughout my relatively young four-year teaching career, I have taught small children who initially have a particularly strenuous time with the instrument. If it is unclear which hand they will write with it can be a challenge determining their disposition towards the guitar. In extremely rare cases we have flipped the guitar round and restrung it only to have amazing success amongst young lefties, who take to the instrument in virtually half the time that my right-handed students do.

That being said, do yourself a favour and watch Hendrix’s performance of Star Spangled Banner at Woodstock ’69.

One only has to do some Internet research to realise there are drastic differences between leftys and rightys, including a shorter life expectancy! Handedness in relation to music should not be understated – why even Kermit the frog plays his banjo left-handed! Although this may just be because most right-handed puppeteers control the puppets’ heads with their right hands leaving their left hands for playing.

You only get as much out as you put in.

Profile photo of Daniel Herber

* Is a trained vocalist * Plays with the alternative band "Your Name In Neon" * Has been gigging and playing for 9 years * Is a former pupil of Guitar Excellence * Teaches Bass and Guitar * Is a beginner specialist * Can dance and play at the same time * Can synchronise his head banging and playing at the same time.

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