The concept of “right brain” and “left brain” is a proven one; the right side of the brain largely governs creative and intuitive thinking, while the left side largely governs logic, mathematics, and rote learning. The two hemispheres are not like halves of a ball; they are physically separate and are joined only by one fibrous connection (called the Corpus Callosum) which allows communication between the two hemispheres and therefore helps balance our thinking/functioning.

Most people tend to use one side of the brain more than the other. Creative people are said to be “right-brained”; they are usually artistic and intuitive but sometimes not “grounded” in logic. Logical, analytical types who are skilled in math and data-keeping, and are perhaps not as creatively inclined, are said to be “left-brained”. Interestingly, each type may be so comfortable with their way of learning/doing that they may be hesitant to try to learn to use both sides of the brain equally. (After all, if something works pretty well, why try to improve it?) Music, however, is the great equalizer. Becoming a musician requires equal use of both sides of the brain, or it should, ideally.

There is an artificial divide between musicians who prefer music to be learned and played in a formulaic way and those who prefer it to be learned and played intuitively. In our Western culture, where a great deal more value is put on left-brain learning/thinking, that way of approaching music has come to be considered “the only right way”, while right-brain music-learning is often considered inferior or even wrong. But eons of great musicianship in the world’s oldest cultures, some of which had music-notation systems and some of which relied on an aural tradition, show that there is more than one way to approach music “correctly”.

The brain develops according to what we feed it intellectually. Actual physical nerve tissue forms to accommodate the information we take in, especially when we purposely study a skill. Reading music or tablature and rote learning are left-brain skills. Ear-learning is a right-brain skill. The musician who develops and nurtures both abilities is truly well-rounded, and has access to greater inner expertise.

Don’t get ear-learning confused with having someone show you where to put every finger and play every note in such a way that you wouldn’t actually have to hear the tune to play it  –  that’s a form of rote learning. Ear-playing involves learning from what you hear. Rote means (from the Merriam Webster Dictionary) “the use of memory usually with little intelligence; mechanical or unthinking routine or repetition”. Rote learning is what you do if you are simply learning from any system without having heard the tune or understanding how to make it musical, and yes, that includes learning from notation if it’s simply a mechanical reading of notes. Anyone can follow a system or a set of instructions and go through motions, and notes may emerge from the instrument, but they will be lifeless.

In most traditions, music was an everyday thing, a constant accompaniment to life’s normal activities. People grew up with it and absorbed its nuances without conscious effort. It was learned the way one’s first language is learned: first you hear it, and when you have some understanding of what you’re hearing, you try to do it yourself (usually with a lot of trial and error, and a lot of play-sounds involved), hopefully with guidance every step of the way. Eventually you get very good at it. But these days most of us don’t have continually accessible musical mentors, and we don’t necessarily hear live music in our homes constantly. Therefore, tablature and notation have become more necessary as learning tools. But those cannot replace the traditional ways of learning music; even recording and video devices don’t provide all the information or any of the feedback we need. We need to use all tools available  –  notation or tablature, recordings, active and passive listening, and live mentoring  –  which in turn engage both sides of the brain.

A few random thoughts:

Random thought # 1: I’m reminded of a scene in the movie “The Thirteenth Warrior”, in which an Arab-speaker is travelling with a group of Nordic people whose language he doesn’t know, until finally one evening he responds to something in their own language. When asked how he learned to do that, he replies, “I listened”.)

Random throught #2: Imagine if a toddler were told, “No no, you must not speak until you can read.” He or she would never speak well. So why do we expect to read music before we can play it?

Random thought #3: You never hear someone say, “I’m going to manipulate my fingers on my instrument now.” We say “I’m going to play my instrument.” Manipulation is left-brained, while play suggests a degree of freedom, which is right-brained. But we have to learn both or the play will have no structure.

In addition to being able to listen and reproduce on your instrument what you’ve heard, and being able to read music from notation, knowledge of at least basic music theory is a boon to good musicianship. Why? Because it allows us to learn it and play it better. Music theory is not, as is commonly assumed, just “how to read music”; theory explains the reasons behind everything that music is and everything it does. Music notation is based on the structures of music, not vice-versa.

Unbelievably, many students are never taught any music theory! And when it is taught, it’s often presented in the most complicated possible way, and terms are bandied about that are meaningless to those who have never been exposed to them. This creates the impression that theory is very esoteric and hard to learn. IMHO, theory should be learned/taught directly on the instrument before it’s learned/taught from a blackboard or book. It can be learned in a left-brained way, as in a classroom, or in a right-brained way, as in hearing and playing so much music that its structures and laws become second nature without ever needing to define it (this usually takes years, and there are many very fine musicians in the world who never had formal training but who skillfully use the principles of theory intuitively). Ideally, like music-playing, theory should be learned both ways.

Does anyone really play music equally from both sides of the brain? Yes. The finest performers do what they do because they have integrated both sides of the brain; they can use their knowledge, logic, expression, intuition and creativity equally and simultaneously. This integrated ability is available to those who are truly passionate about developing all of their potential. It makes me sad when I hear someone say, “I can’t play by ear,” or “I don’t want to learn to read music,” or “I have no interest in music theory”. What they are really saying is, “I have no interest in being all that I can be.” If you have trouble with one skill or another, it’s usually not because you lack the ability, but because someone hasn’t really shown you how to do it. There’s a world of music out there  –  explore it!