Posted by: rileylaurie | September 23, 2012

The Right Brain, The Left Brain, and the Musician

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!




  1. Hi Laurie,,

    I’m sitting in the shade of a giant old plane tree in the square in Orange, France, with the Roman ruins of an amphitheater behind me, waiting for my old college roommate to join us for lunch. What better place to read your great Right brain/Left brain essay…so well and clearly explained. Now I want to learn more about music theory…what do I know and what don’t I know.

    Hugs from France, Diana

    Diana Beaumont Sent from my iPad

  2. What a wonderful article! Thank you Laurie for your insight.

  3. Thank you for sharing your experience and insight. Do you still offer harp lessons via skype?

  4. Do you have some suggestions for helping a 12 yr old right brained learner to read music? My daughter has been taking piano for 4 years and although she plays very well, she still can’t ‘read’ music. She still has to use the mnemonics to write the letter names. She then remembers the music in a series of numbers. Then she just uses the musical notation for the timing and the phrasing but not the notes. She’s very frustrated and embarassed that she still can’t sight read. Thank you!

    • She sounds like me. I am dyslexic, though when I was a kid all I knew was that I could not read music no matter how hard I tried or practiced. I understood the principles, but could not see whether the notes were on lines or spaces, how many notes there were, or whether they were high or low on the staff. No one believed me, least of all my teacher, who kicked me out. Thereafter I learned all my music by ear, and eventually became a successful professional. Finally at the age of 40 I began to be able to see the notation better, and can read it much of the time now, though there are days when I can’t. Dyslexia comes in many forms, and music-reading problems can occur even if word-reading is not a problem. There is no laziness involved here, or any lack of trying, and it’s incredibly frustrating. I was extremely lucky that there is folk, ethnic, and traditional music, which historically is learned by ear. I certainly could not learn classical music, which of course requires notation-reading. I made my career creating my own arrangements and compositions (I have people transcribe them for me when they’re published). I can easily learn whatever I hear. I count it as a blessing. Your daughter can gain these skills too. She just needs a teacher who is skilled enough to help her on that path. Please email me at and tell me where you live.

  5. […] 3)  “Music therapy may aid brain damaged patients”                        4) “The right brain, the left brain, and the musician” […]

  6. Addressing your second random thought, I think that reading words and reading sheet music aren’t really comparable in this kind of discussion. According to some of the most well-known teaching methods, it is important for (especially classical) musicians to learn to read sheet music while learning fingering positions, embouchure, etc. because mastery of the instrument boils down to muscle memory and its association with values stated in the syntax. Musicians aren’t really taught to read music ‘before’ they can play it, they are just introduced to a multitude of concepts in music, and gain further understanding of them through repetition and practice.

    The real reason we learn to read after learning to speak is because children aren’t cognitively developed enough to learn to read during the stage they begin repeating words from parents and other local figures. Toddlers are not as good with handling the abstractions of written language as a child who is, say, nine years old. But speech comes easier to toddlers, as we learn patterns and behaviors through interactions with adults, and reading/writing through method and practice. Once we are of age to learn an instrument, we are cognitively developed enough to learn musical notation while learning the instrument itself, and this is imperative to the musician’s development.

    • The operative phrase in your comment is ” especially classical musicians” – because they have to learn to read music and yes, if you depend on notation, having the brain associate muscle memory with what you see on the written page is really important. Much classical music, for practical reasons, is played in performance far sooner than one could expect to memorize it (thought some do), so this skill is essential. For ethnic, traditional, folk, and many other styles of music, reading notation is less of a factor; it can actually slow the learning process or prevent memorization and expression from occurring. Not saying it always does, but it’s very common. So… thank you for your astute observation, which clarifies an important point.

  7. I’m a live sound engineer and plays drums and percussion. my interest in properly training sound technicians about bringing forth a creative mix has lead me here. i’ve been researching about how tech guys are so left-brained (dealing with all the techie stuff) that when they get behind the console to mix a live band, the mix is a bit off from what you hear from the record. i have questions like, how do you teach creativity? how do you get someone from being so techie to also be creative? 🙂

    • Great questions – I’ll write about those in the near future!

  8. Laurie; I’m one of the few people in the world who, with many years of practice and instruction, can play 5 instruments – poorly; really poorly. Any sane person would have quit long, long ago. After discussion with a university music professor I’ve come to realize that the problem is with the right brain – left brain connection. I can read music fine and hum the tune easily. And I can work all my fingers on the piano, guitar, trumpet, saxophone and harmonica just fine too. The problem is that I can’t do both at the same time. No matter how many times I practice a piece it always sounds very stilted and I have to stop many times during each piece to get reoriented.

    My current idea is that I need to stop trying to walk and chew gum at the same time and just play the piece. Do you have any thoughts on how I can read a piece of music and then “play it by ear?” I don’t think that I want to just memorize the music score because I would just end up reading it in my mind. But on the other hand I haven’t shown any ability to play by ear without the notes in front of me. Do you have any ideas on how I can work this?


  9. Hello,

    I came across your discussion on my quest to gain information on a condition called agenesis of the corpus callosum (ACC) and its effect for musicians.

    I am an orchestra teacher in a public school in Illinois. I recently found out I am teaching a 4th grade student with ACC. This is my first experience with this condition. I am trying to glean information that will help me understand and teach this student to play her chosen instrument, viola.

    Do you have any insight or experience with ACC? My main concern is that I will expect things out of the student which are impossible. I would be grateful for any assistance or information you may have to offer!


    • It sounds like this student must be high-functioning for this condition, as it often results in severe mental disability that would preclude her being in school. On the other hand, some with this condition are savants, albeit with communication disabilities. I understand that it’s difficult for those with this condition to integrate right and left brain activity, such as transferring knowledge into activity, and she may have poor muscle coordination. It seems that each individual witht his condition has a different degree of disability, meaning you must try a wide range of skills for her and see what she is capable of. There is a balance of not expecting too little vs. expecting too much. Don’t underestimate her capabilities but don’t push to the point of frustration. I hope she thrives under your tutelage!

  10. I was so glad to read this , I am a multi musician who plays by ear. What I hear I can play, I write/sing songs too. sadly I have trouble learning text. I can read a page of a book several times and still forget what I’ve read. Yet I am a numerologist. Numbers and music,That’s me. I feel so inadequate as I wanted to go to music school but I know I would have struggled with music written theory. I know there is a right/left brain problem .

  11. This is so good!! Thank you!! When I take this approach teaching piano, the student learns it so fast that I kinda loose money lol. I don’t mind! I’m addicted to seeing the shock on their face when they find out that they really do have the ability to play the piano.

  12. Hi 🙂 I just wanted to say I enjoyed your article and felt it was well written. I also enjoyed your random thought with the reading/talking metaphor.

    I have been a musician for years and have sometimes gone from one extreme to the other, thinking I have to be ALL right brained in order to be creative. Now I am going to meditate on integrating both.

    Thanks 🙏

  13. […] […]

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