Is Your Music Right-Brained or Left-Brained?

Although almost no one is completely right-brained or left-brained, most of us tend heavily toward one or the other. A right-brained person is usually defined as someone who is intuitive, expressive, and creative; a left-brained person is usually defined as someone who is matter-of-fact, logical, and precise. Right-brained musicians can be highly emotive, while left-brained ones can be perfectionists and love to develop complex skills. On the downside, the former are sometimes thought of as a bit flakey and not too interested in excellence, while the latter are often considered to be mechanical and unfeeling.

I’ve heard people play instruments very expressively but without sufficent structure and ability. And I’ve heard others play with great precision and skill, but little expression. True virtuosity is having equal parts of both technical skill and expression. Since, however, most people tend to be inclined toward one or the other, how do we achieve balance?

If you are a right-brained person (intuitive, artistic, creative, etc.), focusing on the details that lead to precise playing and highly developed technical skill can feel like a lot of extra effort. Unless you are playing music only for your own enjoyment, you’ll need to buckle down and do some concentrated, structured work, hopefully with a qualified teacher or resource. Many right-brained instrumentalists and/or singers are self-taught; sometimes because you experience the sound of the instrument as sufficiently wonderful without structured ways of playing it; sometimes because you trust your creativity to give you all you need; sometimes because teachers seem too strict. You’ll need a teacher with heart and substance. And you will have to work diligently. (And you will likely need to learn to use a metronome!)

For the left-brained (logical, precise, technically-minded), learning to be expressive and creative may seem too nebulous. Assuming you have a teacher or a very good learning resource for technical skills, you will also have to do a lot of listening to great performances and ask yourself what elements in the music cause you to feel various emotions? What, exactly, gives you goosebumps? Is it the rise and fall of volume, certain tempos or rhythms, certain chord sequences, or the way the player interprets the timing of a phrase? Some emotion is inherent in the music itself, in the melody, the harmony, the rhythms and tempos as written, but the musician must add the rest.

Seek out exercises that teach you to use dynamic variation, and experiment with how subtle changes in volume affect moods from moment to moment. Perhaps more importantly, go out into the woods, sit quietly, and listen. Notice how the distant rushing of a stream creates a peaceful “undercuurent”. How the sudden call of a bird can hasten your heartbeat. How the echo of a wood thrush’s song in the golden light of a spring evening can elate the senses. How the rustling of a meadow mouse in dry leaves can make your ears perk up. How the intrusion of a car passing on a nearby highway can be jarring. How the silences between sounds are important and poignant. All these and more are almost directly applicable to how you can play your music. I can guarantee that time spent deeply observing nature will make you a better musician, no matter who you are.

Music is all about telling a story. Some pieces of music tell their own story; others can tell yours. We humans love stories. That’s what music is for; to express all our stories. Be they dramatic, calming, joyful, or mournful, we love them. A good storyteller possesses both technical skill and emotive skill, creates a mood, expresses feelings, and pays attention to structural formulas and elements that make the story work.

Most importantly, an audience wants to know you. If they didn’t, they’d go hear someone else. They want to get inside your mind through your emotions, and they can’t do that if you don’t express your emotions musically. They don’t want you to tell them in words or facial expressions or body language (they can get that kind of communication all day every day); that would be like giving away the ending of a great book. They want to experience it musically.

Ask yourself what it is in each performer you respect that makes you like their music? Chances are, some aspect of personality comes to mind. Performers are sharing music, yes, but more importantly, they are sharing their souls. As a performer, it’s how you expose, through music, who you are that makes your music compelling.