the Right and
the Left Way
to Play

by Jonathan J. Dickau

Playing music is an activity which requires the coordination of various bodily systems, for the purpose of creating a particular sound. Thinking, breathing, moving certain muscles, hearing, seeing, and feeling can all contribute to the performance of of a piece, or detract from it, if any of them is done incorrectly, or without the proper coordination. Musical performing is clearly one of those activities which requires using both halves of your brain, but different people have different approaches, which appear to emphasize the use of one or the other.

Some folks seem to play only by ear, where other musicians refuse to play a note until they have their sheet music in front of them. There are also folks who do both things well, or can do it all, but they are apparently in the minority, even among professionals. What is it that makes one person able to memorize complex patterns of notes by visualization, where another person needs to close his, or her eyes, listen intently, and feel the music, in order to remember? Are these people taking such different approaches because of something they were taught, or is there a deeper reason?

Why do some play by ear where others play by eye? I suspect that is is a matter of the dominance of either left or right-brain thinking, in that person's approach to music. The dominance of the left or right-brain influences the process of how we learn about music, musical styles we prefer, and how we approach performing music, in a total way. Of course, nobody's brain function is totally one-sided, if they posess both sides of their brain. Studies of blood flow in active brains show that a suprising range of different brain areas can be used for the same function, in normal individuals. Individuality among musicians is more pronounced, and even more varied, however, than with the general public.

People with a more visual approach to music tend to be left-brain dominant, which also makes them more scholarly, or intellectual. These folks work best in a situation where they can figure out things ahead of time (a strategy for their playing), and then remember, or calculate the next note from where they are now. A visual player may picture a matrix, in his/her mind, superimposed upon the fingerboard of their instrument, to help them find their place. This visual pattern might correspond to a chord, a scale or a melody. People who embody the visual approach fully often wonderfully precise, and this makes them remarkably consistent players. If you decide, however, to change key at the last minute, or to play a song they haven't heard before, these same individuals may have trouble.

People who play by ear are usually right-brain dominant. Their emphasis on the auditory side of things seems to be a wonderful reason for making music in the first place, but this carries into other areas of life, as well. Many of these people are also left handed, since the left hand side is controlled by the right hand side of the brain. They also tend to be more feeling-oriented people, either humorous and affable, or moody and emotional. People in this category survive by being such good listeners that they scarcely have to read any music at all. They can just feel the notes, and go for them. They can hear a melody once, or twice, and play it note for note in no time. Who could complain about that? Working on the fingerings of scales and chords from a book, or playing from printed sheet music, however, is another story entirely.

Of course, real people are usually a blend of characteristics, and they won't always fit into one category or another, but there is a definite range between the purely auditory (playing by ear), and the visual approach to music. The best musicians can use either approach as needed, but there is still a characteristic flavor to their playing, and this uniqueness can be observed in their performance. The human element is as broad as it is deep, and the diversity among players is a key part of what I am talking about. It is this very quality which gives rise to comparisons like this, since there are so many performers, so many different styles of music, and at least as many approaches to playing. I feel that celebrating the uniqueness of musical expression is what making music is all about. In order to fully appreciate the talents of others, their approach to their craft must be respected.

Several years back, I had the opportunity to see some world-class performers locally, and I not only got to hear some mind-blowing playing, I got a great lesson in the whole subject of the approach taken to performing. I am speaking about seeing John McLaughlin, Al DiMeola, and Paco DeLucia at the Civic Center in Poughkeepsie. At one point in the show, John M. and Al D. were playing duets, and they were an elegant study in contrasts. Al Dimeola was Buddha-like in his composure, maintaining a consistently serene and benevolent appearance throughout his playing. John McLaughlin was almost the opposite, where at times he seemed to grimace in pain while stretching for, or bending a note, and at other times his face portrayed ecstatic rapture, or devotion. Nor was this the only difference, as Al D. played in box-like patterns, throughout his performance, with quick shifts between positions, where John M. usually took long excursions, on a few strings, up the neck of the guitar. Each performer seemed to embody a unique approach to playing the guitar.

What makes this whole story even more interesting is that these two gentlemen were often playing exactly the same notes! Both had learned their parts perfectly, and both were playing impeccably, but their approach to playing couldn't have been more different. Since that evening, I have seen many others using one of these two distinct approaches, but I've also had the pleasure to see at least a few performers who combine them well. Jazz guitarist Pat Metheny is one of these folks, and Classical violinist Itzhak Perlman is also a fine example of this type of person. Both individuals have an uncanny ability to choose either mode of expression, or shift between them, to fit the music they are playing. This is one of the things which makes these people such fine players. It also makes them more versatile than many others, or perhaps more adaptable.

I don't mean to suggest that those people with a balanced approach are the only ones capable of becoming virtuosi. I don't mean that all such people are accomplished expert either, nor do I mean that people who use one approach, or the other, exclusively are superior musicians to their counterparts. I believe that the whole spectrum of approaches is valid, as a way of learning music, but I think that I'm sadly in the minority to feel this way. Those who are firmly entrenched in one camp, or the other, tend to dislike the standard practice of their counterparts, as they prefer a different approach, and sometimes would choose different material as well. This is one of the factors that drives some bands apart, as the preferences of musical style among contrasting individuals will often diverge over time.

We need to acknowledge that all of these people have a legitimate contribution to make, and encourage them to be themselves, if we want to experience the best they have to offer. Those of us who are performing also need to cultivate as many approaches as we can to solving the problem of learning to play everything that we would ever want to play. If one approach doesn't work for you, don't give up. Try something a little bit different, or find a different teacher or role model, but continue to do what works for you. We each have the opportunity to broaden our approach to music, but people should not be compelled to abandon what has worked for them in the past. The best way for one person to learn music may be different from what works for someone else. In the long run, all approaches to playing music are worthwhile. Just continue to play!

©'95,'99 Jonathan J. Dickau

This article was featured on Tuned-In to Hudson Valley Music,
during September of '98, and continues in their articles listing, at

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First posted on
January 12, 1999

Jonathan J. Dickau ©'95,'99 - all rights reserved