Music and handedness

While out running recently, I listened to a podcast of a BBC Woman’s Hour interview with Courtney Love. The conversation offered many insights into a fascinating life and career, but I was most struck with a passing remark about Love’s late husband Kurt Cobain’s guitar technique. The left-handed Cobain had apparently learned to play on a right-handed guitar, but did so upside down. He did this, Love explained, because he was poor and left-handed guitars were too expensive.

Why is it, I wondered, that such a thing as a left-handed guitar even exists, when such concessions aren’t made for other instruments? A left-handed piano, for example, with the low-pitched keys on the right and the high-pitched ones on the left–does one even exist, save as a whimsical curiosity?

I can’t imagine many takers for left-handed bowed string instruments either, when you consider the potential problems in an orchestra section with bows going in both directions and players bashing each other.

Indeed, I could only find evidence of one top-ranking “backwards” bowed string player, the violinist Rudolf Kolisch, who was in fact right-handed but had to learn on a violin set up for left-handed playing after a finger injury prevented him from playing normally.

This didn’t stop Kolisch from having a brilliant career, however. In fact, the “backwards” setup had its uses in Kolisch’s famous quartet, where he sat on the far right of the ensemble (see below) rather than the first violinist’s usual far-left position, the f-holes of his violin directed outwards at the audience, which must have helped with some of the usual string quartet balance problems.











In my career as a strongly right-handed cello professor, I’ve taught a number of left-handed students, and never noticed any greater-than-usual difficulties in their mastery of the technique. The cello is a difficult instrument, and the skills used in both hands require much practice and repetition, whichever hand you write with. I wouldn’t have thought it would matter whether you were left- or right-handed, it’s just hard. In fact, I wonder if certain fingering and shifting techniques might be easier for a left-handed player, who would presumably have greater natural finger dexterity (sorry!) on that hand.

I looked further into this and found a study in Psychology of Music that showed left-handed pianists suffered no particular disadvantage in right-hand technique in comparison with right-handed ones, even though piano music typically has far more notes in the right-hand part than in the left-hand part. (1) The pianists had simply learned and practised the skills of playing the piano.

Moreover, left-handed people can learn any instrument well. Left-handed trumpeters learn to use their right hands to operate the valves, left-handed flautists manage to hold their instruments to the right side, and left-handed xylophonists don’t seem to be bothered by the order of their keys. (Lest this all seem grossly unfair to left-handed players, there is one instrument where the left hand does most of the work: that is, of course, the French horn. I’ve never met a right-handed horn player who complained about this.)

The great pedagogue Shinichi Suzuki believed that instead of training children to be right-handed, their parents and teachers should encourage them to perform tasks equally well with both hands. Natural ambidexterity is rare, and has been correlated with mental health, language, and scholastic problems, but that wasn’t Suzuki’s point; he wanted to show that all skills can be learned with sufficient repetition.

The Suzuki teacher Paula Bird took this to heart. In this thought-provoking blog post, she describes her attempts to practise whisking, raking, opening jars and so on with her left hand.

Bird’s experiences reminded me of my own struggles to learn to perform day-to-day activities such as brushing my teeth and dressing left-handed after I broke my arm aged 13. At first, I remember being dishearteningly clumsy at it, hitting myself in the cheek with the toothbrush and smearing toothpaste on my cheek. Putting on tights and tying shoes was frustrating and very time-consuming at first. Hardest of all was learning to write left-handed; the letters came out large and childish, and the pen had a maddening habit of slipping out of my fingers.

After the seven weeks I spent with my right arm in a cast, though, I improved. Two decades later, I can still perform a number of these activities just fine with my left hand. In fact, if my music stand is awkwardly placed in a rehearsal and I can’t reach the score with my right hand, I can even write on it with my left. It’s not neat, but it’s functional. If a clumsy person like me can do this, any right-hander could.

If all skills are learned skills, regardless of handedness, why, then, are left-handed guitarists the only left-handed musicians to have their preferences catered to? Is it because they don’t play in orchestras? Or because guitar is often self-taught, meaning that the players don’t have a teacher telling them what to do and how to play?

Most of the information Google could tell me consisted of internet message boards, where some (occasionally very cross) left-handed amateurs and parents of left-handed musical children were demanding to know why they couldn’t buy a left-handed cello if they wanted to. Some even invoked the issues of right brain and left brain to “prove” their points, though it’s been shown elsewhere that the popular conception of this topic is greatly oversimplified.

In any case, I highly doubt that violin-makers would ever seriously consider the mass production of “left-handed” instruments, so the point is moot. I know that left-handers experience many frustrations: can openers, computer keyboards, pens on chains in the bank, writing in spiral-bound notebooks, and so on. Playing the cello isn’t, or doesn’t have to be, one of them.


(1) Reinhard Kopiez, Hans-Christian Jabusch, Niels Galley, Jan-Christoph Homann, Andreas C. Lehmann and Eckart Altenmüller, “No disadvantage for left-handed musicians: The relationship between handedness,perceived constraints and performance-related skills in string players and pianists.” Psychology of Music 40:356, 2012.


One thought on “Music and handedness

  1. I am a left-handed person who took the general advice to learn to do most things right-handed. This works fine for most things, but I became an avid guitar player. Many people who play often can end up with injuries, and can you imagine that happening to your DOMINANT HAND? It happened to me, and I had to stop doing many things I loved and enjoyed (including writing and sports and music) for many years. Any amount of playing or writing caused numbness in my fingers and shooting pains in my dominant hand up to my elbow and, if I kept playing, shoulder. It was awful. After several years of not playing at all, I finally bit the bullet and re-learned to play left-handed. I used to think that doing the difficult things with my dominant hand was an advantage, but now I know that hand is too precious to over-strain.


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