Right Brain Vs. Left Brain

When I was a teenager, my teachers sort of gave up on me. I don’t say that from a victim standpoint; more as a matter of fact. As a teacher now, I understand how it feels to just not know what to do with some students. ¬†After pondering this for 12+ years, I have concluded that the reason is because I was so right-brain dominant in the way I learned concepts. I had absolutely no comprehension of Math and Science formulas. None. Reading Comprehension? I just couldn’t get it. I read books all the time, but when my English teachers tested me on the “correct” interpretation of literature, I failed. Of course, we all know that Music Theory is heavily based on Math concepts, so of course, I struggled with that too. I think this puzzled my teachers to the point of quitting because I was really very talented in the arts. It was clear I wasn’t stupid. I was talented, but my academic gifts were little to none. I could sing better than most of my classmates, I could pass all the dance auditions, got lead roles in plays, and I could also draw pretty good portraits. I also barely passed high school with a low C average. While I enjoyed all of these creative activities, I really wanted to understand the concepts that my left-brain dominate classmates were effortlessly putting into their repetoir. It bothered me that some teachers were annoyed at my inability to learn certain things and would sort of assume that there was nothing to be done about it.

Now, after completing a very Left-Brain dominant college degree in Sociology, my brain is more balanced and I can understand how both Left-Brain and Right-Brain learners think. This has been a huge help to me as a music teacher. Learning how to identify a Right-Brain learner in a music lesson is very important. Left-Brain learners are very easy to teach. You tell them a Music Theory concept once, and they usually get it. Ahhhh. Aren’t those the best lessons? I know I love them. But the Right-Brain learners? Even though I know how it feels to be one, I still get frustrated!

Right Brain Vs. Left Brain

Since the easiest students to teach are the Left-Brain thinkers, I want to talk more about the Right-Brainers. They need the most help from us. For a Left-Brain thinker, all I can say is this: Enjoy the ease of teaching them technique, sight-reading, and theory. Spend a little time each week developing their creative side. Be sure to help them learn improvising and composing, so they become well rounded musicians.

A Right-Brain dominant learner is dreamy, imaginative, and creative. Because of their active imaginations, they can have a hard time staying focused on what you are saying. In their heads they are probably thinking about all the fun things they are going to do after their lessons. Those activities could include playing pretend, playing with toys, drawing, playing the piano without any rules, dancing, singing, or making up stories. The Right-Brain learner is a creative bubble who just needs a little patience. You also have to grab their attention by speaking their language.

In my experience, A Right-Brain dominant learner will be the first student to quit after only 1 or 2 lessons. They’re smart enough to know when they are getting into something that they are not capable of understanding. If you can identify this type of student immediately, you can grab their attention by putting away the method books, and beginning with play. My favorite first activity is to teach them that all of the black keys on the piano sound good together. I encourage them to let their fingers “dance” on the keys in any way they want. When they like a sound, try to remember it and do it again. It’s fun to watch their faces light up when they discover that they are really making music.

If it goes well, we might move on to copycat on the black keys. I play a simple rhythm. They copy. They are learning how to hear beats and coordinate their fingers. Since they are the Imaginative types, I will play on that for a little while. I teach them how when you play towards the right side of the keyboard, the notes get higher. I might say something like, “When you think of birds singing, are they usually up high in the sky? Or down low on the ground?” (I will usually play high keys when I say the word “high” and low keys when I say the word “low.”) Of course they know the answer is high, so then I tell them to make some bird sounds on the high keys. Then I might say something like, “Suppose the bird wants to fly down to the ground to eat some food.” Then I let my fingers dance down to the low keys, and the student copies.

I might spend a few weeks doing creative lessons like this before I even attempt to teach note reading. That’s ok. Eventually, all of my students learn how to read music. I attract a lot of Right-Brain learners, so most of my students play better than they read, but they do read eventually. The key is patience and creativity.

Lately I have been reading a lot of literature on this subject, and if it interests you, here is a reading list for you to consider:

“The Alphabet Verses the Goddess: The Conflict Between Word and Image” by Leonard Shlain

“This is Your Brain on Music: The Science of a Human Obsession” by Daniel Levitin

“A Whole New Mind: Why Right Brainers Will Rule the World” by Daniel Pink

“The Artist’s Way” by Julia Cameron

About the Author

Bella Payne
While working on a degree in Sociology with plans to become a Social Worker, I fell into teaching piano lessons as a way to pay my bills. I had no idea I was stumbling into a totally fulfilling, creative and exciting career! Every day, I teach several students in their homes, in my home, and online how to play piano from scratch. Over the last 10 years, I have seen kids and adults go from timid b... [Read more]


  1. John R. Sedivy

    I just discovered your blog through an article on JetSetCitizen. Although I’m not musically inclined, I enjoyed reading your article on right vs. left brained individuals and believe that as an instructor you grasp what many do not – the end result matters more than the process of getting there. I personally believe that a skilled instructor (regardless of what they are instructing) is the type who can adapt their methods to engage the student, rather than give up in frustration. Well said.

  2. Ed Pearlman

    Your comments are very important. We need to be alert to how differently individuals think. I often see teaching as an experiment where I’m trying to find the key to a student’s motivation and learning pattern so that they can find their own easy pathway to becoming engaged and solving the musical and technical problems they face.

    The only caution I offer is that the Left vs Right brain concept is very simplistic. Useful, but can also create problems if you label yourself or someone else too easily based on this dichotomy. I think someone came out with a division in 4 types, and then there were the 7 Intelligences, and so on… I think the higher the number, probably the more accurate, but simplifying it is very useful…as long as you don’t get carried away thinking you have someone figured out based on just Left vs. Right. Or Venus vs Mars. Or Concrete Vs. Flexible. Etc.