Tuesday, November 22, 2011

The Right and the Left of the Brain

Technically, the concept existed long before the scientific explanation came about: after all, gravity wasn’t invented when an apple hit Isaac Newton on the head in 1665 (so the story goes). The idea that people had a “dual nature” in the way they thought should have come as no surprise, but it wasn’t until 1968 when psychobiologist Roger W. Sperry published his innovative studies that verbal, analytic thinking was located mainly in the left hemisphere of the brain, and that visual, perceptual thinking was located mainly in the right. Sperry won a Nobel Prize in 1981.

In the old days, regardless of what century it was written in, music could be “classical” or “romantic” referring to the general style – “classical” being leaner textures, more logical, perhaps intellectually oriented and essentially clean; “romantic” meant denser textures, vaguer in terms of formal and harmonic clarity, more dramatic or emotional and, perhaps, “messy.” In this sense a composer in the late-18th Century writing in a dramatic emotional style could be “romantic” during the “Classical” period – think all those “Sturm und Drang” symphonies, or the D Minor Piano Concerto or G Minor symphonies of Mozart. And Mendelssohn, in some respects, could be a “classical” Romantic composer – sharing bits of both styles.

This stylistic dichotomy could also be referred to as “Apollonian” (classical) or “Dionysian” (romantic), going back to the Ancient Greeks (whether they used the distinction themselves or not) – Apollo, the god of such things as architecture (which would be logical, formalistic) and Dionysus or Bacchus, who gave men wine which of course has done little for logic and clarity for millennia…

These days, we mostly use the idea of “Left-brain” and “Right-brain.” And this is basically the gist of Sperry’s work.

While going through some books in a not-that-old box still left unpacked from the last move, I came across a copy of Betty EdwardsDrawing on the Right Side of the Brain (A Course in Enhancing Creativity and Artistic Confidence) which was first published in 1979, making it one of the first books to apply this new scientific thinking and applying it to art. My edition was a paperback issued in 1989.

It’s not that I was interested in the art of drawing, but the concept seemed intriguing to me, wondering if it could be applied to musical creativity. I had been reading several books about “creativity” in general which seemed to focus on scientific creativity – the discovery of new theories or the invention of new contraptions – but rarely on musical creativity and then when they did, it often descended into what I would have thought was obvious and very shallow, compared to the in-depth, technical comprehension these authors found in the scientists and mathematicians.

It wasn’t until years later it dawned on me – d’oh! – that scientists understand the scientific mind but are completely lost when it comes to the artistic mind because (for them) it lacks the familiarity and the objectivity scientists need to exist.

The whole premise of scientific research is to “prove” something. Scientist A comes up with a new theory. In order for it to be “proved,” Scientist B has to be able to replicate it and come up with the same results.

If Composer A comes up with ideas about a musical composition, it is highly unlikely Composer B is going to come up with anything close to the same composition! In fact, even if Composer A tries it again, using the same concepts or ideas, his or her realization of them will no doubt result in a different composition even though it’s by the same composer. Oh, there may be similarities, but the artist is always looking for different ways to treat the same ideas whereas the scientist is always hoping for the same.

Yes, you can joke that Antonio Vivaldi wrote 600 concertos that sound like one concerto 600 times but that’s only because, to the untrained listener, the few that we know have a certain stylistic sameness. But like snowflakes, no two of them are the same.

And many listeners who are not musicians themselves can’t quite understand what performers mean when they say “every performance [of the same piece] is different.” Perhaps it’s not different from thinking the river you’re looking at is always the same because the water that flows by is made up of different molecules and so on.

Language also gives us problems in adapting to even the most obvious differences: what comes to mind when you see the word “river”? Is it the great Mississippi River or the Susquehanna River (which, at Harrisburg, is about a mile wide) or the Fenton River which I used to step across in the woods outside the University of Connecticut because it’s barely two feet across (“and you call this a river!” I used to tell my friends there in disbelief). But I digress, kind of…

The world, of course, is designed for people who are right handed. This discrimination is evident even in the words chosen to describe “right” and “left.” In Latin, the word for “right” is dexter from which we get dexterity (skill) (not to overlook the irony of a popular serial killer being named ‘Dexter’). The Latin word for “left,” on the other hand, is sinister from which we get… well, sinister (evil, ominous).

Even in French, the word for “left” is gauche from which we get gauche or gawky, awkward, tacky or sociably unacceptable; “right” is droit from which we get adroit (capable).

In old English, the word “left” comes from the Anglo-Saxon stem lyft meaning weak or worthless, “right” from reht or straight, just and ultimately (by way of the German recht) the word correct.

Enough? (Do we even need to get into politics?)

The duality in the world is also obvious: for example, light/dark, feminine/masculine, positive/negative, winter/summer and intellect/emotion, not to mention the more recent concept of digital/analog.

Ms. Edwards points out (p.38) the ‘L-Mode’ and the ‘R-Mode’ which she differentiates in the letters’ fonts: the L is bold, blocked and basic; the R is like script, full of curlicues and whimsy.

These two modes she describes with basic characteristics:

The L-Mode is foursquare, upright, sensible, direct, true, hard-edged, plain and forceful.

The R-Mode is curvy, flexible, playful, unexpected, diagonal, fanciful -- and she also includes the word “complex.”

Here is a paraphrase of her chart on p.40 which compares similar concepts and how they are applied on the Left-Brain or Right-Brain duality:

L-Mode is verbal, using words to name, describe, define.

R-Mode is non-verbal, focused more on awareness of things but minimal connection with words.

L-Mode is analytic, figuring things out step-by-step and part-by-art.
R-Mode is synthetic, putting things together to form wholes.

L-Mode is symbolic, using a symbol to stand for something (the drawing of an eye can substitute for the word eye; the + sign stands for the process of addition)

R-Mode is concrete, relating to things as they are, at the present moment.

L-Mode is abstract, taking out a small bit of information and using it represent the whole thing.

R-Mode is analogic, seeking likenesses between things; understanding metaphoric relationships.

(I think this might be more easily expressed as abstract, seeing the parts (for instance, data) whereas analogic would see the whole as the sum of the parts first – in other words, L-Mode would see the details, and R-Mode would see the “big picture”).

L-Mode is temporal, keeping track of time, sequencing one thing after another (in order)
R-Mode is non-temporal, without a sense of time (unaware of the passing of time, taking things out-of-order or at random)

L-Mode is rational, drawing conclusions based on reason and facts.
R-Mode is non-rational (I would prefer irrational), not requiring a basis of reason or facts (to reach a conclusion), willingness to suspend judgment.

L-Mode is digital, using numbers as in counting. 
R-Mode is spatial, seeing where things are in relation to other things and how parts go together to form a whole.

L-Mode is logical, drawing conclusions based on logic (rational), one thing following another in logical order, for example, like a mathematical theorem or a well-stated argument.
R-Mode is intuitive, making leaps of insight, often on incomplete patterns, hunches, feelings or visual images.

L-Mode is linear, thinking in terms of linked (successive) ideas, one thought flowing directly into another, often leading to a convergent conclusion (obvious)

R-Mode is holistic, seeing whole things all at once, perceiving the overall patterns and structures, often leading to divergent conclusions (not easily explainable but sensed)

Though she implies it within her chart, I would add at least one other : L-Mode is studied, applying rules that are learned to a given situation.

R-Mode is spontaneous, not paying attention to learned rules in varying degrees (being free with them; breaking them on purpose; ignoring them).

I might also add the easy confusion between the two in trying to memorize logically by thinking intuitively – Left-brained can be Logical but also Rational, applying Reason; while Right-brained can be… uhm… well, so much for mnemonics…

If you have to think about which is your right hand and which is your left (especially if you’re an actor and you have to think the opposite of normal when you’re on the stage because what is yourright is not the audience’s right…), you’ll probably have problems telling the two apart. That means you’re right-brained, first of all.

Add to that the seeming conundrum of the left-side of the brain controlling the right side of the body and vice-versa, meaning… uhm… well, let’s not get into that now, shall we?

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A few observations.

Musicians have long called the study of the language of music, “theory.”

“Theory” in science means something that is not yet or cannot be proven.

And yet any music theory teacher drums into you these rules about intervals and chords and how they work together and grades you on any infraction of these rules as if they are facts-carved-in-stone.

But like any language, you learn the rules and then you figure out how to break them. But first you must know what makes them work. Then you can bend or break them to your will IF you have something to replace them with.

(Ah, there’s a grammatical rule I’ve just broken: “never end a sentence with a preposition” or as one of my teachers once put, slyly, “a preposition is something you never end a sentence with.”)

Sometimes we break rules because it sounds more “natural” and sticking to the rules sounds too “formal.” For instance, if you’re talking to children, you’re not going to be speaking in King James English (speakest thou not in the olde biblical style from the 1600s) or in Shakespeare’s iambic pentameter. Likewise, if you’re going to compose a fugue (one of the most intellectual procedures in music), you probably don’t want to write in the style of, say, Britney Spears (there is a wonderful parody on-line of a guy who demonstrates how to write a fugue using a Britney Spears song – in the end, however, it sounds more like an old-fashioned fugue than it does a Britney Spears song, but still…)

Aaron Copland once wrote that a composer hears a new piece whole in a flash – the problem is then writing it down fast enough to get it down on paper.

This is what we call “inspiration.”

Since I could never do that, I figured, “well, I guess I’m not a composer.”

The thing is, that’s how Aaron Copland may compose, but it’s not how, say, Elliott Carter composes. Carter usually begins with a different kind of problem – usually one inherent in the instruments he’s writing for, or a more formal or even mathematical problem: something that requires a solution. For him, the inspiration comes later, usually in the different possible solutions that he can come up with and which ones prove to be the most productive in creating further solutions.

Copland’s approach is very spontaneous – Right-Brained.

Carter’s approach is more detail oriented, logical, painstakingly worked out – in other words, Left-Brained.

In the biblical story of Moses (left), he calls upon his brother Aaron (right) to speak for him. I’m not sure there’s a specific reason why – perhaps Moses stammered or Aaron had a more pleasing voice. Or maybe Moses, being the mystical conduit between God and Man, could not speak to the everyday situation, he needed Aaron to mediate for him, to interpret what he said (or what God said through him) so that ordinary people could understand it. In any sense, we get the idea that (Charlton Heston aside), Moses was the Idea Man and Aaron was the Big Picture Man, the Communicator – the Salesman.

Remember, it is Aaron who is forced by the doubters waiting for Moses to come down from Mt. Sinai, to give them a concrete image they can believe in – hence, the Golden Calf. The Right-brain is image-oriented, the Left-brain is abstract, idea-oriented.

When Arnold Schoenberg set the story of Moses as in opera (Moses und Aron which he left incomplete), he approached their roles in a very unique way. Not only did he differentiate the two brothers by making Moses a baritone and Aaron a tenor, he specified that Aaron should be a lyric (not a dramatic) tenor and that Moses does not actually sing but speaks in a form of declamation which is half-sung and half-spoken. Moses cannot approach song – Aaron turns Moses’ ideas into song.

Here is the first confrontation between the two brothers (ignore the picture):
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At 5:30, Moses sings the only line he actually sings in the entire opera (at least, that part Schoenberg completed): "Purify your thinking," he warns his brother, "free it from worthless things. Let it be righteous. No other reward is given your offerings." (The libretto, by Schoenberg himself, in a translation by Allen Forte for the SONY recording conducted by Boulez.)

While the second act concludes with Moses sinking to the ground in despair - "O word, thou word, that I lack!" - the text of the final act which Schoenberg wrote but never set to music is another, more dramatic confrontation between Moses and Aron, a trial in which Aron, a prisoner, is then set free and once set free, falls down dead. Moses' final words: "But in the Wasteland you shall be invincible and shall achieve the goal: unity with God."

By the way, Schoenberg’s method of composing with 12 pitches (which came to be known as serialism, one of the most abstract, intellectual ways to compose in the 20th Century) is extremely Left-Brained, so much that many listeners (and performers, as well) cannot hear any emotion in the music – to them, it has no heart, it’s all brain.

The problem is, not looking back far enough beyond the fact Schoenberg’s music doesn’t sound like “familiar” 19th Century music, Schoenberg came up with a system of organizing pitches (“theory”) that is a substitute, in a way, for the system we call “tonality” which was in use since about 1600, which can be just as systematic and rule-oriented and abused by untalented composers as serial music has been. But I digress.

I would like to point out, though, that when Schoenberg called his opera Moses und Aron, it wasn’t that Aron was the German form of Aaron (which is what most people suppose) and it’s not even that, in this form, it would be 12 letters (analogous to the 12 pitches of the chromatic scale or the basis of his 12-tone rows) – it was that it would not be thirteen letters. For all his logical left-brained rational intellectuality, Schoenberg was a triskaidekaphobe: he had a fear of the Number 13! How right-brained is that?!

Which brings me to one last point for this post: very few people would be completely 100% Left-Brained or 100% Right-Brained. There are lots of tests on-line you can take to see how you fare – the questions may seem odd: when you think your way through a problem, do you like to sit or lie down? I usually skew Left but there’s a good percentage of Right in my scores and that seems to work out in my personality as well as my composing and writing. My scores will be very different if I answer as I might have when I was specifically younger - or respond as a composer or writer as opposed to my personal life. Oddly, my personal life would be more Right-brained and my artistic life would be more Left-brained, a dichotomy that I sometimes find unsettling. But that’s something for another future post.

One of my favorite quotes these days is from a composer usually considered a “difficult” composer, Roger Sessions, who said,

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"Every composer whose music seems difficult to grasp is, as long as the difficulty persists, suspected or accused of composing with his brain rather than his heart -- as if the one could function without the other."
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It is not a question of whether we’re Right-brained or Left-brained but whether we can make a unity out of these internal factions each of us has in ourselves so we can communicate in some way with other people who have possibly very different internal factions.

These internal factions are what make us different from one another. It is what makes us who we are and why people react differently to the same piece of music.

It might explain why certain people identify with certain types of music – for instance, why a Right-brained Person could love Wagner but find Brahms tedious. Or why a Left-brained Person could enjoy Mozart but feel uncomfortable when listening to Berlioz.

Anyway, that’s my theory and I’m sticking to it…

- Dick Strawser

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