The Art and Skill of Writing a Song

2. Overcoming Obstacles: Right and Left Brain Thinking

More often than not it’s the “critic” in our heads that is telling us to discard ideas as not good enough. This is our “left brain” doing its job. The “right brain” is where our ideas come from and we need to learn how to engage it and stop the left brain pouring cold water on our spontaneous thoughts.

What follows is a layman’s summary of right and left brain theory: it is not a “new age” concept; it is based on 50 years of solid scientific research. Having said that we are just going to pick the bones out of it as it applies to what we are doing.

A simple explanation of right/left brain theory and its relevance to songwriters.

The concept of right brain and left brain thinking developed from the research in the late 1960s of an American psychobiologist Roger W Sperry. He discovered that the human brain has two very different ways of thinking. One (the right brain) is visual and processes information in an intuitive and simultaneous way, looking first at the whole picture then the details. The other (the left brain) is verbal and processes information in an analytical and sequential way, looking first at the pieces then putting them together to get the whole. Sperry was awarded a Nobel Prize in 1981 for this discovery, although subsequent research has shown that things aren't quite as polarised as once thought (nor as simple), the basic tenet holds true.

I’ve only got one brain. What is Right Brain and Left Brain?

We do have only one brain, but it's got various 'bits'. The part of the brain that controls rational functions, the cerebral cortex, is made up of two halves. These are connected by masses of nerve fibres which allow 'messages' to pass between them. These halves are commonly called the right brain and left brain, but should more correctly be termed 'hemispheres'.

So if I'm Left-Handed, Does This Mean My Right Brain is Dominant?

Not necessarily. Maybe. It’s complicated. The important thing for us songwriters is learn how to make the appropriate half kick in for each task.

What are the Characteristics of Right Brain and Left Brain Thinking?

The table on the next page sets out the characteristics of right brain and left brain thinking. Think: Left for Logical, Right for Random.

Is it Better to be Right Brained than Left Brained?

Though right-brain or non-verbal thinking is often regarded as more 'creative', there is no right or wrong here; it's merely two different ways of thinking. We all do both to some extent, one is not “better” than the other. What's important is to be aware that there are different ways of thinking, knowing what your natural preference is, and if it's strongly verbal (left brain) rather than visual (right brain), being open to trying new approaches which deliberately approach songwriting and playing music in a right-brain way.

How is Right/Left Brain Concept Relevant to Songwriters?

When you start writing a song, it’s good to be able to visualise the completed song in your mind (right brain, working from the whole), then develop the lyrics and music, choosing the style, matching the words and music, arranging them and giving them dynamics and feel (right brain again, working on various things simultaneously), and then be able to look critically at what you're doing (left brain, being analytical). By knowing when your thinking is dominated by your right or left brain, you can then deliberately set out to use the 'right brain' way of thinking in your writing, rather than logically constructing a song. By trying a different strategy you will be surprised at the non-typical results you can produce.

Next: An Inventory of Left and Right Brain Thinking

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