Some personal reflections on integrating the left and right hemispheres of the brain

GAINS (the Global Association for Interpersonal Neurobiology Studies) recently published an article on “Being Playful in  Left Brain World.”  It was beautifully written and inspired me to reflect on some of my own struggles with left-right integration.

It started when I was 4 (well, not exactly, but I’ll get there).  My older sister and brother had each taken accordion lessons and – to put it mildly – didn’t like it.  I guess I was too young to realize just how uncool the accordion was. My sister taught me to read music and I fell in love with it. I used to love to walk around the house playing various bad renditions of current pop tunes. There was also, quite strangely, a deep nostalgia that was evoked by the many tunes I played from the late 1800s – I sometimes sat on the milkbox on the back porch and played them at dusk, enjoying the echoing music across the various suburban yards.

When I was 11, my teacher gave me a “boogie-woogie” to learn – I thought to myself, “This is such a simple form of music” and for the first time, “wrote” my own piece of music. I put “wrote” in quotes because it just kind of rolled out; I didn’t have to think about the ‘rules” of composition at all.

The second piece also just emerged. Looking back at it, I still wonder where it came from.  It was at 11 that I discovered our family had Jewish roots (we grew up in a nondescript Unitarian church, utterly secularized and almost wholly left-brained). Years later, I played the piece for a Russian Jewish friend, who told me the music sounded just like a Russian Jewish folk song.

I experimented with a lot of different styles the next few years – I went through a “Dave Brubeck” style, a “Beatles” style (in fact, in my first year at Juilliard, I knew harmony much better than most of my classmates, who all tried to “figure out” how to hear harmonies, whereas I and my music-playing friends from high school – most of whom didn’t’ know how to read music – just became familiar with the flow of chords from listening to the Beatles and other rock music at the time).

When I was 16, I decided to go to music school. I thought of majoring in piano, but my piano teacher knew I wasn’t good enough, so he encouraged me to aim to be a composition major.  I took the next year off from high school to study music full time, and started studying composition and music theory with Hall Overton, a professor at Juilliard.

I was in a Prokofiev/Bartok phase at the time, and loved playing around with their biting dissonances and wild polyrhythms. I actually managed to sketch out one of these playful improvisations, and Mr. Overton was impressed enough with it that he encouraged me to work it out into a full composition.

Here is where my struggle – no, left-right warfare – began.  I could sit at the piano for hours and play around with really interesting variations, but there was not much logic or structure to it. And there was definitely a certain fascination with trying out the various techniques that Mr. Overton taught me to vary the intervals, to develop motifs, to carefully structure the harmonies so the harmonic progression made logical sense.

But the more I focused on playing, the less logical structure there was.

And the more I focused on logical structure, the more lifeless and flat the music became.

I spent 4 months struggling with this and had not a clue how to bring these together.  Meanwhile, I continued to have great fun learning Chopin Etudes and Debussy Preludes, as well as various composition techniques from the sonata to the rondo and fugue. I enjoyed very much learning about the intensely logical structure and magic of Bach Fugues. In fact, I recall  lesson with Israeli composer Nahum Amir.

We spent 1 hour on the first measure of a Bach Prelude. It was basically 2 chords and an incredibly simple melody.

One hour!

And I don’t think I ever experienced it so clearly before – I discovered that the extremely refined, clear, focused logical understanding of the structure was not only not in opposition to the appreciation of the beauty of the music.  It intensely increased my feeling for the flow, my sense of the grandeur and magnificent architecture of this simplest of bars of music.

But still, this didn’t translate into a solution for my composition.

Then one day, some time around the 5th or 6th month of struggle, something happened. I had previously managed to compose – with some meager combination of logical structure and artistic beauty – a page or two of the piece, but after that had been completely stuck.

I wouldn’t quite say I went into a trance, but I definitely remember the entire atmosphere changed around me.  It was almost as though some force took over my mind and my hands, and the music just wrote itself. More than a page – perhaps 18 or 19 bars. And this was very complex music, not rooted in any particular key, with many dissonances and odd polyrhythms. I am sure I didn’t consciously “understand” the harmonic progressions, and yet, when I took the piece to Mr. Overton, he was amazed, as each note made sense, and the logic of the flow was impeccable.

So I knew it could be done. I’d like to say that after that, composition was a breeze, but I’m afraid it was rarely that easy. I struggled through several years as a composition major, first at Juilliard then at Manhattan School of Music. Finally, I switched to piano major – unable to integrate left and right mode, I opted for letting go of my mind altogether, and just enjoying the play.

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Interestingly, I spent most of my time as a musician – through my 20s and 30s – working with dancers.  Somehow, having the choreographed structure of a dance piece or collection of dance movements satisfied my left-brain need to create an orderly, logical sequence of notes, yet left me free to play. I rarely had even the slightest clue what I was going to play when the instructor was counting off. I’d hear, “5, and 6, and 7, and 8 AND… ”

And apart from deciding I would start with a G, or perhaps an A minor chord, or maybe a tritone interval, my hands just took over, yet another part of my mind was fully aware of the structure within which I had to create the music.

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And to bring it up to date, I’ve been much aware of this left-right interplay as I’ve been creating music for the videos for our site (www.remember-to-breathe.org).  I just finished recording the music for our “Amazing Brain” video.  Creating music with advanced music software is an amazing adventure in left right integration.  You have to have a very detailed, analytic understanding of how the software works – in fact, it’s ideal if you understand the physics of sound, how the computer analyzes electrical impulses and translates them into digital samples, and how that is in turn transformed back into electrical impulses which cause the speakers to vibrate, and in turn cause the atmosphere to expand and contract in waves which in turn affect your eardrum and other parts of your ear, then again are translated into nerve currents, traveling down the auditory nerve where through an unimaginably complex process which we still barely comprehend, become the experience of music.

But having learned all this, it frees you to be wildly playful and create sounds you just could never have imagined with acoustic instruments.  I still am barely conscious of how this music for the Amazing Brain finally came together. It seems like a collection of happy accidents where a particular cue just “happened” to emerge, like a flute melody that – completely unplanned – just happened to start at the exact moment Jan created a beautiful sparkling light at the center of the forehead as the letters “MPFC” point to that light.

It’s still an ongoing challenge, to honor the need to understand, to analyze (I’ve been “feeling out” the way the mixer works – which was fine when I only was composing with 9 or 10 tracks, but now that I’m creating pieces with 60 or 70 tracks or more, I have to go back and “analyze” how the mixer works – yechh, but I have to do it otherwise I’m faced with unimaginable chaos when I try to figure out how to balance the various tracks!**), while leaving vast open space for playfulness and improvisation and the unknown and the immeasurable.

What an interesting journey!

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5 Responses to Some personal reflections on integrating the left and right hemispheres of the brain

  1. Anne Hawley says:

    Though more than three years have passed, the internet is forever and comments are still open, so I take the chance of your seeing this. I followed you here from several interesting comments you left last November (2016) on Anna Wilson’s wonderful piece about fanfiction and Margery Kempe Full Body Reading on Aeon.

    As a novelist, for the past two years I’ve been in deep study and discussion of story structure–the supposedly “left-brained” and “non-creative” side of the art of fiction writing. Many aspiring writers I know won’t touch this study because it will turn them into hacks, destroy their creativity, or take all the fun out of writing. Even its most avid proponents (the people who write the books on it and teach the workshops) warn that you’ll never be able to “just enjoy” a movie or a novel again.

    Funny thing, though: my study has created a switch in my mind, and a good story flips it to Off. Only a Hollywood blockbuster movie or bathtub romance novel leaves it on, and then I take great glee in seeing all the obvious, borrowed, hackneyed bones hitting all their perfect, hackneyed marks. (And even then, if the story has good emotional beats and character arcs, I’ll voluntarily switch it off.)

    But, like you with that first measure of Bach, my study has allowed me a ‘sense of the grandeur and magnificent architecture’ of, say, a single sentence in Jane Austen.

    I have yet to experience quite the productive flow state that followed your Bach analysis, but your description of it prompted me to drill just a little deeper into the analytical side and see what happens.

    Great post. Thank you.

    • Don Salmon says:

      Hi Anne – wow, a compliment from a real writer (I “write” but don’t consider myself a “writer”:>)

      I was wondering what you’ve written – I looked for your writing, and see an Anne Hawley in Boston and one in Traverse, MI – are one of those (or both!) you?

      It’s so interesting about learning structure in a way that blocks creativity.

      My sense has always been when structure is taught first, before one has experienced the magic of creativity, then it can be a problem. But if you already “grok” the creative flow, then – if taught well – structure can only help.

      the taught “well” is the crucial part!

  2. Don Salmon says:

    John Medina, in his book “Brain Rules” has the simplest explanation I’ve ever seen of the difference between the pop version of left right brain differences and the scientific one.

    The pop idea was that there are “left brain” people (more logical, more linear) and “right brain” people (more imaginative, intuitive and creative).

    Everyone – Dan Siegel, Stephen Kosslyn, yes even Iain McGilchrist – agrees that’s nonsense. Everyone uses both parts of their brain – you use left and right for logic just as much as you do for intuition.

    For some reason, Kosslyn doesn’t seem to understand this simple idea. McGilchrist is just saying – and Medina wholly agrees, as far as I can tell – that each hemisphere processes logic, imagination, words, pictures, etc, differently.

    That’s all. Very simple. everyone on the same page, as far as I can see.

    So now, all the left brain people out there who are critical of this idea, go for it!

  3. Don Salmon says:

    one slight modification in the description of how computer music works. The scenario I described involved audio recording – that is, you speak or sing into a microphone which generates electrical impulses that the computer than “translates” into digital samples.

    But Logic (the program I use) actually generates the digital samples using complex algorithms. This is purely digitally created music – it involves the computer creating samples that, when turned into electrical impulses, will ultimately create the same sound waves in the atmosphere that acoustic instruments create.

    Very cool stuff. If anybody is interested in statistics and karma, and the way that stuff on subtle planes manifests on the physical plane, this is a great starting point for a complete transformation of physics, chemistry, biology and all other sciences. There is a certain essential rhythmicity to all things in the manifestation, and when you study the physics of sound, and then look at how statistically measurable regularities occur – though with certain nonrational features (hint – supramental?) – and in particular, if you do this with a quiet mind and an openness to intuitive seeing, well, it just turns your world inside out.

    • Don Salmon says:

      that was a funny comment. It’s the kind of thing that if I read something almost exactly the same from someone else, my reaction would be, “wow, I feel so stupid, i could never understand that.” Don’t worry, it’s just written badly, that’s the main reason it’s hard to understand:>))

      though my reaction is just part of a general current of insecurity.

      I remember years ago visiting a friend of mine who had an incredibly extensive music collection. At one point, he was in the kitchen preparing some food, and my wife and his wife were having a conversation. i was in the living room listening to a piece of music he put on. The more I heard it, the more I liked it and then I started to feel a bit envious: “I’d love to have written something like that, but it’s so good, I can’t imagine being able to write something like that” and this inner tortured dialog went on for awhile.

      Finally I asked him what the piece was, and he smiled and said, “you don’t remember?”

      I said, “No, I don’t think i’ve heard it before.”

      “You gave it to me,’ he responded. “It’s from a collection of pieces that you wrote.”

      Wow! That was a lesson in how ridiculous my mind could be.

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