What do Jimi Hendrix, Glenn Gould, Wynton Marsalis, Crystal Gayle and Paul McCartney have in common, besides being acclaimed musicians? All are left-handed.
Does being left-handed present extra challenges for those wanting to master a musical instrument? Could left-handedness be advantageous in some respect? How do left-handed musicians feel about their minority status? These questions have been surprisingly little studied. Many musical instruments require the skilled use of both hands. Mastering an instrument takes so many hours of practice that greater dexterity in one's dominant hand might simply fade away over time as skills develop.
Researchers in Germany recently published an article exploring some of these issues (Kopiez, 2011). In their first experiment, they asked a group of teachers and students at a professional conservatory some questions about when they first began studying their instruments and their practice habits over the years, about bodily discomfort while playing and any history of injuries, and about their own feelings regarding their level of skill and expressivity on their chosen instrument. The researchers posed these questions of pianists and string players. They found, somewhat to their surprise, that there was no association between being left-handed and having increased physical discomfort while playing or having negative feelings about one's instrument. If anything, there was a slight tendency for left-handed players to rate their playing position as more beneficial than did right-handed musicians. And left-handed string players tended to be more positive about their expressive skills than were their right-handed colleagues.
For their next experiment, rather than investigating musicians' subjective perceptions, researchers tested sensorimotor skills in left- and right-handed pianists. Each pianist played sequences of 10-15 repetitions of a 2-octave C major scale. They performed on a digital piano so that researchers could have precise data regarding the time between onsets of subsequent notes, which has been found to be a reliable indicator of pianists' motor control (Jabusch et al., 2004).
The result? First, left- and right-handed pianists performed equally well on the test. Being left-handed seemed not to present any disadvantages. Second, whether the pianist identified as right- or left-handed, the performance of the right hand always displayed a higher degree of evenness between notes, and therefore a higher degree of motor control, than did the left hand. And the more practice time that a left-hander had accumulated, the better the performance of his or her right hand.
Again, researchers were a little surprised by their results and discuss several reasons why right-hand motor control might be superior even in left-handed pianists. In the piano repertoire, the melody is usually played in the right hand. It might be that years of practicing and close attention to the melodic line allows a performer to develop superior timing control in the right hand. Or it might be that the right hand simply gets more notes to play! For example, Beethoven's 32 Piano sonatas contain 122, 650 notes in the left hand and 133, 064 in the right! Over years of practicing, small differences in increased right hand training might add up to significantly better sensorimotor skills in the right hand, even in players who started out with a dominant left hand.
While these studies involved only a small number of musicians (47 in the first and 19 in the second), they are relevant for music educators. While the researchers cannot rule out the possibility that there may be left-handed musicians who would benefit from inverting the playing position of their instrument, they suggest caution. It would be interesting to duplicate these studies (or design similar studies) for guitar players, including left-handers who play right-handed (like B.B. King and Duane Allman) and left-handers who play left-handed (such as Paul McCartney, Tony Iommi, and Kurt Cobain).
Kopiez, R., Jabusch, H.C., Galley, N., Homann, J.C., Lehmann, A. and Altenmuller., E. (2011). No disadvantage for left-handed musicians: The relationship between handedness, perceived constraints and performance-related skills in string players and pianists. Psychology of Music.
Jabusch, H.-C., Vauth, H., & Altenmüller, E. (2004). Quantification of focal dystonia in pianists using scale analysis. Movement Disorders, 19(2), 171-180.