Why You Need Your Whole Brain to Improvise

You’ve probably heard of the popular theory that when it comes to thinking, people are either left brained or right brained; they’re either analytically predisposed or intuitively creative. The rationale is that artistic proclivity originates from the right hemisphere, whereas logic and reasoning skills arise from the left hemisphere. This philosophy has influenced educational methods, test preparation, psychology, and even the self-help industry.

A cut and dry method, it makes it very easy to classify people. You’re either technically oriented or artistically inclined. No in-betweens. Great artists must be right brained and great scientists and mathematicians must be left brained, right?

Well, not really. It’s simple to put things into black and white for the purpose of the theory, however the human mind is anything but simple. Many of the great discoveries and achievements in the sciences as well as the arts were facilitated by people that utilized and combined both ways of thinking.

Would Leonardo da Vinci’s artwork be possible if he had no technical or analytical faculties? Would his engineering feats and inventions exist without a forward thinking imagination? Would Einstein have come up with his theory of relativity if he relied on facts and figures alone?

As musicians and artists, we’re supposed to be right-brained-creative and intuitive, but is this the only way that we are capable of thinking? More and more, it’s becoming clear that the skills expected of modern improvisers require the qualities and colaboration of both sides of the brain.

Right brain vs. left brain

Even though these popularized generalizations persist about the right and left brain, both hemispheres do have specific qualities and specialized functions that have been discovered through research, specifically through the procedure of the corpus callostomy – splitting the brain into two independent hemispheres.

The Left Brain

For the overwhelming majority of us, our language center is located in the left hemisphere of our brains. Along with speech, the following are attributed to the left side of the brain:

  • Logic
  • Linear Reasoning
  • Vocabulary
  • Symbols
  • Mathematical deduction

The Right Brain

The right hemisphere of the brain is viewed as the “artistic” side of the brain. The following characteristics are attributed to the brain’s right side:

  • Visual processing
  • Auditory processing
  • Facial Recognition
  • Looking at the “big picture”
  • Creativity

While each hemisphere has its unique and independent characteristics, both sides of the brain are essential for all tasks. We might have an inclination towards one way of thinking or a dominance of one side of the brain, but to function as a human being, you must use both hemispheres of the brain in everything that you do. Vital aspects of humanity like reason and emotion require a collaboration between our right and left brain.

In his book on the divided brain, The Master and His Emissary, Iain McGilchrist stresses that it’s not what information each side of the brain uses, rather how each hemisphere processes this same information. We don’t take information in with only one side of our brains, but rather it comes into both sides and each hemisphere deals with it in it’s own way.

As musicians however, it is not only beneficial, but necessary that we use both left-sided and right-sided thinking as we strive to improve.

The improviser’s brain

There is a popular belief among the public that artists of all types rely on their talent and intuition to create work. Even as improvisers we sometimes get stuck in this misguided mindset. We turn on a play-along, play for hours and expect to magically improve. This is not the answer.

While creativity is necessary, we need to get away from the idea as musicians that we are dependent solely on the right sides of our brains. The left side has its merits as well.

Take Clifford Brown, for example, one of the masters of the music that everyone finds to be the pinnacle of musicality and expression. But, he was a person that had a lot of “left-brained” qualities.

Clifford’s wife described him like this:

“Music was his first love; I was his second, and math was his third. He was a wizard with figures and numbers; he used to play all kinds of mathematical games. He played chess well, and he played pool like crazy…” – Larue Brown

Clifford was not less of a musician because he excelled at left brain activities. These skills improved his musicality and were essential in the development of his unique style. The logical ability to find structure and enclose notes were crucial to his style and when combined with creativity and musicality, created something quite astonishing.

Practicing with both brains

In your day to day practice, in order to be a complete musician you must address both sides of musicianship – from the technical to the creative. The contents of a standard practice routine can be divided into parts that are left brain oriented and those that are right brain oriented.

Left Brain Practice

  • Technical exercises
  • Etudes
  • Sight-reading
  • Scale exercises
  • Analysis of solo’s you’ve transcribed
  • Ingraining language that you’ve transcribed*

*This is a aspect of practice that is ignored by many improvisers. When people hear the phrase transcribing a line, they think of learning a line from a record in one key and playing around with it. To actually ingrain and develop this language, you must repeat this line over and over in every key. Not the most creative aspect of practice, but one that allows you to be creative when you’re actually improvising.

Right Brain Practice

  • Ear Training
  • Singing
  • Transcribing
  • Imitation
  • Improvising

Both of these types of practice are essential for becoming a complete musician and progressing as an improviser.

As you practice, you do not have to divide your routine between these two mindsets. Both parts of your brain should be focused on whatever you’re practicing at the time. If you are working on etudes, you should be thinking about musicality as well as technical issues. When you’re working on scales, you need to be aware of your sound and articulation. As you transcribe a line, along with the notes you can assimilate the accents and feeling of the line.

The main takeaway from this article is that to achieve this right brained mindset of complete creativity and freedom, you must use the left and right sides of your brain equally. You don’t want to be a player that avoids imitation and technique in the name of creativity or a technical wizard that plays with the sterility of a robot, but rather an improviser that uses logical creativity.

The goal for everyone is to practice things that actually improve the act of improvisation. In spite of the common view of the jazz musician as the inspired savant, improvisation involves so much more. Bridging the gap between the left brained analytical work in the practice room and total right brain creative freedom truly requires your whole brain.