The Mystery of Handedness

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Left- Right- or Mixed-handed


 In daily life we commonly use both hands for most (bi-manual) tasks e.g. typing, driving, washing the dishes etc. The issue of handedness mainly becomes important when the task is a single-handed (uni-manual) one involving a particular skill like writing or throwing/catching an object or using a tool like scissors.


There may be ergonomic implications if a tool or equipment is not reversible with regard to its manual usage. Some left-handed people may find particular things designed by and for right-handed people difficult or uncomfortable to use. Since 90% of the world is populated by right-handed people then the implications, including safety, should be kept in mind in the design of machinery or tools intended to be used by left- or right-handed people.


The guitar is played with both hands but each hand has a different function. The stopping hand used to press down the strings has to be skilled in replicating 'finger shapes' from visio-spatial patterns like chord diagrams (or the notation equivalent). The picking hand may involve fine motor skills when moving the fingers in an intricate fashion to pick the strings in different ways or use a tool in a precise controlled way, namely, a plectrum.


For one reason or another, the vast majority of musical instruments have no reversal of function with regards to handedness. Orchestras are right-handed! The bows of the string section move in the same direction. To my knowledge, there is only one 'left-handed' instrument, and that is the French Horn, but the majority of French Horn players are probably right-handed; I am not aware of any statistics on this topic.


Music and musical instruments are steeped in tradition, perhaps one day more research may be undertaken to look into the question of the possible benefits (or otherwise) of 'left-handed' instruments for other musical disciplines. It is only fairly recently that some left-handed tools or implements have become available.


It would be interesting to know how many consistently left-handed musicians there are (playing right-handed instruments) at a professional level on orchestral instruments and then compare this to the number of consistently left-handed guitarists playing right-handed. Of course, the guitar players do have a choice of left- or right-handed instruments.


I have always had an interest in the topic of laterality and handedness as a musician and as a guitar teacher, probably because as a boy I was a fan of Jimi Hendrix (left-handed blues guitarist). Later in life, I was able to develop this interest in handedness through science. My undergraduate neuropsychology thesis was a study in the laterality of motor skills or 'Handedness', which investigated Left-handed and Right-handed musicians and non-musicians on tests of bi-manual finger tapping. Unsurprisingly, the highest scores on the tests for both hands were achieved by a left-handed drummer who always plays the drum-kit as it is set up for a right-handed drummer.

My postgraduate studies also considered laterality of function mainly from a (visual) neuroscience perspective investigating things like visual attention (or visual neglect) in the left or right visual fields.

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Copyright (c) 2009 - 2023 by Dr Bill Mann, Surbiton, Kingston, London