General Question

Harp's avatar

Why does the common playing position of most stringed instruments require more strength and dexterity from the left hand than the right?

Asked by Harp (19174points) January 6th, 2010

7–10% of the population is left-handed, so how did instruments with fingerboards come to be played in a way that makes the left hand do more of the tough stuff? I’ve read that left-handed violinists who play in conventional position typically learn fingerings easily because duh they’re using their dominant hand. Did we just get this all wrong?

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11 Answers

john65pennington's avatar

Playing the guitar, its just about equal. playing the drums, it takes both arms and both legs and sometimes even your head.

Grisaille's avatar

I don’t refute your point regarding violins, cellos or other such instruments where a bow is required, but playing a guitar requires both left and right hand synchronization, dexterity and strength – particularly classical fingerpicking, percusssive, etc.

Also, piano. :P

Harp's avatar

@john65pennington @Grisaille I don’t know, in guitar the dexterity requirements may be similar, but I think the left hand still requires more strength. Think about barred chords, for instance.

Grisaille's avatar

Strength is debatable. Hitting 16ths tremolo-style ain’t exactly a cakewalk for your forearm.

Snarp's avatar

I was about to argue with @Grisaille and @john65pennington, but I think they’ve stumbled on the answer, to a large extent. A lot of guitar playing now is done with a pick playing chords, but classical guitar playing was different, it required dexterity in both hands, as they’ve indicated. But think about the violin, the very fact that the fingering can be done from such a convoluted position suggests that it doesn’t require the dominant hand. The bow, on the other hand, has to make big dramatic movements with enormous speed, as well as little tiny movements. The fingering with the left hand could be done by a machine, but the nuance, the vibrato, the volume, the speed, all the artistry comes from the bow. For bowed instruments as well it makes perfect sense for the dominant hand to handle the bow, not the neck.

Harp's avatar

@snarp Vibrato is all in the left. I wonder if it has to do less with dexterity than with the fact that it’s the right hand that is the direct cause of the note being sounded, either by plucking the string or starting the bow stroke. Maybe we’re more confident about entrusting the timing of the music to the dominant hemisphere. Just speculating.

Snarp's avatar

@Harp I’ll take your word on that. But still, it’s all about bowing. I wonder what music historians would say? Which came first, picking or bowing? When were stringed instruments “standardized” for want of a better way, to the format we are familiar with? Sitars are played the same way, are they not? So it’s probably pretty old to be prevalent is such disparate cultures.

andrew's avatar

@Harp I’m left-handed and I play guitar left-handed, and I did find fingering much easier. However, picking is more difficult for me.

I just learned to play the drums this past week. I tried learning right-handed, but quickly found play left-handed to be much easier (using left foot for kick, and left hand for rapid hi-hat). Using my dominant hand for rapid, rhythmic motions makes a huge difference.

You could say the same applies to picking, but I agree, bowing seems complicate the theory.

Harp's avatar

I turned up some neurological research that says that the right hemisphere of the brain (which controls the left hand) is more involved in tonal aspects of music and the left hemisphere (which controls the right hand) is more involved in the rhythm aspect (the specialization is only significant in adults; children show little differentiation).

Maybe it just makes neurological sense to put the left hand in charge of tonal variation and the right hand in charge of the beat.

StephK's avatar

@Harp: You and your research beat me to it. At any rate, I’m seconding that theory.

kariered's avatar

I am left handed and have been playing the violin and viola for over 20 years. I cannot honestly tell you that the left hand position and technique is easier for me to play it with my left hand because I have never played or tried it with my right hand. I know in order to do that I would have to relearn how to play the instrument left handed.

As for why it is only played this way, it is because if you play in an orchestra left handed, your bow will be going in the opposite direction from everyone else causing you to bump your bow with your stand partner because no one plays violin left handed.

In response to the person above who answered that all musical nuance comes from the bow…well it also comes must from the left hand. The violin has no frets like a guitar, so you must use your ear to adjust your left hand. Over time you do it almost instantly. That’s how fast the human ear reponse is. I don’t think a machine could do that. Also, you can do vibrato with your left hand, which adds to the musical nuance. Some pieces have sections that will even call for no vibrato, or fast vibrato or slow vibrato. Also, with experience you will learn when to use fast and slow vibrato with no markings in the music. This helps convey the feeling of the music. I doubt a machine can do that.

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