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The greatest left-handed musicians and how to become one

Christoph TostAugust 13, 2018

Paul McCartney, Phil Collins and even the late Jimi Hendrix are all known for being left-handed musicians. For Left-Handers' Day, DW presents 10 of the greatest "lefties" — and what you should know before becoming one.

Kurt Cobain at an MTV Unplugged concert in 1993, Copyright: Getty Images
Image: Getty Images

Fortunately, lefties no longer need to fear crude teachers tying left arms to chairs in order to "correct" their misbehavior. But a few misconceptions still exist about southpaws - especially in the field of music. In honor of Left-Handers' Day on August 13, we clear up a few myths.

1) Are there only left-handers and right-handers in the world?

Statistics are deceiving: Southpaws make up about 10-12 percent of the total world population. Yet this figure ignores ambidextrous people.

Psychologists mostly agree on a right-handed gene and a non-right handed gene. If you are born with the non-right handed gene, you could still be trained to write with your right hand.

That happens randomly or through force: Ronald Reagan was born a non-right-hander but was forced to use his right hand. Whether the switch had an impact on his brain is not recorded.

Most people who call themselves lefties are actually somewhat ambidextrous and might, for example, write with their left hand but use a computer mouse with their right hand.

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2) Are ambidextrous people all-rounders?

According to an online survey involving 25,000 respondents, psychologists found in 2006 that ambidextrous people apparently have less spatial sense and are more likely to suffer from dyslexia and hyperactivity than people with strong hand preferences.

While it seems that being ambidextrous can be a limitation, the depth of the relationship between our dominant hand and our brain hemispheres is still not fully understood.

3) Isn't it useful to be able to do things with both hands?

For musicians, especially string players, it is useful. When playing violin or cello, both hands - hence, both hemispheres of the brain - need to be well coordinated. Ambidextrous people are much better at that, since their hemispheres work more closely together. 

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Some musicians even become ambidextrous through playing music. The Hanover Music Lab, a research institute for the psychology of music, found that all left-handed string players play comfortably with their right hand in orchestras. Otherwise, hell would break lose in the tight orchestra pit.

4) In classical music, do southpaws suffer under the tyranny of the right-handed majority?

The Hanover Music Lab also debunked this myth. They admit that perhaps individual players might feel restrained by having to use their right hand. Yet, the majority of lefties play with greater precision - even with their right hand.

Through hours of training, they are able to strengthen their right hand sufficiently. Thirty-five percent of the violinists in their study were lefties, so presumably there wouldn't be such a large number of southpaws if they felt suppressed.

5) So it's best for a musician to be right-handed or ambidextrous?

Especially for instruments like organ or piano, hardly any left-handed versions are available or affordable. True southpaws who want an adjusted instrument should then should go for guitars, basses or violins. They are more readily available, but still expensive.

Kurt Cobain got the guitar-maker Fender to produce a special left-handed guitar for him, the Fender Kurt Cobain Jaguar. If the 1,500 euros (some $1,800) for this model are still too much, southpaws may pull a Jimi Hendrix: He is the most famous (left-handed) guitarist and was perhaps the first to play on a DIY-southpaw guitar: Take a normal guitar, pull off the strings and re-string in the reverse order.

This article was originally published on August 12, 2015.