Posted on

Right-Hemisphere Conducting, Nr. 2

How to Write a Love Letter

For rea­sons reviewed in the first lit­tle essay in this series, here you are—the real you, trapped in the right-hemi­sphere of the brain which is mute, with respect to lan­guage, and vic­tim of an edu­ca­tion­al sys­tem which pri­mar­i­ly failed to edu­cate the real you. Tra­di­tion­al edu­ca­tion addressed itself to edu­cat­ing the left-hemi­sphere, assem­bling a moun­tain of data you can con­sult if you need to and all of it out­side your own expe­ri­ence. Tra­di­tion­al edu­ca­tion ignored, or per­haps we should say was not allowed, any edu­ca­tion­al steps for you to dis­cov­er your own emo­tion­al tem­plate. Here, of course, is the per­fect role for music edu­ca­tion, but so far music edu­ca­tors are afraid to take on this vital role. And so soci­ety leaves it to you to dis­cov­er this for your­self, even though the feel­ings you pos­sess as an indi­vid­ual will deter­mine all impor­tant choic­es in your life.

In the pre­vi­ous essay in this series I wrote of a per­son­al expe­ri­ence which made a very clear dis­tinc­tion between the emo­tions expe­ri­enced in the right-hemi­sphere and the left-hemi­sphere words spo­ken by a stu­dent, “Is there a pen­cil sharp­en­er in this room?” This exam­ple, I think, makes the dis­tinc­tion between our lin­ear ratio­nal left-hemi­sphere and the non-ratio­nal, expe­ri­en­tial right-hemi­sphere very clear.

How­ev­er, these two hemi­spheres are con­nect­ed by the cor­pus cal­lo­sum, a bun­dle of nerves, which allows the right-hemi­sphere to con­tribute emo­tion­al empha­sis to the left-hemi­sphere dic­tio­nary of words when we speak. In fact it is this con­tri­bu­tion by the right-hemi­sphere which makes sen­tences cor­rect­ly under­stood, as is clear whether you mean to empha­size the first or the third word in the sen­tence, “I love you.”

But this is only true if the lis­ten­er hears your voice. The great prob­lem comes with writ­ing, for not only is your right-hemi­sphere then not able to con­tribute the emo­tion­al empha­sis which defines mean­ing, but one is also help­less in face of the fact that you have no way of know­ing how the read­er will inter­pret the emo­tion­al mean­ing of the words.

You might write, for exam­ple, “What is this thing called love?” but the read­er might read:

What? Is this thing called love?,


What is this thing called, Love?

Which brings us to the title of this essay, how do you then enter the dan­ger­ous waters of writ­ing a love let­ter? Dan­ger­ous because how the read­er of the let­ter inter­prets the words means every­thing.

One solu­tion, of course, is not to write the let­ter but to speak to the recip­i­ent in per­son. But how will the recip­i­ent know if you are truth­ful? What if you are lying? This brings us to the inter­est­ing fact that only the left-hemi­sphere can lie. The right-hemi­sphere can­not lie and nei­ther can music. It was because of this fact that we have a large lit­er­a­ture of love songs begin­ning in the four­teenth cen­tu­ry. A noble man would hire a musi­cian to take the love let­ter to the lady and sing it to her to make sure the prop­er under­stand­ing was com­mu­ni­cat­ed. It was because music can­not lie that Machaut, b. 1300, wrote to a lady,

And if it please you, my dear lady, to con­sid­er the last lit­tle song I sang, of which I com­posed both words and music, you can eas­i­ly tell whether I’m lying or speak­ing the truth.

On the oth­er hand, or per­haps we should say going the oth­er direc­tion, due to the cor­pus cal­lo­sum we do have some abil­i­ty to speak about our emo­tions. In terms of the rehearsal I like to think of a metaphor of a “music room,” such as was found in the Eliz­a­bethan the­ater, cen­tered over the stage, a place in the cen­ter of my head where the feel­ings enter from the right and the nec­es­sary vocab­u­lary from the left. I imag­ine them find­ing some com­mon pur­pose in this “music room” to come to my aid in rehearsal.

In this respect I do find one thing very clear from my own expe­ri­ence. Speak­ing to an ensem­ble in rehearsal should be lan­guage direct­ed toward the spir­i­tu­al or emo­tion­al nature of the music. One thinks of Bruno Wal­ter, his hand togeth­er, plead­ing for the orches­tra to do jus­tice to Mozart’s music. I have per­son­al­ly nev­er felt that dis­cussing the gram­mar of music in rehearsal, chords, form, tech­nique, etc., found any inter­est among the play­ers nor made any impor­tant audi­ble dif­fer­ence in the per­for­mance.

David Whitwell


  1. The right-hemi­sphere con­tains vocab­u­lary known before the age of 6 or 7, but it can­not make a sen­tence with these words. In the case of left-hemi­sphere injury, how­ev­er, the right-hemi­sphere can sing these words. []