Top of this page | NWACDA Home
Preaching To The Choir:
Right-brained thinkers and the need for more arts education

Tina L. Groom, SW Region Chair, Ohio Choral Directors Association
Reprinted by permission from OCDA's Bulletin of the Ohio Choral Directors Association, Fall, 2008
, Rowland Blakeley, Editor

GroomRecently, I have been hearing more and more about “right-brained” learners and arts education.

There have been a number of recent studies to indicate that the world is changing from left-brain dominance to right-brain dominance, and that schools are scrambling to keep up with this shift. 

Heads of companies and heads of organizations are asking for people who can think “outside the box”.  The problem is that our schools are still emphasizing drill, repetition and filling in the blanks of standardized tests. 

Our schools were designed at a time when left-brained functions and teaching methods were the norm, but we are now seeing a new generation of visual, right-brained kids who are finding it more and more difficult to learn that way.  As the arts are being removed from the schools in favor of more and more testing, the chasm widens between right-brained children and the creative activities that keep them excited about school and open to learning.  To serve and affirm our children, schools need to give greater weight to the arts and creative ways of teaching. 

This is something that we, as music educators, have long known and practiced. 

Advances in Magnetic Resonance Imagining (MRI) technology have lead researchers to identify more precisely how the two hemispheres are responsible for different manners of thinking.  The following table illustrates the difference between right-brain and left-brain thinking:
Right Brain
Left Brain
Random and Spontaneous
Logical and Structured
Intuitive, led by feelings
Analytical, led by logic
Context (focuses on how something is said)
Text (focuses on what is being said)
Looks at big picture
Detail oriented
Prefers open-ended questions
Prefers multiple choice questions
Prefers demonstrated instruction
Prefers verbal instruction
Visual, focuses on images
Verbal, focuses on word, symbols, numbers
Talks with hands
Rarely uses gestures

Though most people tend to prefer one of these styles of thinking, we all use both sides of the brain for everything we do.  (You couldn’t read this article if you weren’t using both sides of the brain, and while my left brain wrote this article, my right brain made me do it.)  The right side of the brain controls the left side of the body and the left side of the brain controls the right side of the body, though it doesn’t necessarily coincide with hand dominance.  In general, schools tend to favor and teach to such left-brain styles of thinking as logic, analysis and accuracy, while downplaying the right-brain subjects that reflect creativity, feeling, and aesthetics..

“We are currently preparing students for jobs that don’t yet exist using technologies that haven’t been invented to solve problems that we don’t yet know are problems.”  So claims Karl Fisch, a public high school teacher in Denver, who created a PowerPoint presentation call SHIFT HAPPENS that, as adapted by Scott McLeod from the University of Minnesota, became viral on the Internet in early 2007. 

There was a time, not so long ago, when the world was dominated by jobs that required such left-brained skills as linear, logical and analytical thinking, which were measured by SAT scores, and employed by CPAs, MBAs and CEOs.  But the future belongs to people with a different way of thinking.

In Daniel H.Pink’s book, A Whole New Mind: Moving from the Information Age to the Conceptual Age, Pink suggests the causes of this shift:  Asia, automation, and abundance.

Pink goes on to explain his theory concerning Asia.  “Few issues today spark more controversy than outsourcing. According to Forrester Research, 1 in 9 jobs in the US information technology industry will move overseas by 2010. And it's not just tech work. Visit India's office parks and you'll see chartered accountants preparing American tax returns, lawyers researching American lawsuits, and radiologists reading CAT scans for US hospitals. If number crunching, chart reading, and code writing can be done for a lot less overseas and delivered to clients instantly via fiber-optic cable, that's where the work will go.  Now that foreigners can do left-brain work cheaper, we in the US must do right-brain work better.”

The previous century saw machines replace the work of human muscle, and this century is witnessing computers replacing the work of the left hemisphere functions of the human brain.  As Pink states, “Any job that can be reduced to a set of rules is at risk. If a $500-a-month accountant in India doesn't swipe your accounting job, TurboTax will. Now that computers can emulate left-hemisphere skills, we'll have to rely ever more on our right hemispheres”.

The lives of our parents or grandparents were shaped and defined by scarcity, while ours has been loaded with abundance.  We need only to hop in one of our cars, drive to the local big box Sam’s Club or Costco and take a look around to see the dizzying array of goods within our reach.  If we run out of room for our many purchases, we rent a Self Storage unit—a 17 billion dollar a year industry that does nothing more than house our excess stuff.  Again, Pink weighs in.  “In an age of abundance, consumers demand something more. Liberated by this prosperity but not fulfilled by it, more people are searching for meaning.”  With the advent of the megachurch, the rise of pop culture evangelism, and the increase in the once exotic practices of yoga and meditation, it is clear that we, as a society, are searching for more meaning in our lives.

In an excerpt from “Right-Brained Children in a Left-Brained World: Unlocking the Potential of Your ADD Child”, Jeffery Freed and Laurie Parsons ask, “Why are we facing such a crisis in education? I would argue that our left-brained American schools have rarely placed an emphasis on creative, critical thinking. Our schools have historically churned our graduates who, while strong on regurgitating information, lack problem-solving skills.”

If you have not yet heard of the TED conference, it is an annual conference that brings together the world’s most fascinating thinkers and doers, who are challenged to give the talk of their lives (in 18 minutes).  Sir Ken Robinson gave a talk in 2006 called, “Do Schools Kill Creativity?” and it is an absolute must-see for educators, particularly those in the arts.  Here is the link to the talk.  Do not delay. ""

In his speech, Sir Ken Robinson states, “Our whole pubic education system was invented around the world to meet the needs of industrialism. The most useful subjects for work are at the top. You were probably steered benignly away from things at school when you were a kid that you liked, on the grounds that you would never get a job doing that. Don’t do music, you are not going to be a musician. Don’t do art, you won’t be an artist. Benign advice. Now, profoundly mistaken. The whole world is engulfed in a revolution”.

Robinson goes on to state, “Academic ability has really come to dominate our view of intelligence, because the universities designed the system in their image. The whole system of pubic education around the world is a protracted process of university entrance. And the consequence is that many highly talented, brilliant, creative people think they’re not, because the thing they are good at wasn’t valued, and was actually stigmatized.”

As a society, we have progressed from agricultural workers, to industrial workers, to technology workers.  And change is upon us yet again.  With computers able to emulate left-brained functions faster than our own left brains, the phenomenon of outsourcing, and the ever-present quest for meaning in our lives, we are evolving into a more right-brained society.  I may be preaching to the choir (literally!), but it is our duty as music educators to take the lead in sharing this information with the people who can make the most difference to the future of our children. 

We must advocate for arts education to our parents, administrators, school boards and state legislators.  The future is upon us, and we have the power to help our students develop the creative problem solving skills, critical thinking, effective communication, and teamwork skills needed by the 21st century workforce, and needed to enrich the minds and souls of our children and ourselves.

For more information about Arts Advocacy, and links to state legislators, see  HYPERLINK


Campbell, D. (1997). The Mozart Effect: Tapping the Power of Music to Heal the Body, Strengthen the Mind, and Unlock the Creative Spirit.  New York: William        Morrow & Company

Freed, J., & Parsons, L. (1998).  Right-Brained Children in a Left-Brained World: Unlocking the Potential of Your ADD Child.  New York: Simon & Schuster .

Pink, D. (2005).  A Whole New Mind: Moving from the Information Age to the Conceptual Age.  New York: Riverhead Hardcover.