The Two Half-Brains of Drum Corps

Left-Brain vs. Right-Brain Dominance

There is a theory in psychology that people are either left-brain or right-brain dominant, meaning that each person has a preferred mode of thinking.* Left-brain people are more objective, rational, logical, analytical, and mathematically oriented. Right-brain people are more intuitive, creative, subjective, and emotional. Left-brain people tend to see the individual parts while right-brain people see the whole picture.

Physically, the left side of the brain controls the right side of the body and vice versa, but it might be noted that right handed people are not necessarily left-brain dominant nor are left handed people necessarily right-brain dominant.1 Additionally, the left hemisphere categorizes information and controls everyday routine behavior, while the right hemisphere is responsible for responses to novel events and behavior in emergencies including the expression of intense emotions.2

The left-brain/right-brain theory developed after doctors began severing the corpus callosum, the structure that connects the brain hemispheres, to relieve the severity of epileptic seizures of patients suffering from epilepsy. Studies of patients whose hemispheres had been disconnected revealed that each halve specialized in different tasks. This short 10-minute video shows the amazing test results of a patient without a corpus callosum.


Like Minded Groups Can Be Unproductive

Firms that hire technical engineers, hardware electronic and/or software, to develop products occasionally have to deal with a phenomenon known as analysis paralysis3, where a group of left-brain dominant engineers cannot complete the design of a hardware or software specification because of over analysis. The group may attempt to make the product bullet or fool proof, thus pushing the cost effectiveness beyond the bounds of profitability. Products have also been doomed by left-brain dominant engineers who design strictly with practical applications in mind with no regard to aesthetic qualities, forgetting that products are bought by people, and people usually purchase products based on a number of considerations, one of which is appeal. Individuals can also be stricken with analysis paralysis.* Interestingly, right-brain dominant groups can be paralyzed not from over analyzing, but from too much group feel-good or Kumbaya4 moments. One of the ways companies avoid paralysis of any type is by insuring groups have a mix of left and right-brain dominant people.5

Brain Activity and Music

Is music a left or right brain activity? Actually it is neither. Music can be approached from either a left or right brain mindset, depending on the situation. An individual, no matter which brain side is dominant, may employ a left-brain mathematical approach to learning rhythms, time signatures, and interval spacing between notes, but may perceive the beauty of music through the right hemisphere, which most people do. Conversely, one may learn music by “feel”, but listen to music with an analytical perspective. Music in and of itself is not art. The purpose of music when performed as art is to make a statement. Art does not request judgment, rather it appeals to the whole picture right side of the brain. Music when played to entertain also appeals to the right hemisphere, since the intent is to evoke emotions. Judgment on the other hand requires analytical skills, a left brain function. The purpose of competition is to compare relative skills and decide which contestant displayed superior aptitude. The intent of how music is performed will decide whether the performer meant for the arrangement to be viewed as art, entertainment, or if he/she wanted an assessment by a judge of their skill as a musician. In other words, the setting for a musical performance determines whether the presentation should be left or right brain interpreted.

Music Judging: Objective vs. Subjective

Competitions involve skill assessments based on criteria, measuring each competitor against defined objectives, or direct comparisons between the competitors. Most sporting events fall into the latter type where the comparisons are easily determined, such as runners in a foot race or boxers in a ring. Rules may be set down for direct comparison competitions, but the rules are there to ensure a fair assessment of the comparison. Thus runners must run the same distance, and boxers can’t increase their odds of winning by concealing a metal bar within their gloves.

Direct comparisons in music competitions are poor, requiring judges to compare each contestant’s skills against the skills of all other entries. This is especially difficult when the compositions are unique, the performances one-shot, and with no universal standards to benchmark the ideal performance.* With unique presentations, the decisions as to what skills are important enough to be displayed are left up to each contestant. The odds of flawed judging increase in direct correlation to the number of contestants. The only way contiguous comparisons can work in a music competition is if all participants perform the same prepared piece. Even then, rules should be known beforehand as to what exactly the judges are looking for as to how the piece should be properly played. Thus the best method to assess competitions in music is measuring against defined objective criteria. If a competitor cannot understand what it takes to win by reading the criteria, then the criteria is flawed.

Drum Corps: Interpreting a Left-Brain Activity with Right-Brain Criteria

Drum corps was born in competition from a military heritage. Judging was relatively easy in the early days of drum corps, as the focus was primarily on execution and military bearing, each objectively defined. Objective judging breeds consistency. Through the years more and more subjective elements made their way into the adjudication process of drum corps while objective elements have been removed. The results of this movement show, as scoring and placements have become less consistent. The reasons for the changes are many, most driven by the argument that judging music is more sophisticated than counting execution errors.*

“Drum corps is art” is the statement falsely given to drive changes in the rules to award more points for subjective elements. If drum corps is art then it should stop pretending to be competitive. Just to be clear, subjective elements cannot be accurately judged as they relate to personal tastes. There is no unit of measurement for how much an artistic statement “moves you”, as each person has a different emotional threshold and mental perspective. Add to the fact that subjective tastes are temporal, meaning over time people’s tastes change, sometimes on a day-to-day basis depending on their mood; it then becomes clear that subjective judging is not reliable.*

One argument against objective judging of music is that the presentations would then become too mechanical and contrived. The view here is that beauty is lost when the execution of music becomes a primary focus. Nothing could be further from the truth. There is beauty in perfection. A perfectly flawless executed gymnastic routine, where the judges grade only difficulty and execution, is a thing of beauty to behold; the beauty of physical demand through perfect coordinated movements of the human body pushed to new limits of achievement.

Consider the following example. Suppose an art contest was announced, with the goal of determining the best artist. How would one assess the skills of an artist? Answer: by examining the perspective6 of capturing three dimensional images on a two dimensional canvas. Further suppose that one artist submits a portrait of a human body that is perfect in every detail, the hair, eyes, even the suggested movement against a background of a city street, with curbside trees, apartments, cars in the street, with nothing out of proportion. Another artist submits a single round black dot perfectly centered in the middle of his canvas, titling his painting Singularity as an artistic statement. An injustice would be perpetrated if the art judges apply right-brain criteria and award 1st place to Singularity, since it only demonstrates that the artist could draw a circle and color it in with black paint. Nothing else can be assessed about his skill as an artist; he may not be able to draw a human body and may know nothing about proper application of color, blend, proportion, or perspective.

The activity known as drum corps has become overrun by right-brain dominant people. This is clear, since the focus on the activity now is on the “design” and performance of the show rather than on the assessment of the skills of the performers. Design staff argue that the entirety of the show should be assessed by theme and presentation, allowing judgment of elements that are completely subjective such as incorporation of color, emotional texture, and artful use of props. None of these elements assess the skills of those playing on the field. The drum corps activity has become paralyzed and impotent, by attempting to be something it is not; a left-brain activity judged with right-brain criteria. Either drum corps should drop the pretense of competition, or it should attempt to redefine itself in terms of real competition by devising objective criteria that best measures the skills of the performers.

∗Some people are whole-brained, being equally adept at both modes.
1) The left side of the brain is dominant for language in 95% of right handers, while 60-70% of left handers
are also left brain language dominant.
3) Analysis paralysis is not a new phenomena, it has even been expressed by Aesop’s Fable The Fox and the
∗ Procrastination can sometimes be a result of analysis paralysis, where a person delays a task due to over-
thinking the task.
5) A simple test to determine the dominant side of your brain; does the dancer turn clockwise or counter-
∗ Each contest is independent and standalone.
∗ While this statement may be true, increasing subjective criteria in a music competition is detrimental
and counter productive to the end-goal of assessing the skills of the performers. The goal in a music
competition should be to find more ways to accurately measure the skills of the performer with objective
∗ This is why there is so much disparity in judging results today. As an example it is not uncommon in
individual music contests for a contestant to be placed first by one judge and below tenth by another judge.
There have even been instances of first-last scoring.