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International Left-Handers Day

Posted by Jamie McKay on August 13, 2020

A picture of a left hand playing the piano

Photo by cottonbro from Pexels

International Left-Handers Day is on 13 August.

 But why are some people left-handed and others right-handed? What is it that makes one hand more dominant than the other? Is it genetic or just a fluke?

Let’s go back over a century to a different time of global turmoil and considerable uncertainty…

… mid-August, 1914. World War I had just started, and on the Eastern Front, Russian and Austria-Hungary forces were squaring off in what was to become known as the Battle of Galicia. Little did anyone know that 106 years later, one of the tragic consequences would catalyse a significant turning point in how people see those with just one hand, disabilities in general and, in turn, make us question what it means to be ‘able’.

The Battle of Galicia lasted over two weeks. By that time, Paul Wittgenstein, an Austrian-American soldier who was a concert pianist before the war, lost his right arm in the fighting. More devastating still, he was forced to spend recovery and more than two years inside a prisoner of war camp at Omsk, Siberia, until peace returned.

Returning to Vienna after the war ended, Paul Wittgenstein began working on new musical arrangements to be played with just the one hand.

Today, Paul is remembered for devising several techniques for one-handed, five fingered-pianists, often using pedals and unique hand movements to play chords once thought impossible without the use of both hands. By the time of his death in 1961, he was considered to be one of the foremost commissioners of left-hand-only piano concerti, cementing a legacy as both creator and inadvertent campaigner.

The most remarkable thing about Wittgenstein and the music he created is how technically skilled pianists need to be to play his music. Click here to take a look of Jean-Efflam Bavouzet, one of the finest pianists in the world, explaining what’s so tricky to master in Maurice Ravel’s ‘Piano Concerto for the Left Hand’, which was commissioned by Wittgenstein. 

You could argue the critical and academic reverence of Wittgenstein, not to mention public popularity, helped people with just one hand to be taken seriously in classical music. It speaks volumes that London’s 130-year-old Royal College of Music didn’t have a single left-hand-only graduate until 2012, when the hugely acclaimed Nicholas McCarthy, who was born without a right hand, broke the institution’s record. That same year, Nicholas performed alongside Coldplay at the 2012 Summer Paralympics Closing Ceremony, in another significant triumph for those with just one hand.

Then again, maybe it’s not that surprising globally celebrated music schools, which only take the best of the best, aren’t inundated with left-hand-only students. Left-handers, in general, are quite rare.

Just 10% of us use our left over the right hand, compared to 40% who are left-eared, 30% who are left-eyed, and 20% who are left-footed. The latter explaining why there always seems to be a shortage of good left midfielders on Pro Evolution Soccer for the iPhone!

In ancient times, with the majority of people being right-handed, there was frequently the view that those who were left-handed were either wrong, flawed or even evil. Therefore the dominant hand, for the vast majority of people, became known as the ‘right’ hand, literally meaning the correct hand. The world ‘left’ comes from the Anglo-Saxon word ‘lyft’ meaning ‘weak’.

Radio 4’s excellent weekly science show, The Curious Cases of Rutherford & Fry, spawned a fascinating blog about left-handedness and also explored left/right preferences in animals, too. 

According to primatologists — better known, in this instance at least, as people who study chimpanzees — wild apes, our closest relatives, show a 50-50 split between left and right in every action. So that’s feet, hands, eyes and ears. 

There certainly is a connection between being left-handed and being seen as being ‘different’, even if that’s mainly because of a deeply entrenched right bias that has created a right-handed world. Hence we see left-hand-only items as ‘specialised’ and ‘different from the norm’. Items such as our ranges of scissors, cutlery and orthopaedic walking canes, the likes of which featured in our blog post The History of the Walking Stick.