From songwriting powerhouse Irving Berlin to film scoring linchpin Danny Elfman, the world of professional music has seen several figures rise to the top of their field without being able to read or write a single line of music notation. Most often, this is a result of never having learned, or of transitioning to composing from a background in a different musical tradition. Is it possible, however, that some people are actually less capable of reading music than others?

Here, we examine the evidence for the existence of musical dyslexia, and consider the implications for written music and for music scoring software.

What Is Musical Dyslexia?

Although its exact underlying causes are still disputed, dyslexia is generally understood as a difficulty in processing written language. The theory that something similar might apply to other forms of visual representation, such as music notation, has been around for a long time. In particular, people who have difficulty reading and comprehending mathematical symbols may be experiencing the related condition known as dyscalculia.

However, it was not until 2000 that a clear concept of musical dyslexia, or ‘dysmusia’, was first introduced by the neurologist Neil Gordon [1]. Gordon was responding to research that suggested different areas of the brain were involved with comprehending music notation and written language. This would be similar to the difference between dyslexia and dyscalculia – people with dyslexia have difficulty relating symbols to their equivalent speech sounds, whereas dyscalculia is thought to be caused by difficulties in spatial processing.

Although to some extent the brain perceives written language and music notation in the same way, in others it differs greatly. Music, like mathematics, can be a highly complex visual language, especially when notes are arranged spatially to indicate stacked pitch. It would therefore seem believable that music notation can have a similarly disorienting effect on people’s perception as written language or mathematical symbols.

However, at this stage the existence of musical dyslexia remains purely speculative. How the human brain perceives and interprets information remains an avenue ripe for further study, and while some observers have posited musical dyslexia as a distinct condition, others have suggested that further research is required to determine the truth.

The Importance of Written Notation

While we may not be close to a definitive answer just yet, the debate over the potential existence of musical dyslexia offers a fascinating insight into the ways that individuals perceive written musical notation.

As the makers of music notation software, it should come as no particular surprise that this aspect of music is of great interest to us. We’ve written before about the often overlooked importance of engraving as a skillset, but suffice it to say that music is an art form in which the ability of the performer to understand the intentions of the composer is paramount. The best notation software should therefore function in much the same way as a translator of languages – accurate and precise enough that the notation it produces leaves little room for doubt or incomprehension, while also allowing musicians the room to accommodate nuances and context.