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 . 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.
Hi there, my name is Ethan, and I am a film composer who uses Dorico and Cubase regularly. I was diagnosed with dyslexia when I was very young. I had an extremely hard time reading all throughout my life. I am certain I have musical dyslexia- reading traditional notation is one of the most painful processes for me. It is extremely hard to figure out which line is which, so I lose key pitch information. Reading music is akin to walking on snow, I can do it but it takes forever and ends with frustration. All of my life I have strongly preferred the piano roll.
Dorico is a breath of fresh air for me! Thank you, Dorico team, for providing features that allow me to see the music more clearly and more precisely. Thank you Dorico team for building an application smart enough to catch some of my many notation mistakes. In particular, I use the named noteheads feature all the time during composition.
PS: It would be helpful if, somewhere down the development road, users could see the note names while the notes are actually selected. Frequently I find myself unselecting a note just to triple check that it’s the pitch I think it is.
Thanks for all your hard work on the program that is allowing me to overcome my musical dyslexia and get my music into the hands of live players!
@Ethan: Thanks so much for your comment. I’m so glad that Steinberg products help you to realise your musical ambitions – it’s why we do what we do. We do plan to add a display of the selected note name and octave to the status bar in due course: you’re not the only one who would find that useful, I’m certain.
Is there a way or are there exercises, programs, or software to help overcome music dyslexia?
@Granville: You should contact an expert organisation who can help with this. Here in the UK you could contact the British Dyslexia Association, which has music subject area experts on hand. You are, I think, based in the USA, but I expect that the BDA can help connect you with the most appropriate organisation for the USA. Good luck!