How the Brain Reads Music: The Evidence for Musical Dyslexia

Summary: Identifying musical dyslexia could help explain why some musicians are proficient at reading musical scores, while others excel when it comes to playing by ear.

Source: The Conversation

Music education in the western world often emphasizes musical literacy, the ability to read musical notation fluently. But this is not always an easy task – even for professional musicians. Which raises the question: Is there such a thing as musical dyslexia?

Dyslexia is a learning disability that occurs when the brain is unable to process written words, even when the person has had proper training in reading. Researchers debate the underlying causes and treatments, but the predominant theory is that people with dyslexia have a problem with phonological processing – the ability to see a symbol (a letter or a phoneme) and relate it to speech sounds. Dyslexia is difficult to diagnose, but it is thought to occur in up to 10% of the population.

In 2000, Neil Gordon, a retired pediatric neurologist, proposed the idea of musical dyslexia (dysmusia), based on growing evidence that the areas of the brain involved in reading music and text differed.

The idea that dyslexia could affect the reading of non-language symbols is not new. For instance, dyscalculia is the difficulty reading and understanding mathematical symbols. Recent research supports dyslexia and dyscalculia as separate conditions with unique causes (dyscalculia is thought to be caused by a deficit in spatial processing in the parietal lobe). If the brain processes words and mathematical symbols differently, why not musical symbols too?

Music’s written system

Western music, like language, has a highly evolved coding system. This allows it to be written down and transmitted from composer to performer. But music, unlike language, uses a spatial arrangement for pitch. The page is divided into staffs of five lines each. Basically, the higher a symbol is placed on the staff, the higher the pitch.

Unlike letters in text, pitches can be stacked, indicating simultaneous performance (chords). Music also uses a system of symbols to indicate how pitches should be played. Symbols can indicate duration (rhythm), volume (dynamics) and other performance cues. Music also utilizes written words to indicate both the expressive features of the music and the lyrics in vocal music. Lyrics may be in languages not spoken by the performer.

Due to differences in the physical features of the written systems, it makes sense that the brain would read music and text differently. This appears to be the case – at least to some extent.

Text and music reading in the brain

In the brain, reading music is a widespread, multi-modal activity, meaning that many different areas of the brain are involved at the same time. It includes motor, visual, auditory, audiovisual, somatosensory, parietal and frontal areas in both hemispheres and the cerebellum – making music reading truly a whole brain activity. With training, the neural network strengthens. Even reading a single pitch activates this widespread network in musicians. While text and music reading share some networks, they are largely independent. The pattern of activation for reading musical symbols and letters is different across the brain.

Brain damage, especially if it is widespread, as was the case with the composer Maurice Ravel, (perhaps best known for Boléro), will likely impair both text and music reading abilities. Ravel had a form of frontotemporal lobe dementia.

However, there have been cases where a more limited brain injury impaired reading of one coding system and spared the other.

Ian McDonald, a neurologist and amateur pianist, documented the loss and recovery of his own ability to read music after a stroke, though his ability to read text was unaffected. Oliver Sacks described the case of a professional pianist who, through a degenerative brain disease (Posterior Cortical Atrophy), first lost her ability to read music while retaining her text reading for many years. In another case, showing the opposite pattern, a musician lost his ability to read text, but retained his ability to read music.

This shows sheet music and a girl playing a violin
The idea that dyslexia could affect the reading of non-language symbols is not new. Image is in the public domain

Cases where music and language seem to be differently affected by brain damage have fascinated researchers for centuries. The earliest reported case of someone who was unable to speak, but retained his ability to sing, was in the 1745 article, On a Mute who Can Sing.

More recently, the Russian composer, Vissarion Shebalin, lost his language abilities after a severe stroke, but retained his ability to compose. Maintaining the ability to sing in the absence of language has led to the creation of a therapeutic treatment called Melodic Intonation Therapy that essentially replaces speech with song. This allows the patient to communicate verbally. These cases and many others demonstrate that music and language are to some extent separate neurological processes.

Differences in reading ability can occur even within musical notation. Cases have been reported where musicians have lost their ability to read pitch, but retained their ability to read rhythm, and vice versa. fMRI studies have confirmed that the brain processes pitch (spatial information) and rhythm (symbol recognition) differently.

Musical dyslexia

The research starts to imply how a specifically musical dyslexia could occur. This deficit may be centered on pitch or musical symbols or both. No conclusive case of musical dyslexia has yet been reported (though Hébert and colleagues have come close) and efforts to determine the effects of dyslexia on reading musical notation have been inconclusive.

Children in western cultures are taught to read text, but not always taught to read music. Even when they are, inabilities to read music are not generally treated as a serious concern. Many gifted musicians are able to function at a professional level purely learning music by ear. Among musicians, there is a wide range of music reading proficiencies. This is especially apparent with sight reading (the first performance of a notated piece). Identifying musical dyslexia could help explain why some musicians read well and others don’t.

About this music and neuroscience research news

Source: The Conversation
Contact: Jennifer Mishra – The Conversation
Image: The image is in the public domain

Join our Newsletter
I agree to have my personal information transferred to AWeber for Neuroscience Newsletter ( more information )
Sign up to receive our recent neuroscience headlines and summaries sent to your email once a day, totally free.
We hate spam and only use your email to contact you about newsletters. You can cancel your subscription any time.
  1. The article generated a question for me concerning stuttering. It has been noted many stutterers are able to sing without problem even though speech is impaired. The mention of Melodic Intonation Therapy makes me wonder if a similar association occurs in the instance of a stutter who sings.

  2. The image of the woman playing the violin is backwards. One does not hold a violin in the right hand and bow with the left.

    1. It is entirely possible to restring the violin to suit the right hand fingers. I had a schoolmate in Juilliard, who, as a bass player, played ambidexterously! He is famous in the jazz world today.

      1. It is also entirely possible that a violin player looks like that, but let’s be real. They use stock photography of attractive women in almost all facets of life… to the point where people actually start to believe the world looks like that.

    2. With respect to the comment on the violin player: if you are left handed, you can do this. You string it in reverse and bow with the right hand. Such is common in left handed guitar players. In five string banjos, they sell left handed necks to accommodate the shorter fifth string position.
      Back on topic, I, too, am curious if this applies to speech stutterers who sing perfectly well. Mel Tillis, the country singer, has said (if I recall correctly) that his stuttering was helped by singing therapy.
      There was a TV special a while back about a man who suffered a brain injury and was afterwards an accomplished musician, playing the piano although he had never exhibited such a talent prior to the injury. In that case, he gained a talent and ability through the injury instead of losing the ability to read either musical scores or text.

  3. I love your Neuroscience I’m interested in most of your articles but most interested in dyslexia, alzheimers, and cancer. In my life I’m directly effected by these issues.

  4. I think dyslexia is:
    A general difficulty in perceiving and remembering arbitrary detail (compared to non dyslexic persons) coupled with an increase in the general ability to perceive and remember pattern.
    Our society and school system generates ready employees and so favors ability with arbitrary detail over the ability to “perceive pattern” (conceptualize broadly) so dyslexia is unfairly characterized as a “disability”, which happens to put professionals in charge over a whole class of people who are easily institutionalized in the “impaired” persons category instead of emancipated from institutions in the “enabled” persons category.
    All abilities entail converse disabilities, so does dyslexia. Attention to every detail regardless of the general pattern is more in the autistic category which the schools system is geared to produce, so the opposite of dyslexia is what society values, the inability to “perceive pattern”(critical thinking) is NOT valued, rather conformity to obedience is valued in SERVANTS.

Comments are closed.