Music teachers sometimes come across students that consistently skip notes, don’t keep to the time values, add their own rhythms and find it hard or impossible to keep in time or maintain a steady pulse.

You might be tempted to write it off as disinterest, lack of talent or being disorganized, and you may be right, but there are times you will feel like the student really is doing his or her best and is struggling with something else.

Some research has been done into what is referred to as musical dyslexia, a learning ability that occurs as a result of the brain being unable to process musical symbols, even when the person has had proper training in reading music. This definition has simply been lifted off the definition for dyslexia, except for dyslexia, the brain is unable to process written words.

Photo credit: Brent Moore (Creative Commons)

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? Via PsyPost

written music
Image Courtesy of Flickr

The term ‘musical dyslexia’ was coined by retired pediatric neurologist Neil Gordon in 2000 as a result of growing evidence indicating that the areas of the brain involved in reading music differed from those involved in reading text.

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. Via PsyPost

The coding system for music is as highly evolved as that for language, which is why it can be written down and transmitted from the composer to the performer and down through generations. A musical piece 100 years old can still be played by a performer today even though the composer is long gone.

The difference between music and language is that for music, a spatial arrangement is used for pitch. Staffs are used and the pitch of a note depends on where it is placed on the staff. And that’s just where the complexity starts.

musical staff
Image Courtesy of Wikimedia

The physical features of written language and music differ quite significantly, which leads to the notion that the brain also reads text and music differently.

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. Via PsyPost

Image Courtesy of Flickr
Image Courtesy of Flickr

Clearly, the research suggests how dyslexia that specifically affects musical reading could occur. However, the research does not provide foolproof evidence of the condition and the efforts to provide such evidence have been inconclusive at best.

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. Via PsyPost

The good news here is that you’re not the only one who thinks there may be some impairment that could limit a student’s musical abilities. The bad news is that there’s no hard evidence to fall back on yet. Let’s hope further research will provide the information we’re looking for.

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How the brain reads music: the evidence for musical dyslexia

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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. Via The Conversation


What Musicians Can Tell Us About Dyslexia and the Brain

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But if parsing sounds is really the whole problem, how do you explain dyslexic musicians? After all, musicians are supposed to excel at making sense of sound. But a small number of them, it turns out, have dyslexia. Via Wired


Dyslexia can be overcome with nursery rhymes and music, says Cambridge professor

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She found that the dyslexia is not caused by children reading words incorrectly, but instead their inability to hear the rhythm of words when they are being spoken. Via Telegraph