I have been told that standard notation is virtually universal nowadays. Standard notation is, in my experience, read from left to right, a convention that came naturally to me because the only language I know how to read is read LTR.

Because all of the common markings are in Western languages that are also read LTR, this reading order makes sense.

Those who do not read a Latin-based language often do not read LTR (and sometimes not even RTL, either) or have any way of interpreting the written markings by finding similarities between their language and the language the markings are in.

Do people who speak/read languages like Arabic and Chinese write musical markings in their own language and/or read/write music no-LTR?

(Puzzle canons that are meant to be read both forwards and backwards, etc are not the focus of this question)

3 Answers 3


The western classical tradition in these cultures adopts the left-to-right standard notation in use everywhere else in the world. This makes sense, as anyone playing Mahler 2 is going to be reading score directions in German whether you're playing in France, Italy, Spain or the United States.

Original music written in these cultures, but that follow the western classical tradition will usually use the standard notation, but have score markings written in the native language (top-to-bottom, right-to-left, or whatever). This is simply because western classical music requires a whole infrastructure of music education, conservatories, and musicians to play it, so if your country has an orchestra that plays western classical music, chances are a lot more people can also read it. It also makes sense from a publishing perspective to bring music to the largest possible audience by printing in the lingua franca of "standard" notation.

However, the native cultural tradition of music in these places could make use of any number of traditional notation systems that have nothing to do with the western classical tradition. Furthermore, many of these traditions don't make use of notation at all -- music is simply passed down through the ages from teacher to student.

  • This seems like a very complete answer written by someone who knows theirs stuff. The first sentence of the second paragraph should be revised for grammatical correctness and clarity, but I think I understand what you meant. Why would having a national orchestra that reads standard LTR Western notation increase the number of people in the country that can read std LTR Western notation ("chances are a lot more people can also read it")? Or did you mean a lot more people in the nat'l orchestra? Other than those confusing points, I really like this answer because it seems to cover everything.
    – Stan
    Jul 18, 2014 at 17:29

In Hebrew, songs are sometimes typeset RTL, especially in older books.

Example Another example.

This makes some sense because lyrics go RTL.

This convention is rarely used nowadays. I have never seen it applied to non-vocal music.


In Israel, the major spoken language is Hebrew, an RTL language (as is Arabic). Sheet music is laid out in standard manner (LTR); lyrics appear under the notes to be sung, but the words themselves are written RTL. I find it very difficult to read a piece of vocal music as I'm trying to read 'both ways at once'. Native Hebrew speakers may not have this problem.

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