Reading regular text is a challenge for dyslexic people.
Does that mean that reading musical notation is also tricky? It’s a question that those who work in music education often have to answer. This article looks at how having a learning disability like dyslexia can make decoding music difficult. Plus, it offers some clever techniques to help students when they’re learning music.
The challenges that dyslexic musicians face
Dyslexic children face several challenges when they’re learning how to play a musical instrument:
- Sight-reading sheet music
- Decoding information, such as musical symbols
- Staying organized and focused on learning a piece
- Keeping instructions in working memory
These issues can progress into mental health problems commonly associated with learning disabilities. For example, difficulties in reading music could lead to a student taking longer to learn a piece than others. That increased time could cause self-esteem problems for the student.
Interestingly, research suggests that these challenges don’t apply to all aspects of learning music. A study reported in Psychology Today examined this in more detail.
Researchers created two study groups using students from a music conservatory. One group contained dyslexic students. The other had students with no impairments. There was also a control group of college-aged dyslexic people.
Each group took a round of tests. These tests varied but generally examined music reading skills and auditory skills.
The researchers found that the dyslexic students tested as well as the other learners in the hearing tests. This result suggests that dyslexia doesn’t affect the phonological awareness needed to listen to music.
What are phonological processing and awareness?
They’re a person’s ability to use sounds in language and, in this case, music.
The study suggests this talent is the same in dyslexic people as in others. The problem came when the study tested music reading ability. The learning difficulties that affect dyslexic people carried over.
However, other research suggests this difficulty in reading music may not have anything to do with traditional dyslexia. In 2000, a pediatric neurologist named Neil Gordon discussed evidence that shows the areas of the brain that read music are different to those that read speech.
He suggested the existence of a condition he called dysmusia. This condition would account for these different brain requirements in a similar way to how we now know that dyslexia and dyscalculia are different conditions.
So, it appears that dyslexic students struggle to read music. But more research is likely needed. Nevertheless, normal musical training doesn’t solve the problems dyslexic students have. That means teachers must find strategies to help their students.
Strategies for helping dyslexic students learn to play music
The usual ways of teaching music may not help poor readers. In short, the issue of reading musical notes creates a type of musical dyslexia. These are the methods a music teacher can use to help students to learn music.
Use multi-sensory approaches
All of the senses can help when learning music. For example, let’s say part of a piece requires the student to make a specific sound with their instrument.
They may struggle to identify that sound in notation.
A teacher can use speech sounds to make the noise that needs playing. Once the student knows the noise, they can play different areas of their instrument until they find it.
Beyond hearing, vision and movement can help. Pictures can show somebody the mechanics of playing an instrument. Hand movements can help those with developmental dyslexia follow along when playing instrumental music with a group.
Make sure you have a teacher who understands dyslexia
A music teacher who doesn’t understand dyslexia will always struggle to teach people who have it. They won’t see why some students have issues with the sequencing in sheet music. Plus, they may not provide the needed stimuli to help their students.
Knowledge of what dyslexia is and the issues it causes is crucial.
This doesn’t mean teachers need in-depth training in neuroscience.
Instead, it means they must understand the symptoms of dyslexia and how to teach children who have it. Understanding the condition also allows teachers to adjust exams to make them fair for all students.
Try color-based systems
Color coding can help students see patterns in sheet music.
For example, imagine a piece has several parts that repeat. Coloring those parts in the same color shows the student that they’re come to a part. This technique means they don’t have to try and decode the musical notes every time they reach the repeated section.
Teach playing by ear
The Psychology Today article mentioned earlier shows us that dyslexia doesn’t affect auditory skills. We also know it doesn’t affect motor skills. Reading music is the biggest challenge.
So, try getting rid of sheet music completely.
Playing be ear means learning how to identify musical notes based on their sounds. It requires patience. Very few people can play what they hear straight away. But with enough time, and room for improvisation, a dyslexic music student may find it easier.
Find appropriate instruments
The more complicated the instrument, the longer it takes to learn how to play. Combine that with the challenges dyslexic people already face and learning music becomes a frustrating experience.
As such, teachers should focus on finding the right instruments for their students to play. For example, a small keyboard can be a good starting point for somebody who wants to play piano. Recorders may be good for somebody who wants to learn the flute.
Start with simple instruments and build up as the student’s skills improve.
Speechify – a study aid to help dyslexic people
The above strategies help teachers teach music to those who have dyslexia.
Speechify builds on these strategies.
Speechify is a text to speech app that reads any text copied into it aloud. It’s a useful tool to help dyslexic students to enjoy learning music without having to worry about other areas of their schooling. The tool may also help the student read sheet music.
Though it can’t read musical notation, Speechify is useful for helping people interpret written lyrics. If a song contains a singing component, Speechify helps dyslexic students hear the words they need to sing.
Are people with dyslexia good at music?
Dyslexic people can be very good at music. Special teaching techniques help them overcome short-term reading challenges.
Are dyslexic people more artistic?
Some studies, such as the one found at https://doi.org/10.1080/23311908.2016.1190309, suggest dyslexic people are more likely to be able to come up with unusual combinations of ideas.
Can you be dyslexic with music notes?
There isn’t a specific musical dyslexia. However, dyslexia can make it harder to read musical notes.
What are some benefits of music for people with dyslexia?
Learning how to play an instrument can boost self-esteem. It may also help with challenges like sequencing and concentration.
Do people with dyslexia have better rhythm?
There’s no evidence to suggest that people with dyslexia have better rhythm.