music and dyslexia

Strengths and Challenges

Chloe is a fifteen year old well recognized for her many talents and abilities. She is a skilled reader, a creative writer, and a budding musician who plays two instruments.

Chloe was referred to the Stern Center for a comprehensive evaluation in response to concerns regarding math and spelling. While she has had no difficulty with math concepts or reasoning and is good at spatial thinking and 3-D challenges, her math facts are not yet automatic. She finds it necessary to use a variety of strategies to execute basic math computations, and she requires a calculator to complete math assignments in a timely fashion. And although Chloe expresses herself on paper with organization and insight, her skill in spelling does not reflect her vast experience as a reader.

Chloe’s parents hoped that an evaluation would give Chloe the tools she requires to be more confident in her spelling and her writing, and improve her efficiency in math computation. They also wondered whether the evaluation could provide additional insight into Chloe’s skill as a musician since these skills have not come easily to her. Chloe struggles with music sight reading. Her teacher has marveled at how hard Chloe works to learn a new piece noting that it takes Chloe a long time to figure out every note.

The Stern Center evaluation revealed the depth of Chloe’s strengths as well as specific aspects of challenges she faces. In particular, she showed a weakness in rapid automatized naming. Rapid naming tasks measure one’s ability to retrieve language-labels from memory with automaticity and accuracy, an important skill for reading, writing, performing math calculations with fluency, and in reading music for performance. Students who are not able to retrieve language-labels from memory with accuracy and efficiency sometimes devote a disproportionate amount of energy to lower-level skills instead of to the content itself.

For Chloe, this weakness in rapid naming has reduced her speed of math computation and written expression, and has also made her vulnerable to challenges with spelling; she labors to process orthographic symbols such as letters, numbers, punctuation, and even musical notation.

The Power of Music

Considering this brief, selected profile of Chloe and the blend of challenges across language, math, and music she is an excellent example of how important it is for educators, parents, and learners themselves to understand learner strengths and weaknesses and to adapt instruction to best suit that. For learners like Chloe with a weakness in rapid naming and those with specific disabilities such as dyslexia It Amazes Me how often we fail to use the knowledge we have. Too often for struggling learners, it all must feel like Mind Games.

The capitalization in the preceding sentences is intentional. Both are song titles made famous by even more famous musicians, both of whom appear on the top of lists like “famous musicians who are dyslexic.” Tony Bennett covered It Amazes Me throughout his career; it begins with, “My height, just average; My weight, just average; And my I.Q. is like you’d estimate; Just average.” Bennett is arguably far from “just average” by any definition, but he had to learn to overcome his dyslexia. Similarly, despite his dyslexia, John Lennon wrote numerous songs that have been entered into the canon of popular music. Mind Games opens with, “We’re playing those mind games together; Pushing the barriers planting the seeds.”

Researchers have been acknowledging and examining the relationships between dyslexia and reading music for decades, noting that word reading and music notation reading present similar problems often affecting basic elements of music performance such as memory, focus, and rhythm. A recent study revealed challenges in three of its five adult subjects, all professional musicians with dyslexia. Those three musicians described a variety of strategies they used or were exposed to, such as “(a) multisensory learning, (b) small group and private instruction, (c) using technology, (d) isolating musical components, and (e) learning and performing jazz improvisations…” (A Comparative Case Study of Learning Strategies and Recommendations of Five Professional Musicians with Dyslexia, Nelson and Hourigan, National Association for Music Education, 2016, Update: Applications of Research in Music Education, Vol. 35(1)54-65).

An earlier study comparing how children with and without dyslexia learned to read music revealed several challenges faced by children with dyslexia. Those with dyslexia made more than twice the number of errors, needed significantly more time, and as a result demonstrated “laborious automatization,” an essential factor to mastering any musical instrument. (Dyslexia and Learning Musical Notation: A Pilot Study; Jaarsma, Ruijssenaars, denBroeck, Leiden University, the Netherlands; Annals of Dyslexia, Vol. 48, 1998.)

While there is not an abundance of research examining dyslexia’s affect on learning to read and perform music, what is available in both research and musicians’ personal anecdotes suggests a relationship worth noting and seems to carry practical suggestions for both music learners and music educators. For instance, those who note struggles commonly cite their ultimate success with some aspects of multisensory teaching/learning. Getting to the performance, rather than feeling anchored in the “name the notes” process of reading notation appears for some to be key to mastery. Expanding the notion of multi-sensory also carries the benefits of using the structural logic of notation, the order and sequence inherent to what the notations represent, and the need to integrate “reading” with “playing” as early and as consistently as possible.

Recognizing Diversity in Learning 

One additional observation from the various accounts is that we who are responsible for young learners ought to recognize the power of self-esteem and confidence. Decades ago, as a school principal, I had more than a few meetings where a team of adults decided that we should replace a class such as music with the remedial reading instruction so obviously needed. To the contrary, the musicians I encountered in these studies clearly suggest we avoid eliminating what might well be an area of confidence and accomplishment; some even go so far as to suggest that the types of focused, intentional, multi-sensory instruction needed to learn music are not only parallel, but complimentary to those needed to learn to read.

So maybe it’s not Mind Games after all. It Amazes Me that with the right kinds of instruction, reading music and reading words are both possible. And as for Chloe, though not dyslexic, her teachers’ new understanding of her learning needs will hopefully translate to success in spelling, math computation, and music performance.

Edward R. Wilkens, Ed.D.

Special Projects Advisor

Ed Wilkens served as a Vermont public school principal for 19 years across all grade levels pre-K through grade 12. He lives in Charlotte, VT with his wife and enjoys reading with his grand kids. 

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