Does dyslexia affect a child’s ability to read and perform music? This question was recently asked by a music education pre-service teacher. What an interesting question to ponder! After some research and an interview with an Orton-Gillingham trained tutor who also teaches piano at her own private studio, here is an answer.
This is a maddeningly familiar answer when dealing with things related to dyslexia. Unpacking why it depends starts with remembering that there are as many variations on dyslexia as there are dyslexic individuals. Add to that the variety of how musical notations are written, and you can quickly see why it depends. There are, however, some areas that are fairly universally true, and those can guide us.
Considering the areas of the brain at work for reading and for music leads us to the conclusion that the two activities are fairly separate. The brain networks responsible for word reading and for engaging with music are, for the most part, different. Decoding words and phonological awareness are temporal lobe-based functions, while music rhythms are processed in the frontal lobes, subcortical structures, and the cerebellum. The auditory cortices are activated when listening to music.
On the other hand, considering the struggles typical of dyslexia, one can see the potential for overlap. A common struggle for dyslexic students is isolating individual sounds in words and mapping those sounds to letters that represent them. This same difficulty could cause a dyslexic musician to struggle with accurately perceiving pitch and beating out the correct rhythm; two key components for turning sheet music into a song.
While not every dyslexic student will experience difficulty with music, there is some commonality for those who do. First, failing to learn the vocabulary of music may lead to downfall. A musical bar, key, and flat mean different things from the common meaning of those words in non-musical settings. Understanding this difference is key to success. Musical vocabulary knowledge could be addressed in the same way as a dyslexic student learns other vocabulary words.
Secondly, music reading requires students to track left to right and top to bottom, which can be difficult for those with directionality challenges. Lightly penciled-in
arrows to remind students where their eyes need to sweep can help until the pattern is firmly established. Enlarging the music may also be helpful.
A third struggle can be memorizing a new set of symbols that are differentiated by tiny tails ascending or depending. Tracing the new symbols onto fuzzy or bumpy boards and then giving the simple definition will help dyslexic musicians master the new symbols.
Learning the notes of the staff can be challenging for dyslexic students. This may be the time to break the rule and lightly pencil in the note’s corresponding letters for a short time until the student can master them on sight. Highlighting the middle line of the stave and the first ledger lines above and below can foster accurate note perception. A technique to speed up this mastery might include starting with Middle C, finding, and highlighting all the Middle C notes in a photocopy of a musical score, then playing all the Middle C notes on his or her instrument. Linking the note’s position and letter name to the fingering of that note on the instrument is both great instrument practice and a great tactile method for recall. Tracing Middle C’s position on the staff under a bumpy board as the note’s letter is said orally is another idea for kinesthetically teaching individual note’s letter values. Plan to spend at least a day on each note.
Once all the notes have been taught individually, a fun finger puppet or Lego man could be zoomed over the musical score by the student, landing on notes called out by the teacher, with the student saying the note’s letter name or value as it is touched. This random identification of notes further solidifies knowledge in the student’s mind. Color coding the notes on a photocopy of the score could give further practice with identifying notes. Saying the notes’ corresponding letters aloud as they are colored extends the memory exercise.
Thinking of other aspects of music education, there are common strategies frequently employed by teachers of beginning musicians which would undoubtedly help budding musicians with dyslexia. When learning pitch, the student raises his hand to indicate the rising pitch of notes, and lowers it to show the following note will be a lower tone from the previous one. “Drawing” the rise and fall of a melody in the air while looking at the notes helps with sight reading music. The solfège learning method is a method that teaches pitch and has kinesthetic elements. Practicing rhythm by marching to various beats helps students use their whole body to become aware of the beat.
Circling back to the original question of whether dyslexia affects musical ability, one final consideration is that many dyslexic individuals are quite musically talented. Both musical performance and musical composing or arranging may be areas of strength of the dyslexic musician. In this case, dyslexic would actually enhance the child’s musical abilities
As with any worthwhile endeavor, if the child is interested in pursuing musical knowledge, and motivated to put in the effort to learn, by all means, encourage him or her! Music can bring a lot of pleasure, a sense of competence and accomplishment. Don’t let dyslexia stand in the way of a child trying his or her hand at learning an instrument or singing. After all, the next superstar may be living under your roof.
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