Music and Dyslexia

–– by Cory Hill, Elementary School Music Teacher

I have found that three core activities in music class can directly benefit students with dyslexia. I would like to describe those activities and their benefits. I would also like to offer my best answer to the question I’ve often been asked: “Can dyslexic students read music?”. Finally, I will offer some suggestions to parents who would like to take advantage of the benefits of music at home.

Music and Language

Before I explain music’s benefits for dyslexic students, I think it’s helpful to highlight the relationship between music and language. Cognitive studies of musical ability are often first conceived with respect to cognitive studies of language. Evolutionary psychologists who consider the origins of language and communication have sought explanation through the possible selective pressures which may have lead to musical behavior across species. This is because music is regarded as having (in some primal sense), communicative properties.

Both music and language deliver emotional content through speed, loudness, timbre and metrical dimensions. Music and Language are structured by subconscious rules determined by our biology, and rules taught to us by our culture. Just like Language, music has its own morphology and syntax. Finally, music and language are organized by units of increasing complexity (notes/letters, words/melody, sentences/phrases, paragraphs/musical form).

Therefore, it is not surprising that many of the same regions and functional networks of the brain responsible for the production and comprehension of language are also significantly active during music performance and perception. I will now briefly outline our music program at The Claremont School, and explain how three core activities benefit our students.

Singing in Choir (Grades 2-4)

Singing is an opportunity for younger children to explore the emotional aspects that music has to offer. A choral program is held for students between grades two to four. Singing helps students to explore diction and to develop a higher sensitivity to sounds they hear and speak. Exercises in singing often contrast consonants and vowels (Lo/No, Poo/Boo, Mah-Meh-Mi-Maw-Moo, etc), raising phonemic awareness in a fun context.

Students also explore the metrical aspects of text in a more dramatic and animated way. Learning to emphasize key words in lyrics, appreciating the moods which melodies create, and associating this emotional significance in context, prepares students to convey emotion when reading aloud in class. Playing games with melodies during warm-up time teaches students how to use metaphorical terms to describe musical elements such as “high and low, big and small, smooth and disconnected”. This raises an awareness of intonation and emotion. Reading text with context-sensitive expression is considered to be a sign of reading fluency.

Most of the songs students learn in choir are learned by call and response. This means they are given the opportunity to explore memory strategies that go beyond pen and paper through actions, associations, and pretend play.

Learning to Play Instruments (Grades 5–8)

Learning to play instruments is often reserved for students between grades five to eight. At this age, students have developed enough dexterity to perform at a level they will feel motivated to continue with. Piano, ukulele, glockenspiel, xylophone and djembe drums are the primary instruments students are encouraged to explore. Learning to play an instrument encourages improvement in fine motor skills (an area of struggle for many dyslexic students).

Being challenged to learn unfamiliar music is an opportunity for students to exercise their abilities in attention and to regulate their emotions. Often in music class, the phrase “I can’t do this, it’s too hard, I give up!” soon turns into “Mr. Hill, watch me do this!”. There is always an element of emotion involved in learning anything new. When students are provided the opportunity to play an instrument, they are also being given the opportunity to become familiar with the emotional aspects of the learning process in unfamiliar territory. Uncertainty soon becomes a familiar and acceptable part of the learning process. Students who may have developed a poor self image due to academic struggle are able to put their abilities into a new perspective, finding that they are capable of more than they thought!

Reading Music, Music Theory (Grades 5–8)

Students between grades five to eight also learn to read and write music notation, and the theory behind the music they play. Western music has developed a rich, complex and consistent method to render heard sounds into written signs. The process of learning to read and write music takes a student on a journey of thinking simultaneously in parallel and serial directions. Students exercise their working memory while bridging together auditory, kinesthetic, and tactile senses when reading and performing music. The writing of music assists students to further improve fine motor skills in a context independent of written language.

Can Dyslexic Students Read Music?

I’ve often been asked whether dyslexic students can learn to read music. Since students struggle with reading the written word, it seems only logical that they would also struggle with reading music. I have not come across any differences in reading music between dyslexic and non-dyslexic students. Dyslexic students acquire music reading fluency as easily as other students. I believe this is because one of the core problems of dyslexia is the inability to freely associate sounds (phonemes) to written letters (graphemes). Dyslexic students struggle in the area of being able to subconsciously generalize rules and reapply them to novel words. Written language does not always reflect the way it should be spoken. An excerpt from a popular poem illustrates this:

“Beware of heard, a dreadful word That looks like beard and sounds like bird.
And dead: it’s said like bed, not bead– For goodness sakes don’t call it deed.”

Reading music requires a more literal symbol to physical action association, in contrast to the at times arbitrary relationships to sounds and letters that dyslexic students struggle with.

What Parents Can Do

Parents are often the most influential figure in a child’s life. I can still remember my mother’s love for books and music. She would read to me every morning and every night. I can also remember the moment when I finally realized that songs sung on the radio were actually words (before that, the words all seemed to bleed together). Music on the radio was a familiar sound when I came home from school. It was part of what it felt like to be home, just like any smell or sound. The best way to help your child glean from music’s benefits is to let them see how much you love it: Take them to concerts, leave the radio on in the “between hours”, and sing fun songs with them! Parents can also allow their children to teach them about songs and instruments. This provides them with a model for how one should best behave when learning. Above all else, always remember, as said by Cheryl Lavender: “The fact that children can make beautiful music is less significant than the fact that music can make beautiful children.”

Suggested Reading:

The Music Instinct, Philip Ball
Music and Memory, Bob Snyder
Music and Embodied Cognition, Arnie Cox