Post by billkilpatrick
is there a correlation between dyslexia and an inability to read
music? i looked through past posts but couldn't see anything which
You might be surprised to learn that there's no real body of research on
this topic, which is odd if you think about it, as you'd think that this
would have been studied. Apparently not. I am a middle school choir
teacher and I have a student with dyslexia. In the interests of learning
more about this I solicited her help, along with interviewing specialists in
cognitive processing and gathering anecdotes from colleagues in my field. I
compiled my findings into a post that I published on Choralnet last year.
There were some eye-opening findings on my part, but I didn't exactly break
any new ground. I'm copying that post into this message for you to read.
Because dyslexia is such a broad term, people might be hard-pessed to find a
starting point. I'm going to try to follow up with my student, hopefully
this year if I can make time to do the research. Anyhow, here's my little
essay. Happy reading!
This query sparked much interest, and it would seem that I'm in the same
boat with many of you who have had students like this. I was pointed to
only one solid resource on ChoralNet which turned out to be nothing more
than an anecdotal supposition written in 97, which was of very little help.
I did, however, consult with my school's Special Education teacher as well
as our guidance counselor, who has much experience in diagnosing these sorts
of issues with students.
What I've learned so far:
"Dyslexia" is not a specific condition, but rather an umbrella term for an
enormous variety of issues dealing with how the brain processes visual
information. These issues vary almost from person to person.
Contrary to my assumptions, the brain does not process music notation the
same way it processes text. I had always assumed that because translating
music notation to a sung melody is a similar process to translating text to
speech (in terms of converting a printed symbol to an associated phonation),
that these two processes share the same neural pathways in the brain. They
do not. Reading music notation was described as a "visual/spatial" process
by one of my colleagues, and this is a different process than processing
text to speech. So essentially, a person singing a piece of choral music or
art song is multitasking - doing two independent neural processes at the
same time: reading the printed text the same time as translating the
notation to melody. The anecdote I read on ChoralNet seems to underscore
Because of the above clarification, I learned that many students with
dyslexia issues do not necessarily have a problem with reading music
notation per se. In the case of my student, who I will call S.G., she
actually does not have a problem reading music notation. She already has
established methods in place for dealing with text, and where her problems
arise in choir rehearsal is when text appears on the same piece of paper as
the notation. In her case, she is attempting to work through the printed
text but the notation above, not to mention the way text is laid out on a
piece of music (spaced far apart, with separated syllables and word
extensions) is complicating her usual strategies.
For a student like S.G., the suggested accommodation was simple enough:
provide the text on a separate sheet of paper so she can familiarize herself
with it without the distractions of music notation and layout scheme. The
next step is to present the text as it laid out in the music, either
highlighted or with the surrounding notation blotted out, so all that's
visible on the paper is the text itself. Once comfortable with the text
layout, then introduce both text and notation together. I have asked S.G.
to work with me this year to help me study and implement these strategies so
I can see the extent to which they help.
The big question this leaves me with is this: I know there are forms of
dyslexia out there that actually do impede the reading of music notation (a
few of you actually wrote to me with your experiences). So while I have
found some reasonable approaches for students who don't have a problem with
notation, I'm still interested in discovering specific strategies for those
There is enormous success in developing clear strategies for people with
dyslexia issues to succeed in terms of reading printed text, but it seems
that in teaching notation, many of us are left clutching at straws;
sometimes the same approach for text works, sometimes it doesn't, and we're
left with trial-and-error approaches.
The same, unless I just haven't found it, there doesn't seem to be a
clearly-defined body of research out there dealing specifically with
dyslexia and reading music notation, just accounts of individual
experiences. If there is some good research out there, I'd like to find out
where it is, as I'm sure it's just a matter of time before I meet a student
who can really benefit from this.
Many thanks to each of you who responded.