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Music and Dyslexia
by Violet Brand
Reprinted with permission from the International
Dyslexia Association quarterly newsletter, Perspectives, Winter
2000 vol. 26, no.1, pages 36-37. (It's worth joining IDA just
to get Perspectives. Their website is http://www.interdys.org.)
The topic of music and dyslexia is beginning to attract attention
internationally (Hubicki, 1994; Ganschow, Lloyd Jones &
Miles, 1994; Oglethorpe, 1996; British Dyslexia Association,
1996; Jaarsma, Ruijssenaars, & Van den Broeck, 1998; Miles
& Miles, 1999; Miles & Westcombe, in press).
If individuals with dyslexia have difficulties with literacy
skills, they might also have problems with musical notation,
even though they may have a good musical ear and a good sense
of melody and harmony. In many families, the first chosen
instrument is the piano. For the first year of lessons, all
is well and the piano performances are enjoyed by all. Then
there is a reluctance and finally a refusal to continue. Why?
Frequently, the written form of music causes difficulties.
A good musical ear and good musical sensitivity may have carried
the child through the first year. Then the pieces get longer
and sheets of printed music are needed. The music teacher
and the parent may not have realized that no progress had
been made in the understanding of the relationship between
those printed notes and musical sounds.
Here are some of the stumbling blocks to that understanding
that people with dyslexia may encounter:
- The lines and spaces are named after letters of the alphabet.
The same letters are causing difficulties with literacy
- The order of letters may increase the child's confusion.
In the bass clef the lines begin with G, in the treble clef
with E, and C is a very important letter on its own little
line. The correct sequencing of the letters of the alphabet
starting with A causes enough difficulty on its own; now
there is this added confusion.
- People with dyslexia have difficulty with naming things,
and the names allocated to notes, whole note, half note,
quarter note, etc. (or quaver, crotchet, minim,
etc.) can put a great strain on the memory.
- The speed and style of a particular piece of music are
usually given in words from a foreign language, e.g., Italian.
People with dyslexia have difficulty remembering what these
words mean: Is it adagio or allegro that means
- The letters of the alphabet are used again to determine
sections of a particular orchestral or band piece. When
rehearsing with a musical group, conductors will frequently
require players to go back to an earlier section simply
by referring to the letter of the alphabet. It may well
be difficult for people with dyslexia to find the right
place quickly enough.
- Counting bars of rests when playing in an ensemble may
cause problems, particularly for those playing a solo instrument
- Verbal instructions relating to direction - up/down, top/bottom,
and left/right - add to the confusion. For example, piano
teachers may name the hand that should play a particular
line of music without knowing that the student has considerable
- If initial difficulties are overcome, sight reading often
remains a major problem, which may prevent an individual
with dyslexia from achieving success in music examinations
and playing professionally in an orchestra. Vocal sight
reading gives rise to an additional problem, that of reading
the words and the notes simultaneously.
- The individual may encounter further difficulties in the
copying of musical notes and in the writing of them in musical
Musicians with dyslexia should not be deprived of the chance
to fulfil their potential because of these difficulties. Solutions
need to be sought - and found. The following are a few suggestions
as to how this might be done:
- Singing to and with children from the earliest possible
age is of crucial importance because it encourages musical
development by training the ear. The alphabet, for instance,
can take its place amongst preschool nursery rhymes.
- If someone plays the tune on an instrument while the child
sings, this can ensure that the sense of melody and harmony
continue to support the eyes that are dealing with those
- A colored staff with moveable pieces, such as that devised
some years ago by Hubicki (Hubicki, 1991; 1994) may enable
the learner to touch and feel the symbols of written music
while positioning them in their appropriate places. Color
coding will also help the pupil to recognize musical patterns,
for example, the location of octaves on a staff.1
The recorder is an excellent instrument to start on. (The
piano should be avoided in the early stages because it involves
the reading of two clefs, not one, and it is a characteristic
of individuals with dyslexia that they cannot handle large
amounts of symbolic information at speed). If possible, a
parent should share the experience of learning the recorder
and ensure that sounds and fingering are directly related
to the musical notation.
Careful consideration should be given to the choice of future
instruments. It could be that, once the child has mastered
the treble clef with the recorder, piano lessons could start.
Possible problems should be discussed with potential teachers
so as to make certain they are flexible in their approach
and willing to adapt to the child's needs. In the case of
a dyslexic child, the attitude of "This is the way I
always teach" is not good enough. The children's own
wishes as to choice of instrument are, of course, a crucial
factor' and they should be allowed to express preferences
regarding such matters as pitch, technical requirements, and
Brass instruments can provide a musical outlet in a variety
of groups. In the brass band, whatever the pitch of the instrument,
only the treble clef will be required, and this is a great
help for musicians with dyslexia. Also, when one is teaching
a brass instrument to a pupil, the fingering can be written
under the notes so that when players see the note on the page
and push down their fingers the right sound is heard. Gradually,
the process will become automatic and the numbers will not
need to be written. If the player starts with the cornet and
wants to move down in pitch to the euphonium (baritone), the
fingering related to notes will remain the same - a great
advantage. If the young cornet player wishes to play the trumpet
in an orchestra, she or they will probably need to transpose
and considerable teaching will be required to help them do
this. Transposition can also prove a hazard for dyslexic French
Woodwind instruments, such as flute, oboe, clarinet and bassoon,
provide their own challenges. Though the treble clef is normally
easier than the bass clef for most people, musicians with
dyslexia may have difficulty fingering and reading the notes.
Percussion instruments may be enticing, but require the ability
to keep precise rhythm and to read rhythmic notations, both
of which may cause problems for individuals with dyslexia
(Miles & Miles, 1999, p. 149). Several musicians with
dyslexia have reported that they learned rhythms by themselves
without the musical nutation by listening and repeating (Ganschow,
Lloyd-Jones, & Miles, 1994).
The violin might be the chosen instrument. Other instruments
in the string family (viola, cello, and bass) should be considered
with care since the musician will need to learn at least one
Music Examination Boards in Britain are demonstrating an
understanding of the difficulties that musicians with dyslexia
encounter. In suitable cases, the boards allow extra time
so as to lesson feelings of pressure.
With the increased awareness of all of the above aspects
of dyslexia, hopefully the right help will be available at
the right time for musicians with dyslexia so that they will
not find themselves excluded from the music making that they
have the gifts to enjoy.
1Jaarsma, Ruijessenaars & Van de Broeck (1998,
p. 152) have said that Hubicki is offering an "alternative
musical notation system." This is a misunderstanding.
The aim of Colour Staff is to help the learner to master musical
notation as it now exists. Further details of Colour Staff
are available from Professor Margaret Hubicki, M.B.E., F.R.A.M.,
F.R.S.A, Flat 1, 14 Abbey Gardens, St. Johns Wood, London
NW8 8AT, United Kingdom.
British Dyslexia Association (1996). Music and Dyslexia.
Ganschow, L., Lloyd-Jones, J. & Miles, T.R. (1994). Dyslexia
and musical notation. Annals of Dyslexia, 44, 185-202.
Hubicki, M. (1991). A multisensory approach towards reading
music. In M. Snowling, & M. Thomson (eds.), Dyslexia:
Integrating theory and practice (pp. 322-328). London:
Hubicki, M. (1994). Musical problems? Reflections and suggestions.
In G. Hales (Ed.), Dyslexia matters. London: Whurr,
Jaarsma, B.S., Ruijssenaars, A. J. J. M & Van den Broeck,
W. (1998). Dyslexia and learning musical notation: A pilot
study. Annals of Dyslexia, 48, 137-154.
Miles, T.R., & Westcombe, J. (in press). Music and
dyslexia: Opening new doors. London: Whurr.
Miles, T.R., and Miles, E. (1999). Dyslexia: A hundred
years on (2nd Ed.). Philadelphia: Open University Press.
Oglethorpe, S. (1996). Instrumental music for dyslexics:
A teaching handbook. London: Whurr.
Violet Brand is the author of a series of books entitled
Spelling Made Easy. She is chairperson of the British
Dyslexia Association "Working Party" on Dyslexia
and Music. Her husband, Geoffrey Brand, is a well-known musician,
which means that there is a meeting together of music and
dyslexia in the Brand family.