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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

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:

  1. The lines and spaces are named after letters of the alphabet. The same letters are causing difficulties with literacy skills.
  2. 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.
  3. 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.
  4. 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 slow?
  5. 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.
  6. Counting bars of rests when playing in an ensemble may cause problems, particularly for those playing a solo instrument or percussion.
  7. 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 left/right confusion.
  8. 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.
  9. The individual may encounter further difficulties in the copying of musical notes and in the writing of them in musical composition.

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:

  1. 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.
  2. 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 written notes.
  3. 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 musical repertoire.

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 horn players.

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 other clef.

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. Reading, England.

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: Whurr

Hubicki, M. (1994). Musical problems? Reflections and suggestions. In G. Hales (Ed.), Dyslexia matters. London: Whurr, pp. 184-198.

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.




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