Dyslexia in a musical setting

Have you ever had a student who consistently skips notes, can’t keep to the time values, or seems to find it impossible to maintain a steady beat? Have you been frustrated with them and figured it was simply disinterest or that they are not cut out to be a musician? Of course, these are possibilities. But if you really feel this student is trying his or her best and wants to play well, there’s a chance that musical dyslexia is involved.

Is there really such a thing as musical dyslexia?

Dyslexia is a learning disability where the brain cannot process written words properly, even when the person has been taught to read. Dyslexia is a very common learning issue, but it’s difficult to diagnose. Some researchers estimate 5-10% of the population has some level of dyslexia. If the brain can sometimes have trouble processing words, why not musical symbols, too?

The term musical dyslexia was coined in 2000 by Neil Gordon, a retired pediatric neurologist. Since then, not a lot of research has been done into the existence of musical dyslexia, but there is growing evidence that this type of learning disability exists.  

What are the signs of musical dyslexia?

As a music educator, you may not think to be on the lookout for dyslexia since it’s not within your qualifications to make a diagnosis. And unfortunately, there is no musical dyslexia test. However, there are some signs you may notice that could indicate its presence in a student. By acknowledging these symptoms, you can adjust your teaching methods to accommodate the pupil.

Here are some potential signals that could indicate musical dyslexia:

  • Mastering limb and/or finger movements takes longer than you would expect based on the student’s intelligence and dedication to learning.
  • A student may understand something when taught, and can reproduce the music accurately in class, but at home, he can’t remember.
  • A student may play ‘approximately’ what is written. For example, the length of the measure might stay stable while the notes (pitch and rhythm) are played differently.
  • Dyslexia and reading music may result in moments of confusion, where the student’s eyes almost seem to glass over.
  • A musically dyslexic child may exhibit heightened fear of failure. This is because the student has to work through so many disappointments, has possibly been labeled as unintelligent or lazy, all the while he/she is working hard to gain less than ideal results.

How can you help music dyslexia students learn?

Acknowledging that a student might have a learning disability like musical dyslexia can go a long way in helping with your patience levels. A student who exhibits signs of musical dyslexia may benefit from individual lessons, where they will experience less anxiety and fewer distractions. You could also encourage this student to pursue genres of music that emphasize improvisation and auditory memory, such as jazz, folk, reggae and pop music. Be sure to compliment the achievements of this student – small wins can go a long way in building his or her confidence.

In general, if you feel a student is putting in the effort and is dedicated to learning, but simply isn’t advancing as quickly as other students, try to have patience. Becoming proficient may take this student a long time, but if they are interested in pursuing music, they should be given as much of a chance as any other student to learn.