Music and dyslexia
Individual musicians with dyslexia can be successful and positive, but...
Dyslexia can affect musical activities
Although some individuals with dyslexia may find taking part in musical activities challenging, such involvement can actively help. It can boost self-esteem and it is also thought to help develop areas that they may find challenging, such as sequencing, organisation, motor-coordination, memory and concentration.
Possible challenges can include
- Sight reading music
- Remembering instructions in lessons, exams and/or aural work
- De-coding information – for example: in music theory
- Taking longer to learn pieces and exercises, and so on...
If music teachers, parents and musicians understand dyslexia and are willing to be flexible in their approach, there are strategies that the learner and the teacher can put in place to help overcome challenges:
1) Find a teacher who understands dyslexia.
Crucially the most important aspect is that the teacher builds a good working relationship with students so that they feel confident to say when they don’t understand. The BDA Music Committee holds a small database of teachers who are aware of neurodiverse conditions including dyslexia and dyspraxia. The BDA doesn't endorse any teacher but can pass on contact details.
2) Request reasonable adjustments in any music exams – these can make life easier.
Read more about reasonable adjustments in music exams.
3) Look at alternative exam syllabuses, which may not include sight-reading or aural, for example. If exams are a problem, decide whether exams are really necessary for you or your pupil.
All music examination boards provide access arrangements for candidates with dyslexia and other specific learning differences. These adjustments enable students to perform on a 'level playing field'. (See more detail under the heading ‘Exam Boards’.)
4) Consider the most appropriate instrument for each student.
Richard Crozier’s Musical Instruments for Children: Choosing what’s right for your child or The Right Instrument for your child by Atarah Ben-Tovim, might be useful here.
5) Use multi-sensory approaches, that is hearing, vision and movement.
For example: use colour, pictures, demonstration, listening to explanations, recordings, discussion, written text (yes – some dyslexic people like it!), hands-on exploration and so on. Music is excellent for multi-sensory approaches as it involves DOING. Find what works for you or your student.
(A multi-sensory approach: ‘Beat Blox’. Contact BDA Music for details)
6) Use colour if the individual finds this useful.
Colour-coding notes and music can help, for example, highlighting accidentals or repeated passages.
7) Try different approaches to teaching a piece of music.
See the ‘whole picture’ and/or look for patterns, for example. Read the following: A Pianist's Story
8) Consider possible alternatives to ‘traditional’ music notation in your situation, if this is proving a stumbling block.
For example, the use of improvisation and playing by ear can be equally rewarding techniques and are used by many musicians.
9) Consider asking the music teacher to make an audio recording of key information and musical examples on a mobile phone.
Some specific difficulties
(a) Visual difficulties
Some individuals can also experience visual discomfort, although this is not a feature of dyslexia. This may lead to a problem with seeing music on the page. If text or music seems to move or blur on the page, this can impact sight-reading and/or switching view from conductor to written score. An assessment by an optometrist is essential if there seems to be problems. Find out more on the BDA visual difficulties webpage.
Any individual having visual difficulties must be referred to a specialist optometrist.
Coloured overlays and/or tinted paper may be used to help. It is legal to photocopy music in order to make reading easier for dyslexic individuals (see Music Publishers Association Code of Fair Practice, clause 11).
Tips to ensure your printed resources are dyslexia-friendly are outlined in the BDA’s Dyslexia Friendly Style Guide (2018).
Difficulty with organisation can impact on many areas of learning, from attending lessons with the right music and equipment, to the ability to practise and rehearse alone.
- Remind your student to make notes or set personal reminders for times/dates of performances and lessons and what equipment will be needed. Students can use a mobile phone perhaps, or a label tied to the music case.
- Consider a ‘grab and go’ folder with everything that the student needs in order: pieces, scales and theory as well as a practice sheet at the beginning on suitable colour paper if necessary.
- Erasable highlighter pens can be useful so that any markings can be removed and thus support mechanisms gradually withdrawn.
(c) Short term memory
It can be difficult for a dyslexic learner to remember instructions from one lesson to the next, and to learn and remember music theory. A poor short-term memory can also make instructions in aural exams, lessons and rehearsals difficult.
- Keep instructions short, clear and simple.
- Structure lessons and 'chunk' information. For example, begin the lesson with a summary of what the lesson will cover; during the lesson, repeat and recap key points and end the lesson with a summary of what has been covered.
- Ensure that the student understands what practice is expected to be done for the next lesson and (if age appropriate) provide a 'homework' notebook, perhaps on a mobile phone, for notes and reminders.
Many dyslexic learners struggle with sustained concentration.
- 'Chunk' information; repeat and revise points.
- Use different approaches to maintain the student’s interest.
- Encourage the student to take regular breaks.
Exam Boards and Exam Access Arrangements
Access Arrangements (reasonable adjustments) may include
- Extra time.
- Printed materials provided on coloured paper and/or enlarged.
- The use of coloured overlays.
- Repetition of instructions.
- Annotation of sight-reading tests during the preparation period.
- Possible replays of scales and access to a scale book as a reference only.
- Additional attempts at aural questions.
We would advise contacting the access coordinator of the specific music board to find out more about their exam access arrangements. Students must apply for adjustments in good time and will need to provide proof of dyslexia such as
- A letter from school Special Educational Needs Co-ordinator (SENCo) or head teacher on headed paper.
- An assessment or a letter from your Local Education Authority (LEA) on headed paper.
- For adults, the ‘Do-it’ profiler is a good option for diagnosis of dyslexia (search for this online).
See the BDA's guide to exams from the four main boards in the UK, which refers to music exams.
Remember - many great musicians have experienced dyslexia...
- Anna Devin, opera singer, seen above in Calisto (photo credit: Javier Del Real, 2019)
- Nigel Kennedy, violinist
- Cher, singer
- Noel Gallagher (Oasis)
- Ozzy Osbourne (Black Sabbath)
Webinar: 'Music and dyslexia: definitions, difficulties, strengths and strategies' . The webinar can also be accessed on the Incorporated Society of Musician's website with sound and slides, or as a pdf.
The booklet Making music accessible: teaching students with dyslexia published by the ABRSM. This is available here.
Instrumental music for dyslexics: A teaching handbook by Sheila Oglethorpe (Whurr Publishers, 2002)
Music and Dyslexia: Opening New Doors edited by T.R. Miles and John Westcombe. (Whurr Publishers Ltd., 2001)
Music and Dyslexia: A Positive Approach edited by T.R. Miles, John Westcombe and Diana Ditchfield. (John Wiley and Sons Ltd, 2008)
Music, other Performing Arts and Dyslexia edited by Sally Daunt. (BDA, 2012).
For any other enquiries, please contact the BDA Music Committee at firstname.lastname@example.org