The link between music and dyslexia

by Marc Wilson / 09 March, 2019
RelatedArticlesModule - Music dyslexia

Mick Fleetwood: distinguished drummer and dyslexic. Photo/Getty Images

Musical prowess has spinoffs for people with reading difficulties, not to mention video gamers.

There was a time when I wasn’t a slouch on the video-game front, but newer games are a different cup of bitter failure. Compared with my 15-year-old son, I’m embarrassingly slow at Rainbow Six Siege, for example, a game in the “tactical shooter” genre.

Nor do I shine at Beat Saber, a game that’s remarkably simple in concept. Blue and red blocks come towards you in time with a musical backing track, and your job is to use the controllers in each hand to wield lightsabers to cut the blocks in the direction of the arrows on their faces.

The format of block speed, height and direction is, I speculate, designed by a group of psychological torturers to make adults feel incompetent as they flail about trying to cross their hands and back again. My son makes it look easy.

It’s actually fun to watch him – it’s like a dance. It’s fair to say he gets at least some of this from his mother, whose family are so musically talented that her brother actually makes a living from it.

Admittedly, he also has an advantage because he’s been playing the drums for more than five years and has excellent rhythm and co-ordination.

Segue to another drummer, Mick Fleetwood of Fleetwood Mac. His sometimes unorthodox drumming is a defining part of the band’s success.

According to his autobiography, Play On: Now, Then, and Fleetwood Mac, he is also dyslexic. Dyslexia is a label commonly used to describe difficulties in learning to read, and reading. In spite of its common usage, dyslexia is a little controversial. Some experts argue that it’s not a specific condition but that reading learning and ability is normally distributed on a bell curve and the people we may think of as dyslexic are those who are just normally at the left tail.

Dyslexia is not a visual problem – dyslexics don’t necessarily have a problem seeing letters and words. Often, their difficulty is in linking letters to sounds.

Language, like music, has rhythm and structure, and it seems logical to wonder if practising music might help people who experience the kinds of difficulties that are common in dyslexia.

One way to test this idea would be to take a group of people “diagnosed” with dyslexia, expose half of them to a musical therapy, then see how their reading is developing.

Or you can do what specific learning difficulties researcher and teacher Paula Bishop-Liebler and colleagues in the UK did. If learning to play music can help with reading, then we’d expect that people who have learnt to play music and previously identified as dyslexic should have learnt to read better than people identified as dyslexic who haven’t learnt music. So, Bishop-Liebler compared the abilities of about 20 musicians with a history of reading difficulty with similar numbers of musicians with no dyslexia history and age-matched non-musician dyslexic controls.

Dyslexic musicians proved to be more like “normal” musicians than non-musical dyslexics on tests of auditory processing, and particularly tasks that involved processing sound length and rhythm. This improvement extended to tasks relating to the rhythm of word sounds as well.

Musical training has been shown to be helpful for dyslexic youngsters and Bishop-Liebler speculates that music will be most helpful when it involves explicit links between music and language.

I’m not sure what my Beat Saber failures say about my own linguistic abilities.

This article was first published in the February 23, 2019 issue of the New Zealand Listener.

Latest

Fine lines: New Anzac books and graphic novels for kids
105028 2019-04-25 00:00:00Z Books

Fine lines: New Anzac books and graphic novels for…

by Ann Packer

A telegraph “boy”, heroic animals and even shell-shock make for engaging reads for children.

Read more
Keeping up appearances: The challenging job of restoring NZ's lighthouses
104978 2019-04-25 00:00:00Z Life in NZ

Keeping up appearances: The challenging job of res…

by Fiona Terry

Ensuring lighthouses stay “shipshape” isn’t a job for the faint-hearted.

Read more
The former major reuniting service medals with their rightful owners
105015 2019-04-25 00:00:00Z Life in NZ

The former major reuniting service medals with the…

by Fiona Terry

Service medals are being reunited with their rightful owners thanks to former major Ian Martyn and his determined research.

Read more
PM announces 'Christchurch Call' to end use of social media for terrorism
104952 2019-04-24 00:00:00Z Politics

PM announces 'Christchurch Call' to end use of soc…

by Noted

A meeting aims to see world leaders and CEOs of tech companies agree to a pledge called the ‘Christchurch Call’.

Read more
Red Joan: Judi Dench almost saves Soviet spy story from tedium
104942 2019-04-24 00:00:00Z Movies

Red Joan: Judi Dench almost saves Soviet spy story…

by James Robins

The fictionalised account of a British woman who spied for the Soviet Union is stiflingly quaint.

Read more
What to watch on TV this Anzac Day
104749 2019-04-24 00:00:00Z Television

What to watch on TV this Anzac Day

by Fiona Rae

Māori TV once again devotes the day to Anzac programming, including a live broadcast from Gallipoli.

Read more
Twist in the tale: Why Margaret Mahy changed the end of her classic debut
104490 2019-04-24 00:00:00Z Books

Twist in the tale: Why Margaret Mahy changed the e…

by Sally Blundell

The two different endings of the beloved A Lion in the Meadow still provoke debate. So which is better, the 1969 original or the later, kinder one?

Read more
Mapping the second brain: The latest science on the effect of your gut bacteria
104884 2019-04-24 00:00:00Z Health

Mapping the second brain: The latest science on th…

by Donna Chisholm

Most of us have heard the five-plus-a-day message for fruit and vegetables. But new research into gut health suggests that advice may need tweaking.

Read more