The link between music and dyslexia

by Marc Wilson / 09 March, 2019
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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.

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