I was recently approached by a parent and asked about her daughter’s struggles with learning to read music in her piano lessons. This mother wondered if her daughter’s difficulty had anything to do with her dyslexia. If so, she queried, what should they expect regarding her daughter’s ability to learn an instrument?
This is not the first time this topic has been brought to my attention. As a pianist, former piano teacher, and vocalist, I have some background experience with learning to read music and teaching others to read music. Like learning any new system, it certainly isn’t easy. However, we know that engaging with linguistic text (reading/writing) is more difficult for individuals with dyslexia, so we can expect learning to read music to follow a similar trajectory. But why? How is reading a book or writing a sentence essentially the same as reading a piece of music and playing a tune? They seem so different! As it turns out...they share more similarities than you might think.
For a child with dyslexia, sound-letter matching is difficult, which in turn causes effortful reading and writing. By the same token, sound-note matching will likely be difficult when reading music. Music is a "language," in a sense: it is a code system using our phonological processing areas and working memory to recall note names, and then pair each name with specific placements on the staff to create meaning. We call it "reading" music because the individual has to decode symbols and comprehend their meaning, just as you do with text. Additionally, we know that children with dyslexia have trouble with horizontal tracking across text, and reading music requires horizontal and vertical tracking. Dyslexic kids do not have strong left to right tracking skills, not because they can’t, but because they do not develop it in reading. Furthermore, music symbols look awfully similar. Often, the only difference between two notes is their vertical orientation on a staff! If a child has difficulty distinguishing between <b>, <d>, <p> and <q>, distinguishing between two half-notes that look the same but are on different lines would also be quite challenging! As you can see, dyslexia is a symbol-based disorder, and both reading and music are symbol-based processes.
If anything, pairing tones with notes is a different level of sound processing because all notes are relative to each other on a harmonic scale. By contrast, speech sounds do not change in meaning if the frequency changes (i.e. Saying “hello” in a low pitch vs. a high pitch does not change the meaning of “hello”).
It is also worth mentioning that piano is one of the more difficult instruments to play, given that it requires strong cross-talk across the right and left hemispheres of the brain, more so than other instruments. When playing the piano, the right hand and left hand (or rather, the right brain and left brain) must read two separate staves simultaneously (treble and bass clef) - this is challenging for people who don't have dyslexia, too! Most other instruments require the instrumentalist to read only one staff.
With all this in mind, we know children with dyslexia are not efficient users of their language areas (left hemisphere). They tend to use their right hemisphere for most processing. We also know that music (tones, prosody, etc.) is processed mostly in the right hemisphere. So, it is not uncommon for a child with dyslexia to still be musically-inclined. He or she might still have a good ear for music, or can accurately hit pitches when they sing - it's that stronger right brain! And that is an encouraging thought.