Musical Dyslexia?

Jennifer Mishra, an associate Professor of Music Education at the University of Missouri, discusses issues impacting students who struggle to read and understand music theory, in her article How the brain reads music: the evidence for musical dyslexia.

Mishra asks, “Is there such a thing as Musical Dyslexia?” She points out that some musicians have difficulty with reading written music, yet demonstrate and contribute great talent to musical arts. She writes:

Many gifted musicians are able to function at a professional level purely learning music by ear. Among musicians, there is a wide range of music reading proficiencies. This is especially apparent with sight reading (the first performance of a notated piece). Identifying musical dyslexia could help explain why some musicians read well and others don’t.

Musical Intelligence is one of Howard Gardners’ 9 “multiple intelligences” (Gardner, 2010), and in researching brain activity and development he has found that “certain parts of the brain play important roles in perception and production of music.” Infants generally recognize patterns and rythms in music even before speech – which may be why adults speak rythmically to infants. We are rewarded by their rapt attention as we coo and sing to them. This attention has been studied as musical learning.  In a scholarly article on the topic titled Musical Learning and Language Development, Jenny R Saffran, a psychology researcher at the University of Madison, Wisconsin, wrote that “along with faces, young infants are most consistently engaged by speech and by music (making singing a particularly welcome combination of face, speech, and music).”

It seems widely accepted that music plays an important role in learning. As students grow and learn throughout elementary school, there is much use of music for memory- songs about times tables, songs about history- the purpose is usually to help information “stick” with the general learner. This happens because it stimulates a part of the brain- the right hemisphere- that connects ideas with meaning, which is what we need for long term knowledge.

When students enter middle and high school, music is usually taught as a subject on its own, through choir or instrumental courses. Learning musical theory and gaining the skills for playing specific instruments through practice is much more complex than using rhythm to remember facts. Students with cognitive math and language learning disabilities often have difficulty learning the relationship between sounds and their corresponding written code. Dyslexic students who are taught to read music are often left feeling discouraged and  incompetent, even though dyslexic musicians may also have a natural ability to “play by ear”, by repeating the sounds they hear and practicing with repetition to access long term memory storage. This is similar to language learning methods like Orton Gillingham, which in part teaches language sounds (phonemes) repetitively, and then blends them to create words.

When a student struggles with reading code in any form, be it musical theory, written words, mathematical signs or computer code, it is helpful to explore alternative ways to teach and learn. Students may have insight into what works best, and can reflect on what works and what does not. While there is no one-size-fits-all solution, “learning by ear” in music with much repetition through aural and kinesthetic practice, could be the way to access musical theory yet bypass struggles with decoding. Similarly, dyslexic students often can learn and demonstrate learning much better through conversation, project based learning, and multimedia creation (creating movies or designing games from exemplars) than from reading and writing.



Mishra, Jennifer. (2015).

Saffran, Jenny R. (2003). Musical Learning and Language Development. Waisman Center and Department of Psychology, University of Wisconsin, Madison. Retrieved from

Gardner, H. (2010). Howard Gardner. Harvard Graduate School of Education. Retrieved April 13, 2010, from

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