Music therapy fails dyslexics

Apr 08, 2010

There is no link between a lack of musical ability and dyslexia. Moreover, attempts to treat dyslexia with music therapy are unwarranted, according to scientists in Belgium writing in the current issue of the International Journal of Arts and Technology.

Cognitive neuroscientist José Morais of the Free University of Brussels and colleagues point out that research into has pointed to a problem with how the brain processes sounds and how dyslexic readers manipulate the sounds from which words are composed, the phonemes, consciously and intentionally. It was a relatively short step between the notion that dyslexia is an issue of phonological processing and how this might also be associated with poor musical skills - amusia - that has led to approaches to treating the condition using therapy to improve a dyslexic reader's musical skills.

Morais and colleagues demonstrate that theoretically this is an invalid argument and also present experimental evidence to show that there is no justification either for the link or for using music therapy to treat dyslexia.

Language and music are apparently uniquely human traits and many researchers have tried to find direct links between the two. A whole industry of hinges on this purported association with claims that language remediation is possible through the application of learning in music. Given the social importance of literacy, a role for music in helping poor or dyslexic readers to overcome their difficulties has been at the forefront of therapy for many years. Morais' team points out that the notion is based on studies that are generally flawed in two respects.

The first problem with studies that attempt to link a lack of musical ability with reading difficulties is that the quality of published empirical studies is quite variable and many reviews of the field fail to discard papers containing insufficient information, either on materials and methods, or on the experimental results. The second flaw is that many studies imply an explicit causality between amusia and dyslexia on the basis of results that are themselves merely statistical correlations. Such an approach to science leads to a circular argument in which some researchers argue that music discrimination predicts phonological skills, which in turn predicts reading ability and that reading ability implies phonological skills and so on.

More recent studies have broken the link between hearing and reading by showing that deaf children, who often learn to perceive speech accurately using lip reading and visual clues can have literacy levels just as high as hearing children. Of course, most of those children do not develop good musical ability with respect to musical pitch. Conversely, people who are unable even to hum a familiar tune show normal literacy levels.

Music and speech do overlap, but musical sounds and phonemes are not the same, the researchers explain. Musical tones are simply sounds, however, they are produced and can be heard without recourse to complex auditory analysis. Phonemes, in contrast, whether spoken or read, are abstractions of the units into which language might be broken down. They are purely symbolic and require significantly more interpretation to understand than simply hearing a sound.

"The conscious representations of phonemes play a crucial role in the learning of literacy abilities in the alphabetic writing system. Children do not become spontaneously aware of phonemes. Nor do they become aware of phonemes by learning music," the researchers say. The team has now studied the differing abilities of children, both with and without dyslexia, on understanding and interpretation of phonemes and syllables and musical notes and the intervals between them in a melody. They saw no significant differences between dyslexic readers and age-matched normal readers in the melodic tests.

Literacy is crucially dependent on phonological skills, but alphabetic literacy is strongly constrained by the development of phoneme awareness and abilities, and phonemes have no correspondence in music, the team explains. Thus, although music, through its emotional characteristics, might be a great motivational support for speech-based therapy, this limits, to a large extent, the possibilities of using music training to re-educate dyslexic readers.

Explore further: Nigeria death shows Ebola can spread by air travel

add to favorites email to friend print save as pdf

Related Stories

Unraveling the roots of dyslexia

Mar 12, 2009

By peering into the brains of people with dyslexia compared to normal readers, a study published online on March 12th in Current Biology, a Cell Press publication, has shed new light on the roots of the learning disability, which ...

Taking up music so you can hear

Aug 17, 2009

Anyone with an MP3 device -- just about every man, woman and child on the planet today, it seems -- has a notion of the majesty of music, of the primal place it holds in the human imagination.

Recommended for you

Nigeria death shows Ebola can spread by air travel

12 hours ago

(AP)—Nigerian health authorities raced to stop the spread of Ebola on Saturday after a man sick with one of the world's deadliest diseases brought it by plane to Lagos, Africa's largest city with 21 million ...

Trial in salmonella outbreak to start in Georgia

12 hours ago

(AP)—Three people accused of scheming to manufacture and ship salmonella-tainted peanuts that killed nine people and sickened more than 700 are set to go to trial this week in Georgia.

Remote tribe members enter another village, catch flu

20 hours ago

Advocates for indigenous tribes are worried over incidents last month when some members of one of the last uncontacted tribes in the Peru/Brazil region, across borders, left their home in Peru and entered ...

Nigeria on red alert after first Ebola death

Jul 26, 2014

Nigeria was on alert against the possible spread of Ebola on Saturday, a day after the first confirmed death from the virus in Lagos, Africa's biggest city and the country's financial capital.

User comments : 0