Your Musical Self

Using music to learn, heal, and live

Music Therapy and Dyslexia: There's Still Hope!

Correcting inaccurate assumptions and gross misstatements about my field.

Can I vent?

An article came out in Science Daily on April 10th. The article, titled "Music Therapy Fails Dyslexia: No Link Between Dyslexia and Musical Ability, Study Finds," made the following claims:

  1. There is no relationship between a lack of musical ability (or amusia) and dyslexia.
  2. Any attempts to treat dyslexia through music therapy are unwarranted.
  3. The "whole industry of music therapy hinges" on the association between language and music (and the idea that music can be used to remediate language).
  4. There are three reasons why the theory that music training helps with dyslexia is wrong: 1) the quality of studies that make that claim are poor; 2) the current studies imply causality when, in fact, they only show an association; 3) a couple of studies have shown there is no link between ability to hear (e.g. with Deaf children) and the ability to read. According to the writer, you can even be "unable...to hum a familiar tune (and) show normal literacy levels."
  5. Music, through its ability to be "emotional," may be very useful for "motivational support" in speech therapy.

Before I share my rebuttal (and tear down their claims bit-by-bit), a disclaimer: I have not been able to read the actual article. Therefore, I do not know whether these misstatements are those of the researchers or those of the writer.

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Be that as it may, time to present my argument:

  1. The jury is still out on the relationship between musical ability and dyslexia. Research has shown, in fact, that children with dyslexia have a harder time discriminating between different auditory cues. This deficit appears to be related to their dyslexia since the ability to discriminate the onset of a sound is a precursor to the ability to discriminate phonemes (Goswami 2009). Translation: there is still hope that music training (especially the ability to discriminate pitch differences) may help with phoneme discrimination.
  2. The writer did not do his/her homework. There is a difference between music training and music therapy. A big difference. Using them interchangeably is wrong. Music training involves any and all aspects of learning music: playing an instrument, music theory, singing, reading music, and writing music. Music therapy involves the application of music-based interventions on non-musical treatment goals. Music training is one intervention we can use...but only if it's appropriate to address the non-musical goal. Music therapy is "musician-proof" and has nothing to do with the musical ability of our clients.
  3. The idea that music therapy "works" only because of the association between music and language is (again) just plain wrong. Music therapy works because, as Levitin so beautifully worded it, our bodies love rhythm and our brains love melody and harmony. Music therapy works because many of the brain processes that are impaired in our clients are shared with the brain processes used to process music. Language is just one of them. Music also touches on brain areas responsible for motor movement, coordination and balance, emotional regulation, language production, executive functioning, auditory processing, learning and memory, state regulation, and a host more. Because of music's pervasive influence on our brain, music therapy can be used to target physical, sensory, cognitive, emotional, regulatory, and psychosocial goals.
  4. I do not have access to the articles the researchers make these claims about. But see the research cited in point #1 to know that they didn't look at all of them.
  5. I fight this misunderstanding all the time. It's easy to make this assumption...but wrong. Music does so much more than motivate us. See #3 for why.

I'm an optimistic person and I fully believe that the researchers meant well. They are trying to find ways to help people with dyslexia and they wanted to see whether, in fact, music could help.

But to make the inaccurate generalizations that they did? That's not okay.

A big THANK YOU to music therapist Kat Fulton and music neuroscientist Ani Patel for sharing their insights and information for this article.

Follow me on Twitter @KimberlySMoore for daily updates on the latest research and articles related to music, music therapy, and music and the brain. I invite you also to check out my website, www.MusicTherapyMaven.com, for additional information, resources, and strategies.

References

Goswami, U. (2009). Mind, brain, and literacy: Biomarkers as usable knowledge for
education. Mind, Brain, and Education, 3, 176-184.

Levitin, D. (2006). This is Your Brain on Music: The Science of a Human Obsession. New York: Penguin Group, Inc.

Kimberly Sena Moore is a board certified music therapist, blogger, and professor at the University of Miami.

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