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Posted 18th July, 2013 by Sue Partridge

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I have been pondering the impact of music, musical training and memory on dyslexia recently, for three reasons.  One is that I recently toook a music exam (singing) myself, and although not dyslexic wanted to analyse what I needed to achieve this memory feat (I guess I was more interested in the impact of aging than dyslexia in my case).   Secondly I noticed a particular memory trait in some members of the choir I sing in preparing for a recent concert.  And finally I completed a dyslexia assessment this month for a young person who has amazing musical talents.

Let’s take the dyslexia assessment first.  Having learned  to play musical instruments from an early age, this person had undergone the regular discipline of practice and listening and improvising to attain a very high standard of manual dexterity, a musical ear and the ability to memorise music.  How would this fit in with dyslexia as a phonological processing difficulty, possible aspects of motor integration needed for writing and spelling and working memory for facets of language acuisition and study?

In the case of this young person (and indeed a professional musician I assessed a couple of years ago) many of the features of dyslexia were masked by by the very high level skills they had achieved along the way. I am convinced that musical ability and practice conveys a big advantage when it comes to studying other subjects. There were anomalies, however, to do with being better at sight reading than playing from memory, having to work harder than other people at some aspects of memory training and occasional lapses in an otherwise outstanding educational career.

Sight reading music is an amazing gift (one that I do not possess to any  great degree).  Some people only have to look at a page of music to be able to hear how it goes and sing (or play) along.  When I approach music I need a number of other “hooks” to help me along. I need reminders (which I attach as postit notes on my score) linking the style of the music with tricky tempo changes and words.  I am not alone in this in my choir.  In our recent repertoire which had several linked pieces our conductor was grumpy in rehearsal when we couldn’t start a new movement just from a chord and a beat of his baton.  I needed to hear more to recall what it was going to be like before I warmed up to the task.

When it came to the singing exam and faced with singing five songs from memory I was fine with the melody but was worried I would lose track of the lyrics, which sometimes had subtle switches between verses.  Also I was singing in English, French and Russian (yes, my choice!).  Over the year of preparation I used various memory techniques…

  • alphabetical  order (“and fear, and grief and pain…” Dowland),
  • word painting (hearing what the pattern of the notes said about the words),
  • narrative with visuals – designing a story board of images telling the story of my French song (Faure)
  • acting technique (thanks to my teacher for this great suggestion) where you work out a verb that conveys the feeling behind each line (of a Gershwin song) and convey that in your face as you sing,
  • and of course good old repetition and testing.

My dyslexic student has good memory techniques when it comes to music, but may need help in applyng some of this when studying at university.

And yes, since you ask, I passed my Grade 8 singing  exam, the first music I exam I had taken since a teenager many, many years ago!



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  • Yvonne

    This discussion came back to me, last week on our family holiday. Our entertainment one evening came from whispering a well known song to one person, who then had to perform whilst changing the lyrics by reading out from a newspaper. Some of the results could at least be recognised, others were hilariously awful. Why can some of us hold a melody, whilst sight reading new words, and for others the words and melody appear inseparable? Try it, it’s fun and you may learn a little about your own musical abilities!

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