[Smt-talk] Dylexia and music theory/aural skills

Leigh VanHandel lvh at msu.edu
Sun Oct 16 07:44:57 PDT 2011


One place to start might be to look at the pedagogy of mathematics and  
how they handle teaching the fundamentals to students with dyslexia.  
That's a rich (and well-funded) research area. I've sent an email to a  
math education colleague of mine to ask if there are any good sources  
for this, and I'll let you know what I hear back from him. I've found  
that research on how children learn mathematics tends to be much more  
applicable to how college students learn music theory than one might  

There are several different types of dyslexia -- phonological and  
spatial being two that would be most important for music -- and it  
would be important to figure out which one(s) your student is dealing  
with, as they would manifest themselves in the form of different  
errors (i.e., phonological would mix up instructions or reverse letter  
names, whereas spatial mix up ascending and descending lines, for  

I currently have a student who has primarily the phonological version  
-- as he's telling himself instructions, he'll get his steps mixed up  
or just say the wrong thing, which then becomes the "truth". "Okay, so  
a step above C is B ... " -- he knows full well that B is below C, but  
he meant to say D, and everything gets messed up from there. Working  
with students step-by-step can help you -- and them! -- identify where  
their problems are and what parts of the process they need to watch  
out for. Even before you are given testing accommodations, you can  
start working with your student to find out where her primary  
difficulties are, and with luck you'll be able to start encouraging a  
workflow that will help her.


Dr. Leigh VanHandel
Associate Professor of Music Theory
Music Theory Area Chair
Michigan State University
lvh at msu.edu

On Oct 14, 2011, at 6:50 AM, Kris Shaffer wrote:

> Dear Colleagues,
> I have a freshman music theory and aural skills student who is  
> demonstrating signs of dyslexia. While she is pursuing testing and  
> an official diagnosis, I'm searching for ways to help her through  
> some of her specific struggles. So far I've found some helpful lists  
> of musical problems often associated with dyslexia, many of which  
> are true for this student, but nothing in terms of helping an adult  
> learn music theory, dictation, or sight singing. Do any of you know  
> of specific resources for music theory instructors in this regard?  
> Or have you found types of practice techniques, assignments,  
> accommodations that were helpful for a dyslexic student in your  
> charge? Until we have an official diagnosis, we can't make any  
> testing accommodations, but I'd like to start tutoring as soon as  
> possible (she needs tutoring help whether dyslexic or not!), or she  
> may fail the course. So I'd really appreciate any suggestions for  
> training/practice techniques that we can try right away.
> She is currently in the first semester of theory (finishing up 2- 
> voice species counterpoint in a week or so and moving on to basic  
> chord structures) and aural skills (just started a unit with first  
> substantial focus on melodic dictation, using Karpinski's  
> protonotation-to-musical-notation method). Any suggestions specific  
> to that would be amazing. But anything relating to dyslexia and  
> musical notation, musical instruction, solfege, dictation, etc.  
> would be a big help. And if any of you with insights want to talk  
> over coffee at SMT, that would be wonderful.
> Thanks!
> Kris Shaffer
> Assistant Professor of Music Theory
> Charleston Southern University
> http://kris.shaffermusic.com
> Prof. Kris Shaffer
> Charleston Southern University
> Horton School of Music
> 9200 University Boulevard
> P.O. Box 118087
> Charleston, SC 29423-8087
> (843) 863-7964
> kshaffer at csuniv.edu
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