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Dyslexia & Reading Music: When the Treble Gives You Trouble, It’s Time to Change the Key

Posted September 29, 2022 in Articles

Author: Stafford Merk, Upper School Music Teacher

For students with dyslexia and other language-based learning differences, matching sounds to symbols is a challenge that leads to great difficulty with reading, writing, and spelling. When it comes to music literacy, oftentimes sound-note matching is equally complicated—but that doesn't mean these learners should miss out on making meaningful music! Faculty member Stafford Merk shares how she encourages students to find their rhythm by shifting the focus in her music classroom.


Dyslexia & Reading Music: When the Treble Gives You Trouble, It’s Time to Change the Key

My kid loved music until they had to read sheet music, and then it got a little too hard.

If your child has a language-based learning difference, you may be familiar with the sentiment above. You might have thought it when your daughter quit piano lessons. Perhaps you voiced something similar when your son began to scorn band practice. Or maybe, a related complaint was offered up when your budding vocalist wanted to drop out of the local children’s choir. As a music teacher at Lawrence School, I’ve heard countless variations of: my kid loved music, until…

According to the Ohio Department of Education’s music standards, students are expected to read and perform traditional notation (what we think of as sheet music) as early as second grade. By middle school, they should be notating in five different keys, in varied patterns and meters. By high school, students performing in an ensemble must be able to sight-read, based on the foundation they’ve built over the previous eight years. But what happens when a student’s learning difference (or any other reason, for that matter) leads to underdeveloped skills in music theory?

Some educators would advise it's time to get back to the basics, but I disagree.

When I started teaching at Lawrence, six years ago, I found a community of bright and talented students eager to learn about and make music. Regardless of their educational backgrounds, many couldn’t read music at all. For a time, I focused on music literacy in my teaching, but it was an overwhelming obstacle—rather than a reasonable goal. Even non-traditional avenues for teaching theory seemed irrelevant during class. So, I shifted my pedagogical approach to something else entirely: positive, affirming experiences while creating and performing. With this primary objective, I’ve found tremendous success.

But just because something is hard, one might argue, is that reason enough to abandon it? Decoding words is difficult for these readers; should their language arts teachers simply throw away the phonics lessons? Of course not! But I believe the music classroom is an exception.

Let me offer a historical perspective to defend my point. America has a rich history of music that explicitly discludes reading music. In fact, the three genres of music that are truly American-made, jazz, rock n’ roll, and country, are built on aural traditions and participatory practices from enslaved people and immigrants. Music participation is the bedrock of American music, not music reading.

Music participation is the bedrock of American music, not music reading.

Now, I am not suggesting we eliminate music literacy from our curriculum, but I do believe we can make space for both rich and time-honored instructional approaches. To any fellow music educator who clutches their pearls or balks at the notion of moving away from traditional note reading, I invite you to visit my classroom any day of the week!

There you’ll find enthusiastic musicians collaborating and engaging: large and small groups jamming together on electric instruments; a choir both rehearsing in the traditional fashion, as well as challenging themselves with vocal improvisation; novice composers creating their own chiptunes; imaginative arrangers producing original themes as they score a film scene; and more. The true learning I know you’ll witness is the direct result of my new-found focus.

Music at Lawrence is accessible to all. We learn by listening, we learn through repetition, we learn by trial and error, and, for some we learn traditionally. In fact, we do offer a music theory course for those who may want to pursue music at the postsecondary level. But for the majority of our music makers, being able to participate with confidence and enjoyment is key.

To me, there is no greater marker of our program’s success.


Dyslexia & Reading Music: When the Treble Gives You Trouble, It’s Time to Change the Key

A life-long learner, Stafford Merk earned her Bachelor's of Music and Master’s of Music Teaching at Oberlin College. She also holds a Master’s of Music in Vocal Performance from the University of Kentucky, as well as an Artist Diploma in Opera Theater from the University of Memphis. With an extensive background in both teaching and vocal performance, Stafford recently presented Creativity in Choral Ensembles at the OMEA Professional Development Conference.

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