Music and Specific Learning Difficulties - by Karen Marshall RSS

Teaching / 04/07/2016
Music and Specific Learning Difficulties - by Karen Marshall

How it started

In the year 2000 I started to teach a student with dyslexia.  Unusually his parents brought him to me with a wealth of information on what dyslexia was and how it affected him.  As a teacher I was very lucky to be given information because, the only thing I knew about dyslexia was that it caused spelling difficulties.  After spending time with this student I noticed other students – who had not been assessed as dyslexic – displaying some of the same traits.  Over the next couple of years, some of these students were also assessed with dyslexia or another specific leaning difficulty (spLD). 

It became quickly apparent that my usual teaching style was not being particularly effective.  I read as much as I could but found that this information described many of the problems but gave few practical solutions.  I contacted the British Dyslexia Association who referred me to the late Margaret Hubiki (Emeritus Professor from the Royal Academy of Music).  Over the last few years of her life – by telephone – Peggy Hubiki taught me how to multi-sensory music teach.  I will never forget her words.  Try to focus on three questions with a student:  What do you see?  What do you feel?  What do you hear?  The results using this style of teaching for these students and others have been quite extraordinary.     

What are specific learning difficulties (spLDs)?

  •     Dyslexia – difficulties with processing words (can be seeing and hearing)
  •     Dyscalculia – difficulties with processing number
  •     Dysgraphia – difficulties with the process of writing
  •     Dyspraxia – difficulties processing movement
  •     ADHD / ADD – difficulty with concentration
  •     Asperger’s Autism – difficulty processing emotion

In addition to these problems, many of these difficulties are also accompanied by memory problems, short term and working memory.

What is multi-sensory music teaching?

Multi-sensory music teaching is just what it sounds, using all the senses to teach music.  The main three employed are visual (seeing), auditory (hearing) and kinaesthetic (doing).  I’d also add in reading and writing (text) as the literate nature of our world shows, many people find this useful (even those with dyslexia).  Multi-sensory music teaching can be seen in some of the most respected music teaching approaches in the world such as Dalcroze, Kodály, Suzuki and Orff.  It can benefit all learners, but especially those with specific learning difficulties like dyslexia.

Sheila Oglethorpe in Instrumental Music for Dyslexics: A Teaching Handbook (Whurr, 1996) states:  “The foremost advice that is given to teachers of dyslexics in the classroom is to teach in a multi-sensory way.  They are exhorted to employ as many of the child’s senses as possible in the hope that the stronger senses will compensate for the weaker ones and a pathway into the brain and the memory will be found.”

How can we teach music in a multi-sensory way?

Multi-sensory teaching (MST) is regularly employed when teaching a child to read. My own daughter was shown pictures of the letters (visual), listened to how the letters are pronounced (auditory), and drew the letters in a tray of sand (kinaesthetic).  Learning to play and read music can also be taught using all the senses.  As already mentioned it’s one of the most effective ways to teach a student with learning difficulties.  Here’s an example, teaching C major scale on a piano.

These exercises can be adapted for instruments other than the piano.  If you are teaching the flute let the student see, hear and feel, the fingering on the pads, if the trumpet, the position on the valves, the violin, the fingering on the strings. 


•    Sing to ‘la’ the C major scale with the student.

•    Sing the ascending scale again for the student to listen to, using the letter names C D E F G A B C, and then sing them descending while the student follows the progress on the keyboard (or fingering on another instrument).

•    Sing the scale again to the student but this time using the finger numbers 123 12345 etc. as you sing up and down.

•    Play the intervals of a major 2nd and a semi-tone.  Help the student aurally identify these intervals within the scale.   


•    Provide the student with a picture of the keyboard with the finger numbers of the scale on it.  Some students do not think in terms of finger numbers: if this is the case, try another way.

•    Show the student the scale written out as notes on the stave.

•    Get the student to look at the keyboard and see the shape of the scale in relation to the white and black notes.

•    I have a student who always remembers the D major scale as the one with Fish and Chips in – the Fish representing F sharp and Chips reminding them of the C sharp.


•    Finger numbers need to be learnt.  This can be done with a simple song (like ‘Once I caught a fish alive), doing the actions of the finger numbers at the same time.

•    Invite the student to use the right hand and depress the first three notes of the scale (notes CDE) together on the keyboard, then place the thumb on F and depress the next four notes with fingers 1234 (notes FGAB) – ascending up the keyboard. 

•    Get the student to close their eyes and feel the fingering of the scale.

•    Ask the student using their right hand to put finger 3 on the E and then tuck their thumb under onto the F.

•    Walk the pattern of the tones and semi tones one the floor, a tone (large step), semi-tone (small step).

Here are some more general hints and tips for teaching dyslexic students:

•    Teach in a multi-sensory way and use colour, pattern and music recordings to aid your teaching if helpful to the student.

•    Be aware that dyslexic students may confuse left and right.  Avoid using these terms: find other ways.

•    Sensitively encourage students to say things out loud what they need to learn.  This is a good way to check their understanding.

•    Produce well-structured lessons.  It helps to use a regular format so that the student knows in what order you do things.

•    Watch the body language to see if “Yes I understand” really means “No I don’t but I don’t want to say”.  Test the understanding without challenging the student and then teach the concept in another way.

•    Always OVER-TEACH information.  Poor short-term memory is a particular weakness for dyslexic students.  Use mnemonics if they help.

•    Beware of sequencing problems.  Many dyslexic students can find it difficult to sequence note names backwards.

•    Build the student’s self-esteem: focus on strengths.

•    Do not speak too much or too fast, and try to use short sentences.  

•    If the dyslexic student complains about the notes dancing, produce enlarged or simplified copies of the music, try covering the music with coloured acetate, or copy the music onto coloured paper. 

•    Set realistic goals and ensure all results are rewarded.

•    Help with personal organisation.  Try highlighting things to be practised by putting a small bookmark in the music, with no more than three things to practise listed on it.  Even better, use pictures.

•    Work in partnership with the parent.

•    Be flexible and persistent.  If something isn’t successful, keep on trying new things.

Additional resources

  • Get Set Piano! – Karen Marshall and Heather Hammond, A&C Black: These tutor books incorporate MST teaching throughout.  Suitable for beginner pianists, Book 1 takes the student to prep test and book 2 to Grade 1.
  • E-MusicMaestro's new Piano Sight Reading Grades 1 - 3: online sight reading practice with a huge number of examples, all of which can be viewed large on a dyslexia-friendly, cream background.
  • My First Theory Book and Theory Made Easy for Little Children by Lina Ng  - these include stickers which are very popular with young children.
  • Life size stave:  Create using masking tape on the floor or an old piece of carpet with black carpet tape (this is then transportable).  Get the student to sing the letter names of the different pitches as they stand in the correlating space on the stave, play musical twister, marking and singing different words on the stave, stand on the note pitch and play the corresponding note on an instrument (use a picture of the keyboard for pianists).

Internet resources and apps

  • E-MusicMaestro Aural Test Training at
  • Pamela Rose's video-based Grade 5 Theory programme at
  • Rhythm in Reach app
  • Music Sparkles app
  • Garage Band 
  • Notion 3


The British Dyslexia Association run a course, Music learning and dyslexia, delivered by Karen Marshall.  Contact the British Dyslexia Association’s training department.  The course runs yearly in the Easter Holidays.

The British Dyslexia Association – visit their website, call their helpline or contact BDA Music (see below).

Look out for Kodaly and Dalcroze courses too.

BDA Music - a committee of the British Dyslexia Association dealing specifically with music.  Their e-mail address is

Additional reading

Music Teacher & British Dyslexic Association (2012), Teacher Guide to Music and Dyslexia. Available:

Daunt, S. (ed.) (2012), Music, Other Performing Arts and Dyslexia. Bracknell: B.D.A.

Oglethorpe, S. (2002), Instrumental music for dyslexics, a teaching handbook. (2nd ed.) London: Whurr Publishers Ltd.

Miles, T.R. and Westcombe, J. (eds.) (2001), Music and Dyslexia: Opening New Doors. London: Whurr Publishers Ltd.

Miles, T.R., Westcombe, J. and Ditchfield, D. (eds.) (2008), Music and Dyslexia A Positive Approach. Chichester: John Wiley & Sons Ltd.

Some final thoughts

Multi-sensory music teaching is a wonderful tool to accelerate learning in all our students and especially those with learning difficulties.  It makes lessons more varied, memorable and fun!  It can expand our learning and develop us as teachers in ways we could never imagine.

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