Does Music Therapy “Fail” Dyslexia?

After the article in the Science Daily reported that “Music Therapy Fails Dyslexics” there was a flurry of email to my inbox. How could this be true? What did they mean? I have been waiting until I could read the original research article (i.e., the one that is the topic of the above news article) before writing a response. Today, after weeks of waiting, the article has arrived!  So, lets take a look and see what this article was all about (read abstract here).

Morais et al. (2010) explain that music (tones) and language (phonological units) are different. This isn’t new information, in fact you can read all about the similarities and difference of music and language in Patel’s Music, Language and the Brain (2008).  They present the argument that the inability to discriminate pitch (amusia) had no bearings on ability to understand phonology (i.e., persons who are deaf who read). Furthermore, they argue that studies showing correlation between pitch discrimination and phonological discrimination should not imply causation (which is an accepted and basic concept in correlational research) and that music learning is not crucial for language learning. The authors also point out that there isn’t  much solid research supporting any notion that music skills and reading skills are linked.

Other arguments concern the origin of dyslexia (i.e., is it a timing deficit) and can general music skill help with reading skills. The authors point out that there is not a lot of research to determine any conclusions and they bring forth articles both finding in favor and  against these subjects.

The authors present their own study data where they compare “the development of the ability to operate explicitly on phonemes and syllables with the development of the ability to operate explicitly with notes and intervals” (p. 187). Children with dyslexia performed more poorly on phonological tasks, but as a whole not on musical tasks.  A further break-down showed that children with dyslexia performed poorly on phonemes, to a lesser extent syllables, and on pitch interval tasks when compared to typical children. Their conclusion? Dyslexia is not directly related to amusia.

In my opinion there are a couple considerations:

#1 The original authors did not differentiate between musical training and music therapy, which is unfortunate since they use both terms. Although they don’t use the phrase “music therapy fails dyslexics” in the article,  they DO use the term “musical therapies” in a less-than positive way on pg. 179 and reference “music therapy” as a unjustified treatment in the abstract.  There is a big difference between “music therapy” and “music training” and both the original research article  and the ScienceDaily article “miss the boat” on the difference.  They present that amusia is not related to dyslexia and therefore musical training will do nothing for persons with dyslexia. There is no explanation or reference to music therapy otherwise.

#2 This article is mostly a lit review with opinions on flaws of current research and a presentation of said research. There are some very valid points – there isn’t a lot of research in this area and sometimes research published is poorly presented, constructed, etc…

#3  In this lit review it is clear that there is a lot of contradictory research out there, meaning that we really don’t know what is occurring in children with dyslexia and there are a lot of differing opinions.

#4 As far as the Music Therapy research goes, when looking at the bibliography it is clear that none of the studies cited were actually on music therapy provided by a trained music therapist.  A search of PubMed yielded one study on music therapy for reading skills (specific learning disability) completed by Register et al. (2007) on children with specific learning disability in reading (not mentioned in the Morais et al. study).

#5 The literature review is followed by an explanation of a study completed by the authors, which in all fairness doesn’t meet the highest standard of research. Their study had a small number of participants with 8 children with dyslexia and 12 typical children). Some of these children had a musical background (presented as less than 25% – of fewer than 5 children) but their background  and which group they were in wasn’t explained. They present their data but without much information about deign, analysis, etc.   To give you an idea, 4.5 pages of this 19-page article are on the author’s current study.

I think it is important for us to consider the possibility that we will find evidence that music therapy doesn’t work in some cases. At that time we should review the research thoroughly and change our practice using methods that have been shown to work. But thats not what this study is about. This is a case where  the field of music therapy was misrepresented by researchers who did not do their homework.


Morais, J.,  Periot, A., Lidji, P., & Kolinsky, R. (2010). Music and dyslexia. International Journal of Art and Technology, 3(2/3), 177-194.

Register, D., Darrow, A.A., Standley, J., & Swedberg, O. (2007). The use of music to enhance reading skills of second grade students and students with reading disabilities. J Music Ther., 44(1), 23-37. PMID: 17419662

Inderscience Publishers (2010, April 10). Music therapy fails dyslexics: No link between dyslexia and a lack of musical ability, study finds. ScienceDaily. Retrieved June 16, 2010, from /releases/2010/04/100408111313.htm

One thought on “Does Music Therapy “Fail” Dyslexia?

  1. Rachelle Norman

    I definitely agree with you that we in the music therapy community need to come to terms with the idea that music therapy does not necessarily work for every disorder, but I also appreciated your conclusion: “This is a case where the field of music therapy was misrepresented by researchers who did not do their homework.” Thank you for your review!

Comments are closed.