Music classes to fight dyslexia: a great match!

For the first time, a team of neuropsychologists provided evidence that dyslexia in children can be treated using music. We interviewed Daniele Schön, a researcher particularly interested in the relationship between music, language and the brain.

Music classes to fight dyslexia: a great match!
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For the first time, a team of neuropsychologists provided evidence that dyslexia in children can be treated using music. We interviewed Daniele Schön, a researcher particularly interested in the relationship between music, language and the brain.

The authors of a study on the impact of music on speech management, conducted by the Inserm Teams, have concluded; weekly sessions of rhythmic music over a few months significantly improves dyslexic children’s reading skills, Neuropsychologist Daniele Schön participated in this research. He explains the relation between music and speech in our brain.

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France Musique: Where does the theory that music lessons can treat dyslexia come from? 

Daniele Schön: Our knowledge of the brain has tremendously evolved over the past twenty years. We used to think that music and language mobilized two very distinct areas of our brain: language was associated with the left side, music with the right side. And thanks to ever-developing neuroimaging technologies, which we more and more base our research on, our vision has radically changed. We now know that this is not so much a clean-cut split. Speech and music share some networks while others may even overlap.

So we first we asked ourselves if daily musical training, for several hours, could improve language abilities. We then tested musicians, children and adults. What came out was that musicians indeed had better language skills than non-musicians. They also proved to have better sound perception, better prosody along with a more elaborated grammatical structure, and a capacity to learn foreign languages ​​with greater ease.

 France Musique: And this is not down to the fact that the musicians have a better ear, correct? 

Daniele Schön: Yes. There is indeed no genetic predisposition. We observed that musical activity can provoke changes in the brain. Practicing music is a very complex cerebral activity. Music is more structured than language and requires a great deal of temporal precision, both in perception and gesture. Let’s say I’m a cellist in a quatuor. First, I have to pay attention to my own part, so the relationship between perception and gesture is already evident here. Then, there are all the other musicians parts, something I constantly have to adapt. Hearing and motor systems must be really connected and different areas of the brain come into resonance to achieve a very precise and effective result. Predictive processes in musical practice are very subtle, and our brain likes to anticipate. The brain is like an orchestra: the greater the communication between areas is, the better the connection and synchronization between different areas will be. And since we established before that areas responsible for language and music actually communicate, then they both benefit from this practice.  

France Musique: And when it comes to dyslexia, what would be the actual effects of musical training?

Daniele Schön: Dyslexia, or at least phonological dyslexia –  because this is a rather complex neurological syndrome – is a perceptual disorder.  Dyslexic individuals will find it very difficult to make a difference between PA from BA for example, two sounds with a similar pronunciation. And when you transfer this to reading, it suggest an inability to distinguish letters. But in reality, everything happens at a perceptual level, with difficulty to make the distinction between different sounds. Furthermore, dyslexic children often have difficulties to coordinating with rhythm, when clapping hands, for example. Exposing them to musical training, preferably with rhythm-rich music, would regulate the cerebral oscillatory activity, necessary for sound recognition.

France Mustique: How did was this study conducted? 

Daniele Shon: We worked in Rome and Trieste with Mariani Foundation, an institution supporting children’s health related projects, collaborating with neuropediatric and neuropsychological services. We opted for a "randomized controlled’’ type of study, this means subjects are picked randomly by researchers. Our target subjects were 8 to 11 years old dyslexic children already following speech therapy. For six months twice a week, a group of children took collective music lessons while the other group took visual art classes. At the end of this period, we gave them a text to read and the result was absolutely striking. 60% of the children in the "music group’’ showed improved reading skills, to the point of having their dyslexic diagnosis challenged. This result was only observed in 28% of the children in the"visual art group". Music lessons caused a transfer between brain capacities: from rhythm work to a better sound perception, improving reading skills as a consequence.

France Mustique: Is there a miracle music learning method to achieve this result?

Daniele Shon: We worked with the Dalcroze and Kodály methods, particularly the latter, since it’s based a rhythm and movement. But these types of sessions do not necessarily require special training. Music is already widely used in the treatment of language pathologies, and not only by music therapists. But we have now been able to scientifically prove that this is a practice to seriously consider, hand in hand with speech therapy that remains the foundational method to treat dyslexia. 

Institute of Neuroscience Systems, Inserm / University Aix-Marseille