REVIEWED BY NUMBERDYSLEXIA’S EXPERT PANEL ON AUGUST 15, 2022
Dyscalculia is the inability to count numbers or decode symbols. It is also associated with deficits in calculations and most mathematical processes. It affects the number sense building ability of children. In addition to that, they cannot identify numbers and signs or understand directions. Although incorporating music in learning has proven to help those with dyscalculia, being a musician and playing instruments can be perplexing.
Reading musical symbols and notes, taking pauses on specific counts and all other requirements for playing a particular rhythm may seem like a tough task to maneuver. To say that children with dyscalculia cannot grow and learn to play music would be wrong. With the right techniques and practice, their desire to play music or any particular instrument such as a piano can be accomplished.
Dyscalculia and Piano: Connection explored
Playing tunes on a piano requires the player to read music involving decoding chords, and symbols and understanding numbers that indicate pauses. This can be perplexing for children with learning difficulties. Reading music can be tough in such cases. Numerous difficulties have been reported by students in playing piano due to dyscalculia such as counting rhythm, dealing with compound time signatures, and losing count during resting periods. Children might feel embarrassed while practicing in a band when there is a break and they cannot get back to the part they were playing due to their inability to count.
A major symptom of dyscalculia is the inability to retain formulas and rules. Teachers taking piano lessons for children with dyscalculia described the difficulties faced by them in learning piano. Some of these were the inability to remember and identify names of the notes despite being taught by different means such as flashcards, and the inability to retain the notes taught even during a small period of time. Interestingly, it was also observed that the child could not say the musical alphabet backward.
Due to working memory limitations, the retention of the association of chords and notes is also impaired which creates trouble in playing piano smoothly without taking long pauses in between tunes to refer back to the notes. Being able to memorize mentally along with developing muscle memory of chords and notes is crucial to playing any instrument and impairments in the same can act as obstacles in performing.
Lived Experiences of adult musicians with dyscalculia
Musicians (Hosseini;2020) mention that dyscalculia affects every aspect of their life and not just music. When they begin to learn music as children is when they face the most trouble and when it seems like an impossible task.
Numerous musical difficulties are faced by adults with dyscalculia even after a point of their success as a musician. These include counting rhythm, remembering notes, recalling the meaning of symbols, and losing count during resting periods. However, after a point, musicians do tend to develop coping strategies for these difficulties such as memorizing their own and everyone else’s parts to feel their place in music. They stay alert for key moments before an entrance and also find written cues to be helpful.
Performing in bands and groups has been particularly stressful for musicians with dyscalculia. They may have significant trouble interpreting drill charts, locating their spot on the field, and memorizing their sets. If they lag behind the entire band they can experience embarrassment during practice sessions or even on the stage. This would create a considerable amount of anxiety.
Apart from specific musical difficulties, musicians also feel inferior and complex when their colleagues notice them struggling to do a simple task in their daily life. This consequently affects their career as it can result in confusion or disbelief on their part. Along with that, low self-esteem and a sense of belief in themselves can cause trouble.
How to get better at Piano playing if you have dyscalculia
1. Cues for Counting
Counting and keeping track of their place in the music during long rest periods is a struggle for most children. To overcome this to a certain extent, finger counting can be used as a coping strategy. In addition to that, certain cues can be developed such as looking at other people and remembering their part to know when to come in, and using finger pads during rest period may also be helpful.
2. Personalizing chord charts
Writing song lyrics on chord charts corresponding to the particular chords is an effective way to remember the chords and notes of the song while playing. Noting the key of the song and the words on which the song changes can be helpful while playing piano and leave fewer opportunities to blank out and have a hard time recalling notes.
Using rhythm syllables or words to count rhythm is easier and can be more effective than using the traditional counting system, especially for students struggling to understand subdivisions. This can save children from the trouble of counting in which they majorly fall short.
Memorizing one’s own and other’s parts can be helpful to keep track of their place in music. It will aid in the difficulty that they face to memorize counts or numbers.
Learning to play a musical instrument for children with a learning difficulty such as dyscalculia can be a struggle due to their underlying deficits in identifying, remembering, and recalling symbols. This is majorly because of the notations, chords, and symbols involved in mastering the skill of playing instruments like pianos fluently.
However, with practice and efforts from trainers in interventions, children can learn to play the piano. Using some of their own coping strategies such as finding visual cues in their environment, keeping their notes visually explanatory and handy whenever they play, and personalizing their chord charts with their own subjective aids, can make them succeed at playing and performing. Self-esteem and confidence also play a key role in the same.
Although dyscalculia is a learning disability that is centered around deficits in math and the inability to count, it affects all areas of the lives of those who are affected. Playing music and following it can be a tough nut to crack. When it comes to playing piano by those with dyscalculia, a lot of difficulties come with it. Interpreting the chords and notes, keeping track of the verses as per the numbers assigned to them, and counting rhythm can be perplexing.
Living life in general with deficits in remembering, identifying, and interpreting symbols can itself be tough, so playing music where these aspects are key, can be even more troublesome. Regardless, adults have turned out to be successful musicians despite the difficulties they face of certain coping strategies they developed during their journey to become one.
- The Lived Experiences of Adult Musicians with Dyscalculia: A Heuristic Inquiry. (2020, December). Sheerin Hosseini.
- Working memory in children’s math learning and its disruption in dyscalculia. (2016). Vinod Menon.
An engineer, Maths expert, Online Tutor and animal rights activist. In more than 5+ years of my online teaching experience, I closely worked with many students struggling with dyscalculia and dyslexia. With the years passing, I learned that not much effort being put into the awareness of this learning disorder. Students with dyscalculia often misunderstood for having just a simple math fear. This is still an underresearched and understudied subject. I am also the founder of Smartynote -‘The notepad app for dyslexia’,