Irlen East for the east of England

07745 333314

Musicians and Irlen Syndrome

Why should I be interested in this?  How does this affect me as a player or teacher?  Well, actually quite a lot.

Irlen Syndrome (sometimes called visual stress or even, wrongly, Meares-Irlen) has, as its most common symptom, disturbance on a page of print.  Mostly the print - or music - appears to move.  It can move up and down, sideways, swirl, disappear and return, or come up off the page as if in 3D.  Can you imagine what it is like trying to read music that won't stay still?  Some of you reading this obviously can as you have it and have coped to a greater or lesser extent for all your life.  About 15% of the population suffers from this condition and, like hay fever, you can have it mildly or it can be almost incapacitating.  The fact that this is on a white screen  doesn't help as it is the bright contrast between the black and the white that causes so much discomfort.

Do you have students who you know are musically intelligent but who, despite hours of practice, don't seem to improve much?  Do they like you to play a piece to them first so that they can hear it - thus meaning that they can memorise it aurally and won't have to read it from the page?  Are they hopeless at sight reading?  Can they often not tell you what the note on the page is?   Just ask them a simple question - do the notes or the staves move?  If so, the overwhelming odds are that they have Irlen Syndrome.

Irlen Syndrome acts like an allergy to certain wavelengths of light.  Other symptoms may be that you drift into people when you walk next to them, are hesitant about getting on and off escalators, find it hard to catch a tennis ball, often trip up or down stairs or are regarded as generally clumsy.  You may have been diagnosed with dyslexia but none of the teaching programmes for this condition have really worked.  You may have been told you have dyspraxia or even ADHD.  Roughly a third of people told that they have these conditions don't have - they just have Irlen Syndrome.

So what can you do about it? 

The first thing is to turn off any fluorescent lights.  These cause no end of stress to those with Irlen - and a lot of people that don't have it don't like them.  The emotional temperature in a classroom noticeably drops when you turn off the lights.  People have often been conned into thinking that they need a lot of light - you don't.  Try it and see how little light you actually need once you get used to it.  Stop that automatic reaction when you walk into a room to turn on the lights and only turn on the few that you need when you need them.  If you teach in a practise room with fluorescent lights, splash out on a cheap uplighter and use that instead.

Copy a piece of music onto different coloured paper and see on which one the notes stay still for you - or your student.  Then ensure that all music for that person is copied onto that colour.  However, you can't always do that when you are given a piece to sight read.  Irlen East test for and supply plastic overlays of different colours to put over the music (or, of course text) for when you are reading. The colour of the paper and that of the overlays is not always the same, though we don't know why at present!

None of the above helps with the general environment.  If you have Irlen Syndrome badly, then the only way to really stop it's effects is to wear coloured lenses (called filters) in front of your eyes to cut out completely the wavelengths of light that are causing the problem.  In the UK, these are only available from Irlen Centres, not from opticians or hospitals.  It is not an eye condition, it’s your brain scrambling the light information it receives (although you should get your eyes checked of course to ensure that you don't have anything wrong with them). 

See the brain scan picture - the top one is an individual with Irlen Syndrome doing a simple reading task, the lower one is that same individual doing the same task when wearing their Irlen filters.  The untreated Irlen brain is in overdrive trying to cope and failing!

Like all allergic-type reactions, your body chemistry is the driving force.  As you get older and hormone levels for both men and women change, so might your reactions and a colour that you have used for ages may no longer work as well.  Going through the teenage years, when the body chemistry is changing almost daily can also cause a  shift in the colour you need.

So, look at the pieces printed onto different coloured backgrounds and see what you - or your students think.  Is it easier?  Then you now have the answer!

Moira Usher Irlen Diagnostician

Call us: + 07745 333314

Copyright Irlen East 2019

 All Rights Reserved


Irlen East the Irlen Centre covering East of England

Copyright © 1998-2006 by Perceptual Development Corp/Helen Irlen. All rights reserved

Copyright © 1998-2019 by Perceptual Development Corp/Helen Irlen. All rights reserved