ADHD and Music: Is Music a Powerful Tool for ADHD Management?

Although attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) is a commonly diagnosed neurodevelopmental disorder affecting about 3-5% of children across the world, current treatments are insufficient to address it fully. However, music therapy has emerged as a promising approach to potentially aid the symptoms of ADHD.

Does music help with ADHD?

Music therapy has been increasingly recognized for its potential to support symptoms related to psychiatric, neurological, and neurodevelopmental conditions. It can be applied in either an 'active' modality, when participants use musical instruments or their own voices to perform, or a 'passive' modality, which involves participants listening to the music.

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A review suggests that music rhythm provides a structured environment, which may support well-being in people with ADHD. Music could potentially be useful during the treatment of ADHD, particularly for symptom management, including impulsivity, attention and disruptive behaviors, and immersion, among others.

Benefits of music for ADHD

Scientific research have investigated multiple potential benefits of music therapy on ADHD symptom regulation:

Enhances dopamine levels in the brain

Dopamine is a neurotransmitter essential for regulating reward, motivation, learning. Individuals with ADHD often have lower dopamine levels, which may contribute to a range of symptoms including hyperactivity and inattention.

Some studies suggest that listening to music may trigger the release of dopamine. However, exact underlying mechanisms of dopaminergic system during sound exposure are not clear.

Improves timing skills

Individuals with ADHD often encounter challenges related to timing skills. These timing difficulties can manifest in motor timing, the capacity to execute an action at an optimal moment, perceptual timing, which involves estimating time intervals accurately, and temporal foresight, the ability to anticipate future outcomes to inform present decision-making.

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A study conducted on children with ADHD revealed that musical training, particularly playing an instrument, can improve timing skills and consequently, the development of the auditory cortex, crucial for processing timing information.

Improves self-esteem

ADHD can be disruptive to a student’s life, leading to challenges such as forgetting school lessons and homework, difficulties in listening and speaking, and a general lack of attention. These challenges may result in academic challenges, peer rejection, and subsequent loss of self-esteem.

Self-esteem plays a crucial role in a student’s success in the classroom. Research shows that engaging in activities such as playing an instrument has been shown to be effective for students with ADHD not only in boosting their self-esteem but also in making them more focused in learning and listening.

Improves executive functions

Research supports the use of music for improving executive functions, particularly concentration and performance, among the ADHD population.

Research also suggests that listening to background music in a serious game, a computer application that combines educational aspects of teaching and learning with the entertainment value of video games, can help children's attention. Specifically, research highlights that when classical music is played in the background while children with ADHD interact with these games, an increase in specific brain waves associated with attention and concentration emerges.

Improves emotional regulation

One study used self-report questionnaires and found that listening to music for 10 minutes reduced feelings of sadness and hopelessness among adults with ADHD. Moreover, music therapy may support emotional and stress regulation, and may alleviate symptoms of depression and stress, which are one of the most common comorbid disorders associated with ADHD.

Music for ADHD: different types

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Selecting the appropriate type of music for individuals with ADHD is crucial for supporting concentration and cognitive performance. Calm and medium-tempo music featuring easy-to-follow rhythms may be particularly beneficial. Classical composers such as Vivaldi, Mozart, and Bach are excellent choices in this regard.

Furthermore, studies highlight the positive effects of white noise on cognitive performance. White noise is a type of background noise like ocean waves or fan noise that has been shown to improve performance in verbal and memorization tasks. Although much of the research focuses on younger children, the positive impacts of white noise on concentration and task performance may also be beneficial for older children and adults with ADHD.

Downsides of listening to music with ADHD

Not all types of music and sound help individuals with ADHD. There are types of sounds that may evoke distractions and pull attention away from the task, or potentially lead to overstimulation, making it hard to stay calm.

Which music should you avoid?

When selecting music to aid concentration, especially during study or work sessions, it’s important to recognize what types of music to avoid. Music lacking a clear rhythm or compositions that are extremely fast-paced can be particularly disruptive. Additionally, music with lyrics or listening to radio stations that frequently interrupt with commercials can be detrimental to concentration.

Lastly, there is also some evidence regarding the use of binaural beats which involves listening to sounds at slightly different frequencies in each ear. There are mixed evidence surrounding its effectiveness, with some studies indicating that binaural beats can reduce attention levels, and others indicating that they improve attention and memory.

Alternatives for managing ADHD

Beyond music therapy, several tools and practices can offer valuable alternatives for those seeking to improve organization, reduce stress, and enhance focus.

  • ADHD planner. When incorporated as a daily habit, an ADHD planner can help organize everyday life. It assists in keeping track of deadlines, appointments, and pending tasks. By providing a structured approach to daily activities, it may boost productivity and reduce stress.
  • Fidget toys. Fidget devices, such as fidget spinner, have been found to reduce disruptive movements and improve academic performance.
  • Meditation and mindfulness-based intervention. These practices are known to reduce hyperactivity and inattention. They have also been beneficial in improving executive functioning, supporting relationships, and reducing stress levels.
  • Wearable technology. Smartwatches and fitness trackers could potentially offer reminders and help individuals with ADHD stay focused, manage time effectively, and maintain a structured daily routine.
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Incorporating music therapy alongside regular treatment or other strategies can provide a comprehensive approach to supporting ADHD symptoms, potentially improving attention, emotional regulation, and overall well-being.

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