"Music can change the world because it can change people."
Interventions for ADHD usually include medication, cognitive behavioral therapy, coaching, support groups, and/or changes in the home, work, or school environments. Sometimes we hear about other tools to make life with ADHD more manageable too. These include exercise, meditation, a healthy diet, and good sleep. They all work together and most people with ADHD probably use a combination of these to manage their symptoms.
In this post, we’re going to look at another surprising tool that helps with the challenges of ADHD: music.
The power of music
Music has a special place in our hearts … as well as our brains. Who hasn’t experienced really deep feelings listening to a song, or recalled a distant but powerful memory listening to music? Music helps us to get going in the morning, finish tough workouts, tolerate boring rush hours, celebrate marriages, birthdays, and holidays, and even to mark the memories of those we’ve lost. It adds something amazing to our lives. It can be a device of political self-expression. It unifies countries and marks solemn world events. Think about how often you usually hear music in a typical day.
Music lifts our spirits, gets our hearts and legs moving, and of course really impacts our emotions. I’m an amateur musician, so it’s on my mind a lot.
I saw the new Star Wars film (The Force Awakens) last weekend and was instantly aware of how key John Williams’ score is to the plot and characters in the film. It informs us about what we’re supposed to feel and what the characters are feeling. When the bad guys show up onscreen, eerie dark music warns us about them. It cues us on who the good guys are, who triumphed over whom, and when we’re supposed to feel anxious, tense, or exhilarated.
Music is a major component of movies and TV. Test this sometime with a scary movie or a reality TV show. At a scary part of a horror movie, turn off the sound and notice how much less frightening it becomes. That’s what music adds to our experience. Or turn off the sound on a reality TV show and notice all the cues you suddenly miss about the characters, their relationships, and who is feeling what! It’s remarkable, actually.
So I’m a music junkie and in my free time I like to sing and play two instruments (guitar and keyboard). I try to practice about three times a week if I can. It gives me a sense of serenity, lifts my mood, challenges my mind and body, helps structure my day, and evokes my emotions.
My dog used to get really excited when she first heard me play guitar. These days, she reacts less, I assume because she’s used to it (hopefully not because she dislikes my playing) but when I first got her, she scampered over in a joyful, curious mood when she heard chords coming from my guitar. There is a joy in listening to music, making music, and sharing it with others.
Music and cognition
So music is powerful and fun, but how is that helpful for ADHD? Well, whether you have ADHD or not, the benefits of music are many. And some of the problems that come up in ADHD may be impacted by music.
For instance, several studies show that people who were musically trained tend to do better as a group on tests of memory, attention, and executive functioning, compared to those who were untrained. That doesn’t mean they were professional musicians; just that they had musical training for some amount of time. Also, these comparisons were made across the two broad groups, not among individuals in the studies.
Still, this is important because both attention and executive functioning are deficient in ADHD. ADHD gurus Russell Barkley and Ari Tuckman argue that executive dysfunction is a core part of the cognitive symptoms in ADHD. And a 2014 study involving brain imaging shows that musical training is linked with improved executive functioning in kids and adults (see the study details).
How the brain processes and uses music can change based on experience. For instance, singing is usually governed by the right side of the brain while speaking is usually controlled by the left side. Following a left-sided stroke, some people cannot speak, and so speech pathologists may incorporate singing into their language rehabilitation, since it draws on the right side of the brain, as one step in helping them to regain language skills.
On a related topic, scientists have suggested that we process music differently if we have been musically trained. Music tends to be processed by the left side of the brain among people who have been musically trained. This makes some sense as the left side is more logical, linguistic, and analytical, while the right side is more holistic and big-picture. Music is more often processed by the right side among those who have not been musically trained.
Taken together, these results suggest that music impacts cognition, including some of the cognitive functions that tend to have problems in ADHD.
ADHD and music
Some recent studies have looked at ADHD and music more directly. On the surface, music seems like it would benefit someone with ADHD, given that music is so enjoyable and it might improve multi-tasking, adherence to structure, collaboration, auditory processing, and self-confidence.
We know that in ADHD there tends to be a low level of the brain messenger chemical dopamine. One reason that stimulants are thought to help improve ADHD symptoms is that they increase dopamine levels. Well, music seems to do that as well. A 2011 study by Valerie Salimpoor and colleagues shows that music raises dopamine levels, which might account for the sense of pleasure and increased arousal we feel listening to music (see study details).
Another study from Florida International University found that some kids with ADHD benefit by listening to music while doing their homework. This again probably has to do with the activation and arousal effects of music (see study details).
Finally, a 2014 study at Boston Children’s Hospital showed improved executive functioning in kids and adults trained in music before the age of 12 compared to kids who were not trained in music.
Whether listening or playing, a fun way to experience music is by sharing it with others. This adds a social and interactive component to it as well. Making music together can be as casual and spontaneous as playing songs at home with a family member or friend, or as structured as a school orchestra or community choir. When we contribute together we feel unity and mutual enjoyment.
Here in Chicago, we have a large musical organization called the Old Town School of Folk Music. The word “folk” in the title reflects the origins of the school but it’s really a misnomer to me, since the school has hundreds of group classes involving instrumental instruction, as well ensembles that range from country to heavy metal, to jazz, blues, R & B, hip-hop, folk, Broadway, and all varieties of rock and pop.
What I love about the classes is the strong sense of camaraderie as well as the challenge of using our ears when we play together. That boosts auditory memory and attention. Unlike a chorus or a concert band, for instance, the Old Town experience is closer to being in a band and having to rely on things auditory processes to play together, rather than everything being notated in a detailed score. A few other cities, like San Francisco and Denver, also have amateur music school programs similar to the Old Town School.
So music is fun and it is good for our hearts and minds. Tell us about your experiences with music and ADHD. Does it make practicing hard for you? Does music help with your concentration, self-confidence, and social experiences? Do you hyper-focus when listening to or playing music? Share with us your experiences with music and ADHD.