Optimize the ADHD Brain with Music

By Eve Kessler, Esq.


Musical activities engage various centers of the brain that often cause problems for those with ADHD • Rhythm, melody and tempo activate attention and focus • Moving to music helps organize the brain • Playing music enhances sustained attention, impulse control, planning, self-esteem, complex decision-making, and the ability to make sense of sound in noise

For kids with ADHD and co-existing conditions, music therapy provides a safe, structured, socially welcoming forum to improve mood and motivation; strengthen weak areas of the brain; and address core symptoms. Because the brain has the capacity to change (neuroplasticity), when musical activities re-shape the brain, it can have lasting effects on learning.

“Music lights up the ADHD brain with activity and dopamine,” says Patti Catalano, a neurologic music therapist experienced in working with kids who learn differently. “The goal of music therapy is to build up those activated brain muscles over time to help overall function.”

How Music Helps: Let Us Count the Ways

Catalano suggests weaving the following musical activities into your family’s life to help your kids learn better and become more confident:

  1. Participate in developmental music & movement groups. Programs for parents and young children (eg., Music Together; Kindermusik) offer you and your youngster stimulating, sensory-filled environments to explore, appreciate, and respond to various types of music/rhythm/instruments; develop motor, social, and communication skills; build esteem and self-control; channel extra energy; boost your mood; and strengthen your relationship.
  1. Write songs. Songwriting promotes emotional expression and introspection, explains Catalano. Writing lyrics to original melodies or familiar tunes encourages kids to explore thoughts and feelings, reflect on goals and dreams, and express anxieties and fears. This is especially beneficial for kids who have difficulty putting their feelings into words and for adolescents looking for ways to build their sense of self and assert control over their lives. 

Original songs are especially helpful for memorizing, staying on task, and processing multi-step directions. Catalano suggests “chunking” information to tunes with strong rhythmic/repetitive beats to reinforce rote memory items (alphabets; math facts; spelling words; science concepts) and steps for everyday activities (washing hands; brushing teeth; tying shoes). Similarly, linking schedules to melodies and singing them daily helps routines become “automatic” (eg., “shower, shirt, socks & shoes, backpack, breakfast, bus”).

  1. Analyze lyrics. Music is a powerful jumping off point to discuss other people’s perspectives. As kids mature, they spend more time listening to popular music. Most teens would prefer to chat about favorite songs or bands than recount what they did at school. By scrutinizing lyrics together, you can explore various ideas, teach empathy, and get a clearer picture of who your kids are and what’s important to them.
  2. Play and move to rhythmic music. Nina Kraus, Professor of Neurobiology and Otolaryngology, Brainvolts Lab at Northwestern University, stresses that “rhythm is fundamental to neurologic function,” and research confirms that the ability to keep a beat is linked to better reading skills. Playing rhythmic music and movement games and targeted rhythm tasks (synchronizing to a beat; repeating and changing rhythmic phrases, etc.) engages kids in what Kraus calls “a musical conversation.” In addition to being fun, actively playing music enhances language and listening skills and the abilities to sustain attention, alternate attention, complete multi-step directions, recognize cues, predict changes, take turns, make decisions, and control impulses.
  3. Learn to play the “right” instrument. Each of us has a “preferred instrument,” says Catalano. She maintains that finding the best fit encourages kids to make music part of their lives. Playing an instrument affords the opportunity for healthy social interactions through band or orchestra that can encourage lasting relationships based on common interests. Furthermore, kids learn the importance of disciplined practice. She recommends having your kids sample different instruments, choose the ones they like, and take complimentary introductory classes to experience the sound and feel of each before committing to formal instruction and practice regimens. For kids with ADHD who prefer not to sit still, she recommends instruments that allow them to stand and move while playing (eg., bass; guitar; woodwinds; percussion).
  4. Listen to music to boost energy, improve mood, and promote calm. Catalano recommends listening to various types of music at home and while driving and observing your child’s reactions to the different sounds, styles, rhythms, melodies and tempos. Based on your observations, select music to encourage a particular outcome. For instance, try upbeat, rhythmic playlists to keep her motivated and on task in the morning and burn excess energy after school; play classical/comforting music to help her unwind after studies and sleep peacefully.
  5. Enhance time perception. Keeping pace with a favorite soundtrack or playlist, Catalano explains, can help build time perception and awareness skills and teach predictability. Instead of having your kids do chores to the off-putting ticking of a clock, she suggests they use specific points in a song as markers. For example, when your Hamilton fan hears I’ve got to be in the room where it happens/Click/Boom, she’ll know it’s time to move on to the next step or finish up.
  6. Use musical activities to reinforce desired behavior. Instead of letting your kids play video games during downtimes, let your child play or listen to music to organize her brain before she begins studying; to encourage follow-through in between assignments; or as a reward after chores. For example, if she spends 20 minutes focused on homework, she can spend 20 minutes jamming on her guitar or listening to her favorite music.
Should My Child Listen to Music While Studying?

This is what Catalano calls “The Big Question” with no easy answer. Because kids with ADHD and sensory processing disorders are sensitive to auditory input, they often have trouble tuning out the sounds around them. Yet some kids do well with a background of rhythm and melody—or even with heavy metal: it activates their brains and enhances their ability to concentrate. Other students might want to listen to music but become cognitively overloaded and lose optimal focus. Encourage your kids to try studying to different types of music—and without music—to see what works best. Then create an agreement allowing them to listen to their preferred music as long as they complete assignments and perform well on tests.

This article is based on the ADDitude webinar, How Music Sparks, Soothes, and Optimizes the ADHD Brain in Children, by Patti Catalano, MM, MT-BC, a music therapist, adjunct professor of music therapy at Seattle Pacific University, and the former manager of the Music Therapy Program at Music Works Northwest, Bellevue, WA. Eve Kessler, Esq., a former criminal appellate lawyer, is Executive Director of SPED*NET Wilton (CT), and a Contributing Editor of Smart Kids.

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