Written by Dr. Inez Van Roy on
October 2, 2021
Written by Dr. Inez Van Roy on:

Medically Reviewed by our Medical Affairs Team

ADHD music therapy can be an interesting intervention for attention deficit and hyperactive individuals. Scientists hypothesize that it could help improve your attention, mood, and more.

Not only is music therapy interesting for creatives with ADHD, but it could also help children and adults with or without other learning disabilities. 

In this article, we will first explain what ADHD is and what the subtypes are, and how you or your child could profit from music therapy for ADHD.

What is ADHD? 

ADHD stands for Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder. It is a neurodevelopmental disorder, usually first noticed during childhood. 

The DSM-5 (diagnostic and statistical manual) defines ADHD symptoms. They say it is a consistent behavioral pattern of inattention and/or hyperactivity-impulsivity.

This behavior should have an impact on your academic, social or occupational functioning. To be diagnosed with ADHD, you will need to experience these symptoms for more than half a year.

ADHD could be characterized by difficulty with the following: 

  • sustained attention, 
  • working memory, 
  • impulse control 
  • and executive functioning (planning or organizing). 

In the brain, this would most likely go together with low dopamine levels.

Three Types of ADHD 

People imagine children or adults with ADHD to be these bombs of energy that can’t sit still. Those aggressive little monkeys that climb the chair instead of sitting on it. Although that could be attention deficit hyperactivity disorder, the diagnosis is much more than just that. It can also look very different. 

There are three different types of ADHD, for children and adults. Sometimes ADHD is not easy to recognize, young girls are often victims of this as they are more prone to show other symptoms.

Did you always have your questions whether you or your child suffer from ADHD? Then these three types might give you more clarity whether the issues you are facing are related to ADHD.

Inattentive Type 

Adults or adolescents with inattentive ADHD show six or more signs of inattention often. 

  1. Making careless mistakes or showing very little attention to details. This could look like overlooking details or working inaccurate. 
  2. Difficulty sustaining attention in play activities or tasks. This could look like losing focus during conversations, lectures or lengthy tasks or reading. 
  3. They seem not to listen when spoken to. This might look like someone living in their dream world, even when there are no distractions. They often don’t seem present in a conversation.
  4. This person seems to fail often in finishing their tasks, homework or duties. They don’t follow through instructions. You have many ongoing projects without really finalizing something. You lose interest rather quickly. You get sidetracked or distracted by something new and shiny.
  5. It might be difficult to organize tasks, activities and so on. This might look like a very messy workspace, not keeping your materials and belongings organized. Also you might have a long pattern of missing deadlines or being late at events. Although you plan to be right on time, you still seem to be late every time.
  6. You might avoid certain tasks, mostly if you believe that they require deep mental effort that may take you a while. Sustaining your mental effort doesn’t come natural to you.
  7. You seem to lose your necessary items for what you plan to do. Your keys, wallet or eyeglasses seem to disappear when needed most.
  8. Extraneous stimuli seem to distract you rather easily. Those might be thoughts popping in your head, but also other tasks and so on.
  9. You seem forgetful, even in daily activities. You or other need to remind you to do your chores, run errands or pay your bills and more.

Hyperactive-Impulsive Type 

Adults or adolescents should show the following patterns of behavior for more than six months. It should negatively influence your social, academic or occupational growth. Six or more hyperactivity or impulsivity symptoms should be persistent.

We define these symptoms in a hyperactive group, and an impulsive group. 

The following symptoms fall under “hyperactivity”.

  1. You should show fidgety behavior, maybe you tap your hands and feet often. Sometimes it is very difficult to just sit in your seat, you squirm to get out.
  2. You leave your seat, or stand where it is expected to sit still. 
  3. You seem to climb or run when it is expected to sit still. Maybe as an adult you have learned to not do this but you feel restless today when sitting for too long.
  4. You have difficulty with quiet time or activities.
  5. You seem very driven or always on the go. It is difficult for you to be still for a long time.
  6. You seem to talk excessively. 

The next symptoms fall under “Impulsivity” symptoms.

  1. You often blurt out answers before the question is completed. It is difficult to wait your turn in a conversation or not complete other people’s sentences.
  2. You might also have difficulty waiting your turn (f.e. In line).
  3. You seem to interrupt or intrude into the conversations, games or activities. You catch yourself taking over conversations or tasks. You are rather liberal in using people’s things without asking permission. 

Combined Type

Someone diagnosed with a combined type presents symptoms of both types mentioned before. 

What is Music Therapy?

Music therapy combines mathematics, natural/ behavioral and social sciences with arts. The Viktor Dulger Institute would define music therapy to consist of the following five factors that modulate:

  1. Attention 
  2. Emotion 
  3. Cognition 
  4. Behavior 
  5. And communication. 

Music therapy is rather difficult to define, as many seem to have a slightly different interpretation of what it is. The word itself does imply the use of music in a therapy context. 

Can a music therapist help with ADHD?

Music or music therapy could potentially have a positive impact on ADHD symptoms. Music can activate many cognitive functions like 

  • sustained attention, 
  • memory processes, 
  • multisensory integration, 
  • and emotional or social functioning. 

Knowing this information it is logical that following music therapy could influence symptoms.

Music therapy already caught attention in early research in the 90’s. They looked into using music as a way to reduce hyperactivity and unwanted behaviors for attention deficit disorder. 

There are many interesting studies focused on how music or music therapy could help with ADHD. The research on music therapy as a treatment for ADHD is growing, and becomes more and more popular. 

On a group level, music therapy in group sessions with an open-ended structure might not be recommended for those with ADHD. On an individual level, there might be indications that music therapy could have a positive influence on your 

  • emotional expression, 
  • connection 
  • and sustained engagement. 

A case study tends to confirm that music therapy could support by providing a sense of self control and empowerment. It might aid in creative expression. Also, music therapy could facilitate the development of executive functions as inhibition.

Other studies show that it might decrease maladaptive behavior of ADHD. Other behavior in which music therapy might be beneficial are certain social skills. Most children with autism spectrum disorder couldb 

While initial studies had some methodological flaws. A review does confirm the positive effect for children between the ages of 7 and 12 years. 

The hypothesis is that music or the rhythm provides the structure that children (with ADHD and autism) so desperately need. A music therapist can teach children how to take turns and how to listen through the use of music.

How does playing music help with ADHD?

Classical music might be able to improve mood in adults with ADHD. Today research also confirms that listening to Mozart’s music (KV 448) for 10 minutes had an influence on those with ADHD. This song could be described as a more upbeat, happy song. They reported a decrease in sadness and hopelessness. 

Rauscher and researchers also found a positive effect on visuo-spatial task performance. After more research they concluded that this effect is due to a boost in positive mood and arousal. In contrast, an Adagio by Albino (which we could interpret as more slow or ‘sad’) decreased their arousal. 

ADHD Music Therapy Playlist

Making a playlist to support your mental and physical health seems to be highly personal. 

There is various research on what is the best music to listen to and also plenty of discussion.

In short, there are a couple of situations in which music can be used to help you function better. 

ADHD Music Therapy for homework

As mentioned above, listening to some background music could be perfectly fine to focus on your homework. Some would recommend classical music with an upbeat or happy rhythm for optimal mood and arousal. 

Other researchers don’t find these results.

ADHD Music Therapy for Sleep

About 25 to 50 % of people with ADHD report sleep problems in clinical practice. This might be associated with the medication used to treat your ADHD. 

Music can help some sleep possibly by providing a way to relax. Listening to music could surely be a great non-pharmacological and inexpensive way to intervene. This could easily help those who suffer from sleep issues. 

Some might hypothesize that calming or soothing music could be a good choice. While others would recommend something familiar to you.

Diagnosing ADHD

Diagnosing ADHD can only happen by consulting a specialist in your area. They will ask you and your loved ones some questions to assess your situation. Music therapists can not diagnose ADHD, unless they are also registered specialists.

It is important to assess your medical history, as it is always possible that another condition caused your symptoms. After assessing your medical condition your professional might ask you some other questions. These will be about your mental health and any other complaints you might have. 

Lastly, it might be possible that you will undergo some neuropsychological testing. This testing will provide a better understanding of your symptoms.

To diagnose you, your doctor will follow the guidelines of the American Psychiatric Association. They have written down the diagnostic criteria and symptoms in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual. 

Treating ADHD

Treatment of ADHD is usually a combination of medication and cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT). 

The medication commonly used is a stimulant, this to balance the dopamine levels in your ADHD brain. 

Cognitive Behavioral Therapy can teach you how to manage certain symptoms with more ease. It hopes to improve your quality of life by educating you (and maybe your family or teachers). Therapy can help in managing symptoms like procrastination or poor time management. 

A music therapy program can be added. Today it is considered complementary, not what is usually solely recommended.

Concluding Thoughts 

A music therapist can be a good addition to work with adults and children with ADHD or learning disabilities. Music therapy has positive therapeutic effects on cognitive performance and social communication skills. However, the recommended treatment for ADHD is medication in combination with therapy. 

Further it is probably one of the easiest and cheapest interventions to implement in your day to day life. Making music is for all ages. Parents can easily play instruments to help their children with any neurologic function.

They can teach their child to sing a rhythm, or play an instrument to learn a new skill. Music can help their communication skills, language development or cognitive functions. Singing the ABC songs could help your child learn those letters.

It can boost your mood, make you feel more positive. It could help you sleep better or help you relax and fall asleep a bit better. Lastly, there are positive effects on ADHD symptoms. 

If your inattentive or hyperactive symptoms have a deep influence on your daily life, it is best to consult a doctor. They can provide medical advice if necessary. 

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