Natural Treatments

Music Therapy: Sound Medicine for ADHD

Parents, take note: music therapy builds better focus, self-control, and social skills in kids with ADHD. Plus, you can incorporate these therapeutic benefits into your child’s day-to-day life for free — and that’s music to our ears!

Colorful background with music notes
Colorful background with music notes

“Nothing activates the brain so extensively as music,” said the late Oliver Sacks, M.D., neurologist and author of Musicophilia. He would’ve known. Sacks documented the power of music to arouse movement in paralyzed Parkinson’s patients, to calm the tics of Tourette syndrome, and to vault the neural breaches of autism. After his passing, his belief that music can heal the brain is still gaining favor — thanks, in part, to Gabrielle Giffords.

In January 2011, the Arizona congresswoman survived a gunshot wound to her left temple. Because language is controlled by the brain’s left hemisphere, Giffords was unable to speak. As part of her arduous recovery, she underwent music therapy, which trained her to engage the right side of her brain — pairing words with melody and rhythm — to bring back speech.

“She was able to sing a word before she could speak a word, and the damaged areas of her brain were circumvented through music,” says Concetta Tomaino, executive director of the Institute for Music and Neurologic Function. “Now the neuroscience community is saying, ‘Yes, the brain changes’ and ‘Yes, auditory stimulation can help those changes happen.'”

Therapy That Plays Well

Music therapy is used to help victims of severe brain trauma, children on the autism spectrum, and seniors suffering from Alzheimer’s disease. For children with ADHD, music therapy bolsters attention and focus, reduces hyperactivity, and strengthens social skills.

How does it work?

MUSIC PROVIDES STRUCTURE. Music is rhythm, rhythm is structure, and structure is soothing to an ADHD brain struggling to regulate itself to stay on a linear path. “Music exists in time, with a clear beginning, middle, and end,” says Kirsten Hutchison, a music therapist at Music Works Northwest, a nonprofit community music school near Seattle. “That structure helps a child with ADHD plan, anticipate, and react”.

MUSIC FIRES UP SYNAPSES. Research shows that pleasurable music increases dopamine levels in the brain. This neurotransmitter — responsible for regulating attention, working memory, and motivation — is in low supply in ADHD brains. “Music shares neural networks with other cognitive processes,” says Patti Catalano, a neurologic music therapist at Music Works Northwest. “Through brain imaging, we can see how music lights up the left and right lobes. The goal of music therapy is to build up those activated brain muscles over time to help overall function.”


Beethoven, Mozart, and Your Child’s Brain


Just as Giffords used music to retrain her right brain to help her to talk, children with ADHD can use music to train their brains for stronger focus and self-control in the classroom and at home.

MUSIC IS SOCIAL. “Think of an orchestra,” says Tomaino, a 30-year veteran in music therapy. “If one instrument is missing, you can’t play the piece. All ‘voices’ are necessary.” This is what Hutchison teaches in “Social Skills Through Music,” an eight-week course for children ages seven to 10. Students participate in ensemble playing, write collaborative songs, and practice for an end-of-session performance.

“Students learn to listen, take turns, anticipate changes, and pick up on cues in ways they might not do outside of a music-therapy session,” says Hutchison.

What if board-certified music therapists are hard to come by in your city? Or the cost of music therapy is too high? (The eight-week “Social Skills” program costs $224.) Here are a few effective, everyday ways that parents can use to harness music to help their children.

Turn Off the TV

“Kids with ADHD attend to everything,” Catalano says. “They are more sensitive to auditory stimulation and less able to tune things out [like television].” Replace the chatter of Adventure Time with the calming rhythms of music. Tomaino suggests experimenting with different styles, tempos, and artists to see what calms or rouses your child. Play Miles Davis while making dinner, the Beatles while doing a puzzle, or Beethoven while washing dishes — and pay attention to how your child reacts.

Set the Mood

Hearing songs of varying rhythms can slow down or speed up your child’s mental and physical processes. By selecting songs carefully, says Tomaino, you can trigger an intuitive, neurological reaction that your child doesn’t know he is having. Does Lady Gaga get your daughter moving? Play it after school to burn off excess energy. Does Moby slow down her pace? Play it before bed to begin the daily wind-down.

“Rhythm, melody, and tempo are tools used to target non-musical behaviors, to catapult change throughout the body,” says Rebecca West, with the Music Institute of Chicago. “A change in rhythm can trigger a reaction in the brain: ‘Oooh, something’s changed; I need to pay attention!’ You can bring down the tempo to spur slower movements, or bring up the melody to trigger pleasure.”

Create a Playlist

“Wash face. Brush teeth. Get dressed. Eat breakfast.” Sure, you could write out each step in your child’s morning routine and tape it to the bathroom mirror. Or you could download, create, and string together songs into a morning playlist that keeps him moving and reminds him to stay on task.

When Raffi’s “Brush Your Teeth” hits its final note, he’ll know it’s time for a wardrobe change. And when Justin Bieber kicks in, it’s time to pull up those socks and find the Nikes. Even better, write a getting-dressed song with your child and sing it together every morning until it becomes second nature.

“Music facilitates multi-step processing when executive-function deficits may make it difficult,” says Tomaino.

Bang a Drum

“When I work to extend a child’s attention, I sit alongside him with a drum,” says Catalano. “I play a beat with clear phrases, the child repeats it, and we add beats each time. I’m asking him to listen, pay attention, and control his impulses. I’m also showing him that his turn is worth waiting for.”

Parents need little more than an overturned pot, a wooden spoon, and a sense of humor to try this at home. Or use a hairbrush-microphone if you’d rather take turns singing Katy Perry. If nothing else, making music together will show your child that you enjoy harmony, too. And that can’t hurt.

Don’t Be a Critic

Your child may insist that Metallica helps him study. You may prefer Bach, but that doesn’t mean he’s wrong.

“Why are we attracted to one song or one symphony over another? It’s a complex and personal brain function that is immeasurable,” says Catalano.

Some children with sensory-processing disorders prefer silence to music. But many individuals with ADHD say that background rhythm and melody help them to concentrate. What’s playing through those headphones doesn’t matter as much as its impact. If Eminem helps him focus, let it be.

“I’m more likely to concentrate in a buzzing coffee shop with headphones on than I am in a library,” says Temple University student Carl O’Donnell. “Like people who use noise machines to fall asleep, I use music to concentrate.”


Our American Idol

James Durbin does not have ADHD. But growing up with both Asperger’s and Tourette syndromes, he suffered involuntary facial tics and debilitating social skills that made him a punching bag for bullies.

“I was teased, bullied, and picked on for being different,” says Durbin, the third runner-up on the 2011 season of American Idol. “Music was my shell. Inside, I could create a world as happy or as sad as I wanted, and no one could tell me differently.”

Though he loved and mastered music from a young age, Durbin didn’t learn to perform with others until he joined Kids on Broadway, a community theater group in his hometown of Santa Cruz, California. When he landed the lead in a 2006 production of Grease, Durbin spent rehearsals avoiding eye contact and holding back rages. Five years later, he was performing solos and group numbers for nearly 20 million American Idol viewers every week.

“I learned a lot about myself, and it made me stronger,” says Durbin of his teen years in community theater and music education. “For me, the answer was music. But I say search yourself, search the world, and find what you love — that is what will ease the pain.”

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