Medicating ADHD with Music Therapy

A Guide to ADHD and How Music Therapy Can Help

You’ve probably heard of ADHD because it is one of the most common neurodevelopmental disorders. What you might not have heard of, though, is that music therapy has been proven effective in helping those diagnosed.

In this post, we will be taking a look at:

  • What is ADHD?
  • ADHD in Children
  • ADHD in Adults

And how music therapy is a valid form of treatment.

What is ADHD?

ADHD (Attention-Deficit/Hyperactivity Disorder) is characterized by long-term inattention and impulsivity -- otherwise known as a lack of focus and excessive fidgeting. ADHD can be caused by anything from low birth weight to brain injury -- although research suggests genetic factors have a lot to do with it.

According to the CDC, ADHD can be categorized into three different types:

  • Predominantly Inattentive Presentation: showing more of the inattentive symptoms
  • Predominantly Hyperactive-Impulsive Presentation: showing more of the impulsive symptoms
  • Combined Presentation: Both types are seen within the patient


A woman in a black shirt presses her hands to her temple, while imagining scribbles.
ADHD may be accompanied by mood disorders. Image courtesy of Easy Health Options.

Symptoms of ADHD

If any of the following symptoms have occurred six times (or five times for adults) over the last six months, you may have ADHD.

Predominantly Inattentive Presentation:

  • Makes careless mistakes in school or at work/doesn’t pay attention to detail
  • Has a hard time focusing on tasks or activities
  • Daydreams often
  • Does not follow instructions
  • May start tasks quickly but does not complete them
  • Disorganized
  • Avoids or dislikes tasks that require sustained mental effort
  • Often misplaces items
  • Easily distracted
  • Forgets prior engagements such as doing chores, returning phone calls, keeping appointments

Hyperactive/impulsive type:

  • Fidgets with hands or feet, or squirms in seat
  • Runs or climbs where it is inappropriate
  • Unable to play or do leisure activities quietly
  • Always driven
  • Talks more than normal
  • Impatient when listening or waiting inline

There is no medical test to determine if someone has ADHD but by gathering information and comparing it to these symptoms, a healthcare professional may be able to diagnose.

Online tests like this one can help you decide if you need to take further steps.

ADHD in Children

ADHD is most frequently seen in children, and it can impact their lives greatly.

Since ADHD is an attention disorder, it obviously gets in the way of having a normal education. Many kids may find themselves zoning out in class and missing a math lesson or hearing the bell ring before they’ve finished their test. School is the exact opposite of what a person with ADHD wants to do -- it requires you to sit still, listen, and be quiet.


A little boy with ADHD is bored with his school work.
Many schools have educational programs for children with ADHD. Image courtesy of Harvard Health Publishing.

Luckily treatments, such as music therapy, can help a diagnosed child thrive at school.

Not all side effects of ADHD will interrupt your child’s day-to-day life -- in fact, some may help them. Children with ADHD are said to be more:

  • Creative
  • Motivated
  • Enthusiastic
  • Flexible (schedule)

ADHD’s Effect in Adults

Many adults do not even realize that they have ADHD -- usually, symptoms decrease as we age. Despite this, about four percent of those with ADHD are adults.

ADHD in adults has been linked to:

  • Poor school or work performance
  • Unemployment
  • Financial problems
  • Legal issues
  • Alcohol or another substance misuse
  • Frequent car accidents or other accidents
  • Unstable relationships
  • Poor physical and mental health
  • Poor self-image
  • Suicide attempts

Before you rush to conclusions, consult your healthcare provider -- and check out these forms of music therapy treatment.

How Music Therapy can Help

Typically, patients with ADHD are provided with supplements such as Adderall, in order to treat their symptoms. Several studies have concluded that music therapy is also a successful aid to patients, and it can be used to either strengthen the effects of a medication or to feel in control of symptoms without one.

Music therapy provides structure for those with ADHD. Music involves rhythm and beats, which are soothing to a brain trying to regulate itself.  Music also has a distinct beginning, middle, and end -- making it predictable. To someone that is disorganized or scatter-brained, this can be very comforting -- and even train the brain simultaneously.


A man plays guitar with a small boy in a blue shirt playing a drum.
Children can express emotions through music therapy. Image courtesy of adda.

Music also triggers the release of dopamine (the happy chemical)  in the brain, something that is low in those with ADHD. Dopamine is also responsible for some of our attention, memory, and motivation skills. Therefore, increasing dopamine leads to an increase in mental performance.

Commonly, children with ADHD have a hard time fitting in at school and/or processing their emotions -- this may be the same way for adults as well. Group music therapy can be extremely beneficial in these cases. You will meet people who share your struggles while learning to play instruments, collaborating, and creating new music.

Methods

There are several methods of music therapy, but here are some frequently used techniques when treating those with ADHD:

  • Listening to music
  • Playing with pre-recorded music
  • Composing songs/lyrics
  • Playing instruments
  • Group therapy

In Katrina McFerran’s academic journal, Quenching a Desire for Power: The Role of Music Therapy for Adolescents with ADHD, she studies the effects of music therapy on a young man. She finds that both individual and small-group therapy provides opportunities for him to express himself and gain control over his life -- proving that no matter which method your therapist chooses, it is sure to bring positive change.

A woman in a blue blouse listens to music in a room filled with plants.
Listen to music in order to reduce stress and anxiety, as well as maintain focus. Image courtesy of Ladders.

You do not need any prior musical experience or talents to benefit from music therapy -- that’s the beauty of it. Doctors may prescribe pills, supplements, or chemicals, but music therapy is an easy, consequence-free option that can work alongside these treatments or fly solo.

If you or your child show symptoms of ADHD consult your healthcare provider in order to find the best music therapy options for you!

Jessica Fortunato
Jessica Fortunato is a writer who also enjoys photography, music, and hiking.
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