Exploring ADHD and Learning How to Play a Musical Instrument, Part 1

Exploring ADHD and Learning How to Play a Musical Instrument, Part 1
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How Can Music Help?

Has your child or teen diagnosed with ADHD shown an interest in music? It’s a good thing; you’d be wise to encourage it. Parents of

kids with ADHD generally throw up their hands in despair at the idea of launching their child into yet another new endeavor. They’ve had too many experiences undertaking new therapies that end with distraction and lack of focus—why should music be any different?

But research over the past decade has yielded some reassuring evidence that music renders a positive effect on those diagnosed with ADHD. Perhaps you’ve never considered that struggling with ADHD and learning to play a musical instrument would converge as a therapy path for your child, but there’s evidence that music and rhythm do help.

Image credit: FreeDigitalPhotos/Christian Meyn

The Literature Says…

Research on the subject of ADHD and music has occurred only sporadically over the past decade. Psychiatrists want full proof of music’s effectiveness on ADHD, wrapped up with a bow like a holiday present, before they’ll jump on the bandwagon. A common complaint is that research performed has not produced replicable results and that demographics are not strictly controlled (1).

One of the earlier positive studies, however, was conducted by Howard Abikoff et al (2): ADHD-diagnosed children were stimulated by either music or speech, or not stimulated, and then asked to perform mathematical computations. Those stimulated by music performed better overall.

In more recent research, Rickson (3) documented that both instructional and improvisational music therapy yielded a positive impact on controlling motor impulsivity among ADHD-diagnosed teens, with a suggestion that music therapy has a potential to reduce many common ADHD symptoms.

Everyday Experiences

Today’s hands-on practitioners who work directly with ADHD children and adults have a more positive outlook on the benefits that music provides. Their clinical experiences have taught them that the same lack of dopamine and hence low norepinephrine levels that interrupt focus and cause distraction in the average ADHD patient can also result in a phenomenon called hyperfocus (4) in that same person. It means that even though a child’s attention wanders when the topic doesn’t interest them, they are nevertheless capable of exhibiting intense concentration on something they like. Just as stimulant prescription medications or even caffeine will capture a child’s attention, so will stimulation by music.

Suggestions for Parents

  • You’ll know if mitigating symptoms of ADHD and learning to play a musical instrument will work for you. Don’t force music lessons on a child; let them come to you. Otherwise, you will be throwing up your hands in the air at another failed venture.
  • If your child does express an interest in music, find out what instrument interests him or her. Just because Cousin Amy has a flute doesn’t mean your child has to play it. Let children choose what they want to play. Musical instruments don’t have to be expensive; go to a place like eBay for starters.

  • How will your child learn to play the instrument? If your school has a band, he or she can learn there, as long as they agree to play an

    sxc.hu, marching band, Bubbels

    instrument that’s actually a band instrument. Choices like violins, guitars, and pianos are out.

  • You can also call your local music store to inquire about lessons. Most parents are surprised to discover that they generally cost only ten or twenty bucks per session, depending where you live. Without participating in a band or having a teacher, your child will become frustrated by the efforts to make music.

  • Establish guidelines for your child: If you agree to let him or her play, they must practice. That’s actually where much of the benefit will come from; the stimulation from playing and the attention they devote will yield the results you seek. You might be surprised to see that they become fascinated with the minutiae of playing music–figuring out the scales, the sharps and the flats, and memorizing musical terminology. That’s the hyperfocus.

  • To take full advantage of their concentration on music, set practice times to occur just before academic homework—the neural stimulation will hopefully boost norepinephrine levels just enough to help them with math.

Besides the positive neural stimulation, your child will gain additional benefits. Music does hath charms to soothe, as the saying goes, and it will relax your child as he or she progresses. Also, as their skills increase, so will their confidence–something that’s just as important as math.


1. Harrison J, Thompson B, Vannest K. Interpreting the evidence for effective interventions to increase the academic performance of students with ADHD: relevance of the statistical significance controversy. Review of Educational Research 79(2): 740-775, June 2009. Abstract at https://rer.sagepub.com/content/79/2/740.abstract.

2. Abikoff H, Courtney ME, Szeibel P, and Koplewicz H. Arithmetic performance of children with ADHD and nondisabled children. J Learning Disabilities 29(3): 238-246, May 1996. Abstract at https://ldx.sagepub.com/content/29/3/238.

3. Rickson DJ. Instructional and improvisational models of music therapy with adolescents who have attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD): a comparison of the effects on motor impulsivity. Abstract at https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/16671837.

4. Flippin, R. Focus on hyperfocus, ADDitude internet magazine, at https://www.additudemag.com/adhd/article/612.html