How Music Affects the Brain

ADHD brains work a little differently than neurotypical ones. That's because ADHD brains have a deficiency in a neurotransmitter called norepinephrine. This particular neurotransmitter is closely linked with a chemical known as dopamine, which aids in experiencing pleasure, controlling attention, and processing information. There are also fewer dopamine receptors in the prefrontal cortex of an ADHD brain.

All of this contributes to lower dopamine levels, which is why people with ADHD are often attracted to high-dopamine activities. This can lead to risky or impulsive behaviors that provide a dopamine rush. It’s important for people with the disorder to develop healthier and safer ways to increase their dopamine levels.

As it turns out, music is one of the best ways to do just that. When someone listens to music they enjoy, it increases dopamine levels in the brain. That's why it feels so good to listen to the songs you love. And as an added bonus, it can satisfy some of that desire for a dopamine rush that people with ADHD seem to crave more intensely due to their lower dopamine levels.

Can Music Improve Focus?

One of the symptoms most closely associated with ADHD is difficulty maintaining focus. This also connects back to the way that an ADHD brain works. Attention is regulated in the prefrontal cortex, but people with ADHD typically exhibit weaker circuit function in this area of the brain. In addition, the lower levels of dopamine in an ADHD brain can make it harder to sustain focus over longer periods of time. Essentially, the brain starts to get bored, and it looks to other things to get a dopamine reward.

Fortunately, music can provide a helpful way for ADHD brains to stay on track when trying to maintain their attention. Research has found that listening to music can improve attention management in people with ADHD. So if you're trying to focus better, listening to music might be just the thing you need.

However, not just any music will work. There are certain genres which are more closely associated with increased attention in people with ADHD. For example, classical music from composers like Chopin, Bach, Mozart, and Vivaldi is often recommended for improving focus because it has a tempo that isn't too fast and overstimulating. The simple rhythms can help to create structure, which is useful for helping the brain to anticipate and measure intervals of time.

If you're not into classical music, however, there are other genres you can try. Instrumental music without any lyrics seems to be the best for minimizing distractions. Music with ethereal or nature-inspired sounds can also aid in focusing. Longer tracks can be helpful since there are fewer distractions that may be caused when the music switches to the next song.

You may want to try out a few different options to see which ones are most effective for you in helping to improve focus in various settings and situations. For instance, the music that allows you to concentrate on work projects may be different from the kind that helps prevent distractions when you're trying to clean your house.

Other Benefits of Music Therapy for ADHD

It might not seem intuitive to think of it this way, but when you're listening to music for benefits like improved focus, you're actually participating in music therapy. This is something that you can do yourself, like when you put on a pair of headphones and listen to classical music while you work, or which can be conducted by a trained music therapist in an individual or group setting.

Beyond boosting your attention span, there are a number of other benefits associated with music therapy for ADHD, including:

  • Anxiety relief: Anxiety and ADHD often go hand in hand. Listening to relaxing music can help to decrease symptoms associated with anxiety.
  • Memory improvement: Engaging the brain by listening to music and organizing its sound sequences can help to stimulate short-term and long-term memory.
  • Better sleep: Music may be able to reduce insomnia and other sleep issues associated with ADHD. In turn, sleeping more soundly often helps with better ADHD symptom management.
  • Relaxation: There are physiological effects that occur when listening to soothing music. It can help to regulate heart rate, breathing, and blood pressure, all of which contribute to feeling more relaxed and easing stress.
  • Social connections: People with ADHD may sometimes struggle to form strong social connections, but music can provide a bridge to bond with others. Listening to or creating music, singing, playing instruments, or dancing along to favorite songs together can ease social anxiety and contribute to stronger connections with friends and family.