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Meaningful Music and Engagement with ADHD

The diagnosis of children and adults with ADHD has increased significantly in the last decade.  There are many theories as to why this increase has been so substantial.  Historically, affected children were viewed as choosing to misbehave, as opposed to having true neuro-cognitive differences from other children.  Many adults who grew up not understanding their own behaviour are, also, finally being diagnosed.  Others are attributing this rise in diagnoses to the advent of smart screen technology decreasing the ability of those affected to simply maintain attention.  The fact is, regardless of the origin of the rise in ADHD, there simply are more people seeking diagnosis for themselves and their children than ever before. 

Mental health professionals are seeing a growing number of people seeking to find help with and understanding the behaviours and difficulties commonly associated with having ADHD.    

Parents, with children who fall under the ADHD umbrella, see their children struggling in structured traditional school programs and childcare situations and are searching for solutions.  These same parents are also finding one or both parents seeking a similar diagnosis as a result because ADHD is highly hereditary.   Researchers do not have conclusive information about any one specific gene that can predict the presence of ADHD as our genetic systems and the involved environmental factors are highly complex!  Nevertheless, if there is a child with ADHD chances are high that a parent or close relative of the parent also has ADHD (diagnosed or not).   Children who fall on the hyper-active side of the diagnosis often present as though “driven by a motor.”  I kid you, not this is the actual wording used on assessments by our beloved Paediatricians.  Or on the other end, children with the inattentive form are often seen as “daydreaming regularly or unable to complete tasks within reasonable deadlines”  There is so much more to this state of being than we are led to believe in the DSM 5 and from our professionals who rely on it for diagnosis. 

ADHD is similar to other neurodivergent presentations in that it presents differently in many of its candidates.  It’s label states that it is a type of deficit and disorder, while Harvard Graduate and 21-year Harvard Medical School professor and board-certified child and adult psychiatrist Dr. Edward Hallowell, MD, would beg to differ.  He is a leader among those who have recently been lobbying to rename ADHD.  The new acronym he and colleagues have coined is:  VAST, which seems to be picking up speed.  Otherwise known as Variable Attention Stimulus Trait, this label would suggest that it is not purely a disorder as the DSM 5 would lead professionals to believe.   Controversy over the term VAST stems from the view of those who suffer greatly from the symptoms of ADHD.   So whether you’re in the camp that ADHD is a disorder impacting its beholders negatively or of the mind that VAST, when the right circumstances are met can be more of a “superpower,” one thing remains in common.  Both require unique and supportive environments to thrive.  

Chemically, lower levels of neurotransmitters dopamine, and norepinephrine are largely responsible for the symptoms of ADHD.  Dopamine is primarily responsible for the feeling of reward, pleasure motivation and the body’s ability to produce smooth movements (versus disjointed or jerky movement).  Norepinephrine as a neurotransmitter is responsible for increasing “alertness, arousal and attention.”  It also “affects your sleep-wake cycle, mood and memory.” .

So what does the scientific information on ADHD have to do with music?  A lot actually.  Newer findings published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences journal indicate that dopamine plays a significant role in how we experience pleasure in music.   In the article, the writer asserts “We cannot conclude that taking dopamine will increase your musical pleasure. What we can say is much more interesting: listening to the music you love will make your brain release more dopamine, a crucial neurotransmitter for humans’ emotional and cognitive functioning.” The study also pinpointed the moment dopamine was released in participants as it was manifested physically by the feeling of chills that were consistently experienced during certain songs chosen by the participants. The study also revealed that the response of increased dopamine levels wasn’t generalized by listening to all music.  It was limited to music that the participants perceived as consistently pleasant or enjoyable.  

In a study conducted in 2003, Japanese students determined that listening to varying types of uplifting music ” versus silence had chemically impacted the immune, neuroendocrine and psychological responses in the test subjects.  It is noted that listening to music is one of the easiest and most accessible ways to boost your levels of norepinephrine.  Another study conducted on male athletes showed that listening to faster more rhythmic music before a workout produced higher levels of epinephrine in the bloodstream.  (Epinephrine production is triggered by the brain’s release of norepinephrine or noradrenaline)  Leading researchers to conclude the level of alertness can be chemically altered by listening to the right music at the right time.  

So we know, not just anecdotally, but through studies such as the ones mentioned here, that without a doubt the right music at the right time will increase the production of the deficient neurotransmitters that are indicated in individuals with ADHD.  

As music therapists we consistently see our clients excel and become empowered while engaging in music in a meaningful way.  As the study pointed out it is not just any music, it is the right music at the right time-I will add when used in the right way. 

If we are to go further into the mechanics of ADHD and the competing term VAST, we would see that there is not always specifically a “deficit” of attention, as the individual is often attending to many things simultaneously and that the individual’s brain needs more stimulation to remain alert and focused.  The fact that music has several elements happening simultaneously (rhythm, melody, harmony, lyrics, and context with which the client has previously experienced this music) means that it just might be enough to hold the attention and increase focus of an ADHDer who requires multiple stimuli simultaneously to remain alert!

Playing live music together with clients or in a group has been one of several interventions music therapists use to effectively engage and regulate the attention of children in school settings and our adult clients in group or 1:1 settings. 

The elements of listening, keeping rhythm, playing live music, singing, drumming, lyric analysis and engaging with others in a meaningful way through music have provided a platform with which those with ADHD can be highly successful. 

These interventions and more can help us move through several of the “symptoms” experienced by ADHDers such as emotional dysregulation, increasing focus, boosting dopamine and norepinephrine levels, and difficulty processing strong emotions internally.  

Music is proven to activate several areas of the brain simultaneously assisting in moving the mind’s focus and attention from the overactive amygdala to other areas of the brain.  Drumming and playing melodic instruments have been well known to help increase cognitive function significantly in not only those with neurocognitive differences but also neurotypical individuals as well—children and adults alike!  

As Music Therapists, we are able to help our clients identify the music and music interventions that will hone in on increasing those dopamine and norepinephrine responses in our clients.  In a world with access to infinite music, finding the right music for the right time might seem like an overwhelming task especially now that we have access globally to any and all music that has been published with a few clicks.  Whether you consult with a music therapist to learn more, or engage in active therapy sessions, there are a myriad of ways that music can be purposefully used to enhance motivation, attention, focus, and emotional regulation.

– Andrea Curry-Hansell, MTA