It’s 3pm on a Tuesday afternoon. I just took my immediate-release Adderall, my headphones are on, my laptop is fully charged… I’m officially entering full focus mode.
Before I start writing or doing any work, I have to find the perfect playlist!
Music and Attention Deficit/Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD) very much go hand-in-hand. Music marries structure, rhythm, and timing—and since ADHD often involves challenges with time management, listening to music can sometimes help.
Need to focus? Throw some headphones on, play a happy song, and really get into it. On the flip side, maybe you can’t focus because the environment you’re working in is playing music a little too loudly.
Like many ADHD topics, the relationship between ADHD and music can be controversial. So let’s explore how music and ADHD actually interact by eliminating the background noise.
TL;DR: Find the jams that work best for you
The challenges ADHDers face with dopamine deficiency, focus, and anxiety can take a toll on you. Music can help provide a sense of external structure, and can be used as a landmark in our day to day lives all while providing little mood-boosting moments.
But, like many ADHD things, you have to find what works for you. Maybe your brain thrives on EDM, and you find your anxiety melting away as you listen to fast-paced music. Or maybe you opt for music that travels - yes, travels - from ear to ear, increasing focus.
By knowing what music makes your brain happy, calm, and focused, you’ll ultimately end up creating your perfect ADHD-friendly playlist.
Your brain on music
To understand how music affects ADHD and vice versa, we need to understand how music impacts the brain in general.
Music triggers the pleasure centers in your brain, which ultimately increases your levels of dopamine—the infamous neurotransmitter that’s correlated with happiness and rewards.
According to preliminary research, dopamine levels are thought to be lower in ADHD brains. In turn, we experience ADHD symptoms that can range from emotional dysregulation to hyperactivity.
The brain responds to music so quickly that it can anticipate the most exciting peaks in familiar music, and prime itself for an early dopamine rush.
Affected brain regions
Music also activates several other areas in your brain, including:
- The auditory cortex
- The motor system
- Brain regions responsible for memory storage and recall
Because music interacts with just about every region of your brain, it helps keep brain pathways strong in order to promote well-being, enhanced learning, and increased cognitive function.
ADHD and music
ADHDers often struggle with attentiveness, focus, and keeping track of time. Music can help to improve focus, problem-solving abilities, and overall mood.
Studies have shown that, in people with ADHD, music influences the following changes in the brain:
- Increased levels of dopamine
- Reduced anxiety
- Increased focus
- Improved stress management
- Enhanced memory
- Improved awareness of time
- Improved social skills (attending concerts, creating your own playlists, or playing an instrument can all help with self-expression and improve self esteem)
Research has shown that controlled environmental noise has positive effects on ADHD and cognitive performance. In a study conducted with two groups of children - a control group, and a group of children who had ADHD, and asked them to complete a series of mini tasks with white noise in the background. Researchers found that participants with low dopamine levels (the group of children who had ADHD) required more noise for optimal cognitive performance compared to the control group in the experiment.
What are binaural beats?
Have you ever listened to a song and felt the sound travel from one ear to the other? Binaural beats are a type of auditory beat stimulation that happens when you listen to a sound at a certain frequency with one ear, and a sound at a different—but similar—frequency with your other ear.
Your brain produces a sound with the frequency of the difference between the two tones — or a binaural beat.
“Binaural beat therapy” has become an emerging form of sound wave therapy, and a self-help treatment (not meant to replace traditional treatments). Potential benefits include:
- Increased focus, concentration, and motivation
- Reduced stress and anxiety
- Improved confidence
- Better long term memory
- Enhanced psychomotor performance and mood
You can find a playlist of songs with binaural audio here.
Music for ADHD brains: play it or skip it?
Music can be incredibly helpful for people with ADHD, but that comes with stipulations. For example, listening to binaural audio, background music without vocals, or chill electronic music like lo-fi hip hop can help ADHDers with focus and concentration.
On the flip side, there are some kinds of music that might do the opposite, and you’ll want to avoid those at all costs.
Music with vocals: skip it
If you’re trying to focus, you might find music with vocals to be distracting. This is mostly due to the fact that vocals compete for our attention, which can pull us away from the task at hand.
Music without vocals might be more suitable for a deep focus mode (hello, have you heard of the super studious, chill lo-fi girl?).
Your favorite (and least favorite) songs: it depends!
Have you ever put on your favorite song while trying to do a task, only to find yourself singing along and dancing, and not doing said task? Try to avoid songs you know all of the words to if you actually want to get things done.
On the other end of the spectrum are the songs you can’t stand. These should also be avoided for obvious reasons, but mainly because you’ll get distracted by thinking about how much you can’t stand the song that’s playing.
Music that you can tune out, or easily blends into your environment, could be great to play while working. Sometimes very familiar music (think music you’ve listened to for years) could work as beneficial background music you can tune out.
Other times, ADHDers are in need of a dopamine boost to fuel motivation. When this happens, upbeat, happy, or familiar music can provide the dopamine boost necessary to start tasks.
Music on radio stations and (free) streaming platforms: skip it
Jamming out to the radio in the car or Pandora (or any other free streaming platform) is great, until the commercial breaks. ADHDers struggle with focusing and short attention spans, so adding in distractions like commercials can disrupt a focused workflow. Similar to music with vocals, ad breaks pull our attention away from the present moment. Stick to commercial-free streaming services!
Fast-paced music: it depends!
It would seem as if fast-paced music is a huge no-no for people with ADHD, but this is another case of “you have to find what works best for you.” Fast-paced music can be distracting, or even cause anxiety. Your focus could shift from the music, back to the task at hand, and back to the music, similarly to music with vocals and radio stations with commercial breaks. When it comes to fast-paced music, continuously shifting your attention can be counterproductive.
On the other hand, If you’re deep in a focus zone and find fast-paced, repetitive beats stimulating, stick with it. Maybe your ADHD brain thrives on EDM, electronic, or other fast-paced exciting beats, and you’re able to focus on tasks even better. Fast-paced music can create a sense of urgency and motivate you to knock out those long-standing items on your to-do list and hit deadlines on time.
Or maybe your friends are coming over in 30 minutes and you still need to clean your apartment — queue the energizing, fast-paced music, please!
Frequently asked questions
What type of music is good for ADHD?
If the goal is to focus, then the ‘best’ type of music would have some or all of the following qualities:
- Music without vocals
- Music that you can easily tune out (i.e. songs that you don’t love or hate)
- Uninterrupted streaming (avoid the radio!)
Does music help ADHD students study?
It depends on the type of music and the student’s taste! Generally, when an ADHDer is listening to their optimal type of music for focusing, it can help to improve focus and memory.
Do people with ADHD listen to songs on a loop?
Not necessarily. Listening to songs on repeat is more about personal preference and less about neurotype.
Ok, then why do some people with ADHD listen to songs on repeat?
If someone with ADHD is looping the same song over and over again, it may be because they’ve found that the redundancy of a song playing in the background is what helps them focus best.
Or, they just really like the song! #hyperfocus