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Timeline: Music And Attention - Bringing Thoughts Into Focus

U.S. Public Domain
The highlighted region of the brain is the prefrontal cortex, responsible for cognition, expression, decision making and concentration.

Simply type “study music” into a google search and you’ll get about three billion results; from videos and tracks of original pieces that use alpha waves to help you focus, to long playlists of classical music for study and concentration. There are entire genres and branches of the music industry devoted to providing music as a backdrop for other activities. Do they work? Yes, yes they do. As Rebecca West of the Music Institute of Chicago stated, “Rhythm, melody and tempo are tools used to target non-musical behaviors, to catapult change throughout the body. A change in rhythm can trigger a reaction in the brain.”


Music’s ability to aid in cognitive focus is inspiring new, exciting research in neurology and music therapy, especially for those with Attention Deficit and Hyperactivity Disorder or ADHD. Kirsten Hutchison, a music therapist at Music Works Northeast, a nonprofit community music school outside of Seattle, writes, “Music exists in time, with a clear beginning, middle and end. That structure helps a child with ADHD plan, anticipate and react.”

One-in-ten children in the U.S. is diagnosed with ADHD, that’s over six million kids. With a number that big it’s easy to feel overwhelmed. So, let me tell you a story about just one. Brandon was born in 1982. Complications during birth had caused damage to the prefrontal cortex of Brandon’s brain. As a result, he was a fussy baby, with delayed language skills and severe anxiety. It became clear that Brandon had pronounced learning disabilities, mostly around audio processing. He was diagnosed with ADHD at the age of six, and it was around this age that teachers and educators declared that Brandon would probably never graduate from high school to say nothing about college.

However, Brandon’s mother refused to give up on his education. She continued to research his condition, went to other doctors and tried many different strategies. The most successful of which was music, especially learning a musical instrument. Brandon started taking piano lessons at five and quickly thrived in that environment. His mother created musical games for almost every subject at school, from spelling to mathematics. Together, they created songs and jingles to remember facts and figures. Over time, Brandon’s ability to focus and concentrate improved. It was a lot of hard work, but he finished high school, went to college and graduated with a degree in philosophy and film.   

Brandon’s story is not unusual or surprising. Traditional interventions for children with ADHD include therapy, coaching, support groups and medication. But, recent scientific studies are showing that music can be used to treat the symptoms of inattention and ADHD.

William E. Pelham Jr., Director of the FIU Center for Children and Families conducted a study exploring music and video as a distractor for boys with ADHD against medication. He declared, “We found listening to music helped kids with ADHD complete their work. Actually for this subgroup, the effect of music on them was nearly as effective as medication.”

There is still a lot of research to be done and so much more to learn. However, it seems clear that we are just beginning to scratch the surface of how music can be utilized as a form of therapy for children and adults. How about you? What music do you listen to to help focus your attention? Comment below, we'd love to hear from you.

Check out this suggested playlist of music for growing ADHD brains…

  • Ludwig van Beethoven – Piano Concerto no. 5 (Emperor)
  • Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart – Symphony no. 40 in g
  • J.S. Bach – Brandenburg Concerti
  • George Frederic Handel – Water Music
  • Johannes Brahms – Violin Concerto in D
  • Antonio Vivaldi – The Four Seasons
  • Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky – Piano Concerto No. 1 in bb op.23
  • Johann Pachelbel – Canon in D

Timeline is an exploration into the development of Western music.

James Stewart is Vermont Public Classical's afternoon host. As a composer, he is interested in many different genres of music; writing for rock bands, symphony orchestras and everything in between.
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