Do Boys with ADHD Focus Better With Music?

Teachers and parents of children with ADHD know all too well how easily these special children can get distracted. The majority of research has shown that children with ADHD focus better and stay on task more when they are in an environment free from stimulation. But there is some evidence that specific stimulation can have a positive effect on these children. “Other studies have shown that background music significantly improves performance on cognitive tasks for children with ADHD but does not impact or negatively impact the performance of non-ADHD controls,” said W.E. Pelham, Jr. of the Department of Psychology at the Center for Children and Families at Florida International University, and lead author of a study on distraction among ADHD boys. “Despite these research findings, classroom teachers and the committees that revise the DSM continue to report and conclude that children with ADHD are more easily distracted than children without ADHD, and that distractors have only negative effects.”

Pelham examined how music or videos affected the attention of boys with ADHD who were non-medicated versus boys who were on methylphenidate (MPH) in a classroom environment. In three separate studies, Pelham found that the boys responded well to only musical stimulus. “Video produced significant distraction, particularly for the boys with ADHD, and MPH improved the performance of boys with ADHD across distractor conditions,” said Pelham. “In the presence or absence of music, MPH improved performance relative to placebo.” However, Pelham noted that although the video distracted all of the children, and specifically the children with ADHD, music had a beneficial effect, improving productivity in the boys with ADHD. “Thus, rather than recommending that children with ADHD perform homework in complete silence, our results suggest that listening to music while studying will not hurt most and may help some children with ADHD.” He added, “Rather than isolating a child with ADHD in a stimulus-free environment, these findings suggest that providing the child with headphones on which he or she could listen to music while working may enhance the classroom productivity of some children with ADHD.”

Pelham, Jr., William E., Daniel A. Waschbusch, Betsy Hoza, Elizabeth M. Gnagy, Andrew R. Greiner, Susan E. Sams, Gary Vallano, Antara Majumdar, and Randy L. Carter. “Music and Video as Distractors for Boys with ADHD in the Classroom: Comparison with Controls, Individual Differences, and Medication Effects.” Journal of Abnormal Child Psychology 39 (2011): 1085-098. Print.

© Copyright 2011 by By Noah Rubinstein, LMFT, LMHC, therapist in Olympia, Washington. All Rights Reserved. Permission to publish granted to

The preceding article was solely written by the author named above. Any views and opinions expressed are not necessarily shared by Questions or concerns about the preceding article can be directed to the author or posted as a comment below.

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  • Debra


    December 15th, 2011 at 2:00 PM

    I would have imagined that having anything background would have led to more distractions. Maybe with the music they focus on the soothing quality and not the flittering around of everything else that they could be focusing on? I say whatever works to help them concentrate then it is worth giving a try.

  • Elliot


    December 15th, 2011 at 6:29 PM

    My child does not even have ADHD and she has always performed better when she has a little background muc=sic. It has to be something soft and soothing, but it is like it lulls her to do her best. I know that sounds weird but now there are even teachers in her school who have started doing that in the classroom too. I know that they would not continue to do that if they did not see that most kids respond really well to the music and that they tend to put in a better performance when it is playing.

  • Megan A.

    Megan A.

    December 15th, 2011 at 8:16 PM

    I had an art teacher back in high school who only found out a year or so back that he had ADHD and he’s in his 40’s. In school he had a reputation for being quite the “stomp around in a tantrum” type, but one year he started playing easy listening and classical music in class, and he began to change for the better quite quickly. Turns out that he could simply pay attention to the music for a while whenever he felt distracted and go back to what he was supposed to be doing.

  • Fran O’Connell

    Fran O’Connell

    December 15th, 2011 at 8:40 PM

    @Megan A. : I’m surprised that nobody caught on to that he had attention problems if he was 40 years old and a teacher. An art teacher at that! I guess they assumed it was because he was the creative type. Of course there is a more extreme story about a teacher who couldn’t read, yet he somehow got the job. I guess your teacher didn’t have it to an extreme.

    Don’t get me wrong, I think it’s admirable he managed to become a teacher while dealing with that!

  • Robert Grace

    Robert Grace

    December 15th, 2011 at 8:47 PM

    Why not let all the students listen to some music? I don’t see what harm that would do and if the whole class was listening it wouldn’t be singling out the special needs children.

    School bores the life out of students half the time and it’s so monotonous they shut down halfway through class unless it’s miraculously something is keeping their attention somehow. I remember a study in the UK that tried this tactic and it had positive results.

  • b.y.r


    December 16th, 2011 at 12:09 AM

    @Robert Grace: Bear in mind that not all youngsters are going to like classical music. If I was in an environment where they played a kind of music I hated all day, my attention problems would be solved until I took a golf-club to every speaker in the building. That would be my focus for the day LOL.

    Seriously, it will work for some youngsters but not all. But then the same can be said of many educational approaches.

  • K. Judd

    K. Judd

    December 16th, 2011 at 12:12 AM

    I don’t think letting one group of children listen to music and not others is a good idea actually. Young people don’t have the maturity to understand the need to treat special needs kids differently unless they can physically see the problem, like if they’re wheelchair bound. I feel that would only call attention to their problems and result in bullying because of jealousy.

  • Randy Graeme

    Randy Graeme

    December 16th, 2011 at 12:20 AM

    @K.Judd: I concur. Unless it was in a different classroom altogether where all the children were special needs, I see more negatives than positives. Special needs children do not like being singled out any more than “normal” children do.

    If there was a more subtle way to do it, like giving each of them an MP3 player and earpiece they could slip on quietly rather than headphones that are very noticeable, that would be better.



    December 16th, 2011 at 1:59 PM

    Music does help me do my work better,be it some hobby art or school work.But its not for everybody.So let’s just let those who enjoy it continue and those who don’t can stay away.A blanket rule would cause more problems than good.

  • Judy P

    Judy P

    December 18th, 2011 at 8:29 AM

    My daughter loves to come home and do her homework with the radio playing but I think that this can get pretty distracting with all of the talking and the commercials. So what we have started to do instead is just put on some of her favorite cd’s. Yes the music can be kind of loud, but if that is what motivates her to get her work done then I am all for it!

  • susie


    December 19th, 2011 at 6:22 AM

    for my son this would be one more distraction for him to overcome- not the best idea for him

  • austin


    January 18th, 2012 at 9:19 AM

    this has helped do an oral report on focus while listening to music

  • grace


    July 25th, 2012 at 5:32 AM

    I think listening to music does help ADHD people concentrate. In fact I think that’s what helped me pass my optometry degree and school for that matter. I have not been officially diagnosed, but am 90% sure I have ADHD. Looking back at my school/studies I could only concentrate if I had earphones on with either heavy metal/house/enya music (something repetative without comprehensable words). I’ve often wondered how the heck I managed to get a degree. I never listen to that music ever unless I study. I need to go on Ritalin I guess.

  • Liam


    September 19th, 2012 at 6:12 PM

    I have ADHD, and listening to music will make me type way faster on the computer however with music playing, i cannot focus what so ever on any task what so ever.

  • austin murphy

    austin murphy

    October 15th, 2012 at 7:36 AM

    k.judd most young people do not realize it you may be right but i have known since i was ten i am now seventeen and i have found that music does help tremendously and when i was medicated i would still listen to music for extra concentration

  • Claire Westonshaw

    Claire Westonshaw

    October 21st, 2012 at 1:15 PM

    Hi, I’m a music teacher with a new 9 year old boy. The boy has a very troubled history which has has left some emotional and behavioural problems. I have discovered that he is very responsive to music, his class teacher, head teacher, father are all supportive. I’ve organised a play date so that I can try music in the back ground (no pressure, just observing as he plays with my daughter). So my questions is what music should I put on it? What calms a ADD 9 year old boy? He likes reggae. Any suggestions

  • Kat


    March 6th, 2013 at 4:46 PM

    Is there any particular reason this study was only done on boys?

  • Tyler D

    Tyler D

    May 11th, 2013 at 2:53 PM

    I have been diagnosed with ADHD and as a child I stayed on task much better while listening to music through my ear phones while doing homework on the diner table. I attribute this mainly to it allowing me to stimulate my mind while avoiding sounds other people in the house were making. For instance, listening to music I’m familiar with drowned out sounds of drawers closing or pans clashing as my mother made dinner… Those things unfamiliar always caused my head to rise in interest and excitement to what’s going on.

  • Vinay


    January 28th, 2015 at 2:11 AM

    Not sure why this article is about boys only, I suppose it goes with girls as well. But I can’t tell for sure, I’m a guy, diagnosed with ADHD.

    I’ve always gravitated towards rock music as a little kid and in my early teens that quickly shifted towards death metal like Carcass, Death and heavier than that (Hate Eternal, Cannibal Corpse). Some people thought it didn’t fit me as I’ve always been a cheery, positive and energetic guy and this kind of music was often labeled as negative and destructive. But that is not what it was for me. It definitely helped me through my homework, so it became my friend in a way, I didn’t want to do without it and it hurt when I heard people speak negative and ignorant about it. See, absolute silence may work for concentration, but it is never there. You’ll always hear more details: the ticking of a clock, your pencil on the paper, your heartbeat, joints in your body. And (apparently this only goes for those with ADHD), my mind wouldn’t stop looking for stimulus and triggers until it was saturated. So the more “silent” and “clean” your environment, the more a scattered set of stimulus you end up with in your mind. Listening to very intense music (like death metal, complex classical music might also work) saturates the remaining capacity of my mind which is left after focusing on the job at hand. That’s what it felt like to me, but I hadn’t heard of any scientific proof back then to back my theory. I just felt it worked.

    During my study Aerospace Engineering I eventually got stuck as I could study and understand everything perfectly, but couldn’t keep my focus during those long three hour tests. I had an incredible amount of resits, which was definitely frustrating. People had been telling me I had ADHD but I didn’t believe me. I just thought they just said it because I was too energetic. And I thought I had that covered as I burnt that running in the morning and mountainbiking in the evening. Didn’t help with the test obviously, just with the excess energy. I quit my study and started to work. My girlfriend eventually convinced me that I should have myself tested as I showed more symptoms of ADHD other than just my excess energy. So at the age of 30, I was diagnosed. Apparently I managed relatively well until that point with the combination of sports, music while studying and something thought by my coaches which is currently known as “mindfulness”. So I got medication and it worked a miracle for those cases where I couldn’t crank a tune or jump every half hour (like a three hour test). I thought it would be weird, but it feels just like those moments of focus you can have every now and then, but just don’t know when you’ll actually have them. Eventually at the age of 33, having two little children and a full time job, I managed to finish that study I thought I never would :).

    So yeah, medication definitely helped me with that last hurdle and could surely have accelerated my study. But I doubt I could ever have come close if I tried in silence, no matter how much medication you’d stuff me with.

    I just hope this knowledge becomes more common among psychotherapists worldwide. I’ve been in the lucky position that I’ve run into the right kind of music, got connected with the right coaches (the mindfulness thing) and could burn my excess energy and urge to take risks in a sport like mountainbiking. If a person with ADHD doesn’t run into those opportunities, he or she might/will take the less favourable alternatives. Take drugs for that immersive experience, drive too fast for the thrill. We know it happens, it even gives ADHD a bad reputation, bad behaviour would be a consequence of ADHD. Which sucks, it shouldn’t be like that. Bad behaviour is just a risk of poor treatment to ADHD. Don’t just take away what you think is bad, but provide a good alternative. Don’t just take away the video games, but at least get the kid a skateboard and compliment on his or her progress, new tricks learned. Don’t just take away everything that could be a distraction, but fill the gap with something else. Don’t try to make the person perform in “silence” but allow a single source of immersive “distraction” instead. Most homework (like practicing math for instance) doesn’t require your ears. But they are there, they need something to do so give them something.

    I’m pretty sure that if psychiatrists would grasp this concept, more people with ADHD could perform to their full potential.

  • Elizabeth


    February 8th, 2015 at 10:10 AM

    My experience with this is that with ADHD is that you have a hundred things going through your mind at once. Some days/moments are far worse than others. Sometimes I feel like I simply dissolve into aggravated madness and want to start slamming my head on something. Music helps me immensely when this happens. Heavy metal played loudly is the only thing that reduces the cacophony to a manageable level because it tends to shove everything else out and force itself to be heard. Sometimes I can feel it physically relaxing me even though that loud, riotous music would most likely disturb the average person.

    However, if my brain isn’t overwhelming me at the moment, music tends to be extremely distracting. So, in my opinion, giving kids music as a blanket resolution isn’t going to work.

  • oglas z.

    oglas z.

    January 16th, 2016 at 6:29 AM

    Everything is very open with a really clear explanation of the
    challenges. It was definitely informative. Your site is very helpful.
    Thanks for sharing!

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