Show Notes

Kids have been easily distractible since the beginning of time, but the situation’s gotten even worse with the advent of social media. Every minute of every day, there are dozens of things demanding your kids’ attention. And if your kid has ADHD? That just makes it even harder.

Music is a fantastic tool for helping kids develop both focus and self-control.

Why kids (especially with ADHD) struggle to focus

Have you heard of dopamine? It’s a neurotransmitter that’s commonly known as the “feel-good hormone.” It’s our body’s way of rewarding us for doing what we need to do to survive; it also plays a crucial role in memory, attention, and learning. (Check out this great explainer by the Cleveland Clinic.)

Because kids’ brains are still developing, they don’t have a complete system for regulating the release of dopamine. Studies also suggest that people with ADHD have lower levels of dopamine than average, which leads to struggles with concentration, impulse control, and memory.

How music helps

Music (when it’s the music you want to listen to) triggers the release of dopamine. It’s part of what makes music fun, and why it’s a lot easier to clean your kitchen when you’ve got a good playlist blasting on your speakers.

But music can provide more than just a shot of dopamine. In an article for ADDitude, neurologic music therapist Patti Catalano explains: “Music shares neural networks with other cognitive processes… The goal of music therapy is to build up those activated brain muscles over time to help overall function.”

In that same article, music therapist Kirsten Hutchison also points out that the structure of music “helps a child with ADHD plan, anticipate, and react.”

More musical exercises to help focus

In this episode of Music for Life Skills, Mike demonstrated a simple rhythm game that you can use to help kids train their brains. Here are some more musical ideas to help you & your kids.

  • CREATE PLAYLISTS: Kids (especially with ADHD) respond really well to routine, so try creating playlists for activities they struggle with. Maybe a soothing playlist for concentrating on homework; an energetic playlist for cleaning their rooms; etc. Music will help make the routine more fun and help them get into the right headspace for the task at hand.
  • SING SONGS IN THE ROUND: This is a classic campfire exercise but you can still do it right at home. Watch this example of “Row row row your boat”.

Episode Transcript

Hello and welcome to “Music for Life Skills.” My name is Mike Arturi and I’m the founder and executive director of Universal Music Center, and we are Red Wing Minnesota’s original non-profit music education organization. And through our work here at Universal Music Center, we have discovered that music lessons and live performance experience enhance many, many life skills, and that is what this podcast is all about.

Today’s Topic: Short Attention Spans

Today we’re talking about short attention spans, and especially for people with ADHD. There’s a very short musical exercise that I can show you very easily that will help with short attention spans. All you’ll need is something to bang on: something that makes noise that won’t hurt your hands. As a couple of examples here, I have a drum. But I also have this: a plastic garbage bin, which everybody might have in their homes. A pot, a pan, a table, anything that’ll make a sound will work.

And what we do is we take a simple rhythmic phrase, okay? And rather than get into actual music notation here, let’s use numbers. So, for instance, we can use a phrase of 1-2, 1-2-3, 1-2, 1-2-3. Or combine two phrases: 1-2, 1-2-3, 1-2-3-4-5-6-7. We could do that, okay? So you can make up these little phrases just using numbers and without having to worry about the actual musical notation of it.

And then another thing we could do that could make this even easier and even more fun is attach some kind of a spoken phrase to those patterns. For instance, with the rhythm that I just mentioned here, we can say, “Let’s all play the drum, everybody play the drum.” That’s your 1-2, 1-2-3, 1-2-3-4-5-6-7.

[drumming in time with words] Let’s all play the drum, everybody play the drum.

Now. We can do that, and what we’ll do is we’ll get both parties—both participants—to be able to play that phrase well, okay? Understand the phrase, know how to play it. Now here is the essence of the exercise. You want to both play this phrase together, and you’ll want to play as tightly together as you possibly can. That’s the kind of magic of this exercise, because the focus is now in the refinement of playing it together.

For example: if my left hand was one person and my right hand is another, and we weren’t playing together, it might sound like this:

[drumming, hands significantly out of synch]

Okay? But if we’re playing exactly together, we get:

[drumming, each hand following a 1-2, 1-2-3, 1-2-3-4-5-6-7 beat in perfect synch]

Let’s all play the drum, everybody play the drum.

And that’s what we want to focus on, that’s what we want to achieve. So we want to achieve a performance that gives us exact replication of that pattern, playing exactly together at the same volume level and at the same intensity and measures of beats.

In the process of learning music, repetition is involved, and in order to perfect any idea or piece of music, it takes a number of repetitions. But the thing that’s important about music is that it’s number one something that you want to do. It’s something that you have a passion for, and therefore those repetitions aren’t so repetitive. So repetitions can be fun, but while you’re having that fun and doing those repetitions, you’re increasing your focus and it’s holding your attention.

For more lessons like this, don’t forget to check out our back catalog. And also, for more information about Universal Music Center or to participate in any of our great programs, please go to our website: