The Effects of Musical Instrument Training on Working Memory in Children with Attention-Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder Symptoms

Austin Freedman

Authors:  Austin Freedman

Faculty Mentor:  Jill Sonke

College:  College of the Arts 


Roughly 4 million U.S children, 2-17 years of age, are prescribed Attention-Deficit/Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD) medications. For the safety of U.S children, further research and alternatives to medications must be examined. One promising alternative is music. Musical instrument training is associated with improved attention, learning, and working memory in clinical trials; however, the use of musical instrument training as a treatment for ADHD is not extensively studied. In this cohort study, we analyzed the effects of musical instrument training on digit span working memory scores. Subjects (n = 9), between the ages of 6 and 17, with ADHD, participated in bi-weekly guitar lessons for eight weeks and took three working memory tests. Paired t-test showed significant improvements in working memory digit span scores (n = 9, p = 0.0012, t = 4.91). The mean initial digit span remembered was 5 digits. The mean final digit span remembered was 6.44 digits. The range of score improvements were 0 – 3. Observational data showed an improvement in inattention, hyperactivity, and impulsivity. In conclusion, musical instrument training may be a successful tool in treating ADHD; however, further research including larger sample sizes must be conducted.

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28 Responses
  1. Julia Withrow

    Your project is so interesting! What type of music did they play, and did you keep this constant? How did you pick guitar training over another instrument- do you think different instruments may have different results?

    1. Austin Freedman

      Hi Julia!

      Thank you! Following our 16 lesson syllabus, participants learned the chords, notes, and frets of the guitar, how to read sheet music, and performed beginner level songs. There was not an exact type of music played. Instead, participants practiced several beginner level songs such as Smoke on the Water by Deep Purple. The lessons and materials covered were taught in the same consistent manner. I chose guitar training over other instruments because the guitar is portable and more straightforward to learn. Since different musical instruments require one to process similar visual, auditory, and sensory information, I believe the results would be relatively consistent.

  2. Interesting topic! Was there a control condition where a participant received no guitar training to compare the effectiveness? Thanks.

    1. Anonymous

      Hi Guo!

      No, we did not have a control condition where a participant did not receive guitar training. Instead, each participant was their own control throughout the study. Each participant’s final digit span score was compared to his/her own initial digit span score. Since the participants have variable levels of education, age, mental capacity, intelligence, and working memory, we could not compare digit span scores of one individual to a different individual that did not receive training. Thank you for your question!

  3. Alexandra Rubin

    Hi Austin!

    Really interesting research! I was wondering what type of music the students learned how to play and did each student go through the exact musical training?

    1. Austin Freedman

      Hi Alexandra!

      There was no specific type of music the students learned to play. Instead, participants practiced several beginner level songs such as Smoke on the Water by Deep Purple. The guitar lessons taught were consistent in content and teaching practices. In fact, these lessons were taught in a group setting.

  4. Amber Singh

    Hi! This is really interesting. Did your participants have previous experience with playing musical instruments? Were the lessons highly structured (same for each participant), or individualized (participant directed the structure of the lessons)?

    1. Austin Freedman

      Hi Amber!

      For this study, we excluded participants that had previous experience playing the guitar. The lessons were highly structured and taught in group settings. All participants received the same intervention in the same setting with the same duration of time.

  5. Good Afternoon Austin,

    This is a really significant study and I am so glad that your results seemed to point to alternative ways to enhance working memory in students with ADHD! I have a few siblings with this learning disability and they needed treatment but functioned poorly with medication. Music is a great alternative, especially since it also enhances dopamine production, which I believe is very hard to replicate with medication. I have one question–do you believe that the more music lessons, the better? Or did your study find that, after a certain point of lessons a week, students did not see significant improvement in their working memory/ dopamine production?

    Thank You!

    1. Austin Freedman

      Hi Hannah!

      Thank you so much for your feedback! I was diagnosed with ADHD at a very young age and responded poorly to medication. In my own life, I have found music to be extremely effective and I am so thankful for this opportunity to help other students with ADHD. To answer your question, our study did not directly test the amount of time spent practicing or the number of lessons received. However, we did notice that the participants who showed up the most had the greatest improvements in digit span scores. I believe that an increase in practice time and music lessons would allow the brain more opportunities to create neural connections and/or strengthen those connections. Thus, one could experience greater improvements in working memory and digit span scores. To determine these results, our study would need a larger sample size and a much longer duration.

  6. Aleksandra Orlovic

    Hi Austin,

    You research is so interesting! I was not aware that learning to play an instrument can help those with ADHD. Do you plan to continue you research with a greater sample size? Overall, great job!

    1. Austin Freedman

      Hi Aleksandra,

      Thank you for the comment! I would love to continue my research with a larger sample size, however, I do not currently have the time or finances. I hope my research opens the door for others to further study music and ADHD. Additionally, I hope my research brings attention to the current issue with ADHD prescription stimulants.

  7. Mark

    This is a very interesting study. So what did you do when a participant got a string of numbers wrong, but the next one correct. I was a little confused on this point. Did you continue to count how many strings of numbers the participant could get right?

    1. Austin Freedman

      Hi Mark!

      The digit span test ends after a participant verbalizes a string of numbers incorrectly three times. For example, if a participant got a 4-digit sequence incorrect (1234), I would ask them a new 4-digit sequence (5678). If that participant got the new 4-digit sequence correct (5678), I would ask them a 5-digit sequence (98765). The test would continue until the participant gets three different sequences wrong. The highest number sequence that the participant got correct was recorded.

  8. Sage Schaefer

    Did you find that participants of a certain age experienced a greater benefit from the musical training? I would think it would potentially be more effective in younger participants.

    1. Austin Freedman

      Hi Sage,

      We did not test age as a factor in digit span improvement because our sample size was too small. However, I would not be surprised if musical instrument training had a greater impact on younger participants because their brains are still developing.

  9. Gabriela Wade-Abston

    I am glad people are doing more research on ADHD. What symptoms in particular are you focusing on for improvement?

    1. Austin Freedman

      Hi Gabriela!

      For this study, we focused on improving working memory. Studies have shown that individuals with ADHD have poor working memory. Additionally, impaired working memory is hypothesized to be the cause of common ADHD symptoms like inattention, hyperactivity, and impulsivity. Although we did not directly study ADHD symptoms, we did focus on improving working memory.

  10. John Carriglio

    Really interesting topic. I feel like it could easily spring studies with more subjects so these conclusions can be confirmed.

    1. Austin Freedman

      Hi John!

      Thank you! I really hope my study can be used to generate more research projects.

  11. Austin Freedman

    Hi Aleksandra,

    Thank you for the comment! I would love to continue my research with a larger sample size, however, I do not currently have the time or finances. I hope my research opens the door for others to further study music and ADHD. Additionally, I hope my research brings attention to the current issue with ADHD prescription stimulants.

  12. Meagan Hoppe

    This was such an interesting study!
    I have a few questions; first, did you find that a certain age/age range saw a better response to musical training? This might indicate a prime time for intervention as a therapeutic practice! Also, would participants need to continue playing an instrument to continue to see these memory benefits; in other words, if participants took 16 weeks of guitar lessons then stopped, would their performance remain the same or would their performance on memory tests decline with time?

    1. Austin Freedman

      Hi Meagan!

      Thank you for your interesting questions. Our study did not analyze the differences between participant ages. While that would be very interesting and important to study, our sample size was too small. Hopefully, replications of my study can show the prime time for a musical intervention. To answer your second question, I would expect the structural changes made in the brain to remain, even after a participant stops performing. Therefore, participants would still experience those memory benefits and perform similarly on memory tests. However, the brain and neuroplasticity naturally decline with age. Continuing to practice musical instruments could maintain performance on memory tests.

  13. Corinne Evans

    I really enjoyed watching your presentation and exploring your poster! I think this is a really neat topic, and as you mentioned, an important one as well as ADHD is often overlooked. I’m curious as to how you recruited participants for this study?

    1. Austin Freedman

      Hi Corinne!

      Thank you for those comments. I recruited participants by providing flyers for all k-12 schools in Alachua County. I delivered and printed over 7000 flyers!

  14. Destiny Cardentey

    Hi Austin!

    This research is very interesting, when I was younger I learned to play the guitar briefly and remember always feeling so focused on the sound I was making,.Lasting effects of focus after playing an instrument seems like such a simple idea and I’m surprised there’s not more research on the benefits for children with ADHD. More research on this could really push schools to fund music classes more.

    1. Austin Freedman

      Hi Destiny!

      Thank you so much for your comment. I completely agree! My research has many implications, but the most important to me was to show the need for future research. While it is a simple idea, it is very powerful and shows the importance of testing alternatives.