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Background Music, External Stimulation and ADHD

Over on the AllPsych blog, I just wrote about a study that came out on whether listening to music helps people perform cognitive tasks. If you’re interested in all the details of the experiment, see that post, but for our purposes I wanted to focus on one finding from the study in particular: it turns out that putting on background music seems to be especially helpful for people who have a preference for high levels of external stimulation.

Of course, many people with ADHD fall into that category. Lack of stimulation is a big part of the reason people with ADHD struggle with tasks that are necessary but boring. The ADHD brain has difficulty focusing in unstimulating situations, and someone with ADHD has less of an ability to tell their brain OK, brain, I know this isn’t very interesting, but you just need to pay attention and power through it.

HeadphonesI referenced this aspect of ADHD in my last post, which was about how exercise can apparently help ADHDers focus. There, the theory was that physical movement can bring the ADHD brain’s level of arousal and alertness up to an optimal level. Here, the idea is that listening to music while working or doing chores can accomplish the same.

What’s interesting about the study I mentioned at the beginning of this post is that it wasn’t specifically a study of people with ADHD. It just found that people who generally have a higher need for external stimulation and have higher levels of boredom proneness benefit more from listening to music while they engage in cognitive tasks.

Which raises the question: what’s the difference between someone who has ADHD and someone who just has a high need for external stimulation?

There’s not really a precise answer to this question that researchers agree on. But the textbook answer is that someone with ADHD has to have symptoms of inattention, impulsivity or hyperactivity that interfere with their lives – so if someone has a high need for external stimulation but can overrule that need in order to pay attention whenever they need to, make non-impulsive decisions, and so on, they don’t have ADHD.

A followup question would be: what’s the difference between someone with ADHD and someone whose high need for external stimulation causes them to not pay attention, to impulsively throw themselves into things, and to have hyperactive behaviors?

Here, I don’t think there is a difference. The only difference is whether they have a diagnosis.

That said, it’s important to note that not everyone with ADHD necessarily identifies as having a high need for external stimulation. This feeling is probably more common in people with the hyperactive, impulsive flavor of ADHD than the purely inattentive one. And certainly not everyone with ADHD likes to listen to music while they work – in fact, I think a good number of ADHDers need total silence in order to concentrate.

For me, though, I mention background music because it’s been one of the best ways I’ve found of coaxing my brain into tasks that lack external stimulation. If I’m not listening to background music, I’m probably not working – and I’m certainly not doing my taxes! In fact, music is so central in my coping toolbox that my second post on this blog was an ode to the boredom-killing power of music.

In the end, I think a lot of living with ADHD is about finding a way to have that external stimulation that your brain needs in your everyday life, whether by supplementing your chores with a constant soundtrack, having a work environment that lets you be physically active like I talked about in the last post, or finding a job that’s fast-paced and varied. Boredom is a state that the ADHD brain simply won’t accept, so you’ve gotta find a way to keep your brain happy!

Image: Flickr/Nicklas

Background Music, External Stimulation and ADHD

Neil Petersen

Neil Petersen writes regularly on education, learning disabilities and technology. He received his B.A. in 2014 and was diagnosed with ADHD at the beginning of his college studies. Neil also works for a music education non-profit and hopes to help create an education system that can better serve students with ADHD.

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APA Reference
Petersen, N. (2019). Background Music, External Stimulation and ADHD. Psych Central. Retrieved on June 4, 2020, from


Last updated: 31 Jan 2019
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