Music Therapy and Executive Functioning: What You Need To Know

Music therapy supports a lot of different things, including executive functioning. This is important because of the role executive functioning plays in our lives. In this blog post, I’m going to share with you more about how music therapy can help. I’ll go over exactly what executive functioning is. Then I’ll share ways music therapy can specifically help support effective executive functioning.

What Is Executive Functioning?

Executive functioning is all about a person’s cognitive abilities. How well does a person take direction? Can a person control their behavior? What motivates people to do things? How do people make plans and achieve their goals?

As well, executive functioning is connected to self-regulation. There are three main components of executive functioning. These are:

Working memory refers to the way people recall and work through information. It’s about holding on to and working with information for a short period of time, as opposed to in the long term. [1]

Mental flexibility relates to attention and being able to respond to different circumstances. This can include being able to navigate different rules in different settings. It can also relate to being able to understand and take on different perspectives as needed. [1]

Self-control is all about impulse control. [1]

Why Is Executive Functioning Important?

A woman of Asian ethnicity is sitting on the floor holding up an image of a lightbulb. On the wall behind her are different images representing ideas, plans, and ways of organizing information. Music therapy is one way to work with executive functioning.
Photo by Andrea Piacquadio on Pexels.com

Executive functioning skills are important to our ability to successfully navigate through life. They are the skills that help us learn and complete tasks and achieve the goals we set for ourselves.

Executive dysfunction can happen when there is neurodivergence within a person. This affects how a person thinks, views the world, and processes information. For some people, this neurodivergence is innate to who they are. Whereas for others, it is the result of their lived experiences.
Some examples of neurodivergence I see in my work are:

  • Attention Deficit and Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD)
  • Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD)
  • Bipolar Disorder
  • Trauma

The Components of Executive Functioning

There are several other related components of executive functioning. [2] They are:

  • Self-awareness
  • Self-restraint
  • Non-verbal working memory
  • Verbal working memory
  • Emotional
  • Self-motivation
  • Planning and problem-solving

Within these components are different aspects that help us in these areas. Further on in this post I’m going to look more closely at the following aspects:

  • Attention and Focus
  • Motivation
  • Self-Awareness and Meta-Cognition
  • Impulse Control
  • Short-Term Memory
  • Planning and Prioritization

How Executive Functioning Develops

We begin developing executive functioning in early childhood. During childhood our brains are developing and continue to develop until young adulthood. We learn new skills as we get older and our brains can handle more complexity. As well, we can learn new skills as we become better able to self-regulate and manage our emotions.

The last part of our brains to finish developing is the frontal lobes. This area of the brain helps manage executive functions. Additionally, the frontal lobes are also important for voluntary movement and expressive language. As teens, the frontal lobes haven’t finished developing yet. This has an effect on their behavior.

How Adolescent Brain Development Affects Behavior

Adolescents are inclined towards thrill-seeking and impulsivity. There are two reasons for this. The first is that myelination is not yet complete during adolescence. Myelination is considered “the last wave of neurodevelopment.” Again, this is because the frontal lobe has not yet been completely developed. [3]

Because of this, adolescents find more enjoyment in thrilling experiences and rewards. This is because they experience higher highs in the short term than adults do. This is due to the “reward center” in their brains being easily activated. [4] The “reward center” is largely influenced by our limbic system. Our limbic system involves our emotions and can trigger our sense of survival. As you might imagine, this doesn’t always lead to thoughtful planning and decision-making.

This is important because it means that adolescents are still developing executive functioning. Music therapy is a great way to work towards executive functioning goals. This is especially true for teens because of the role music can also play in their sense of identity.

Why Can Music Therapy Develop Executive Functioning?

Music therapy is a great way to develop and support executive functioning. This is because music is a complex neurological and multisensory experience. It can provide structure, grounding, and inspiration. It touches and affects many parts of who we are and what it means to be human. As such, it can be both intrinsically and extrinsically motivating.

Because of these things, there is no one type of music or one way to use music to address executive functioning. While there are some aspects to music that have a shared general impact on us, everyone is different. We have different needs, goals, and preferences. We come from different backgrounds and experiences. These things influence how we perceive and interact with the world. Further on in this post I’ll be sharing more specific examples of how I use music in my therapeutic work with clients around executive functioning.

What Is Executive Dysfunction?

But first let’s look at executive dysfunction. There are a few different causes for executive dysfunction. One is that it occurs as a result of a neurodivergence. For example, as I mentioned previously, a person may be autistic or have ADHD. Another reason is due to traumatic brain injury or some other traumatic event. People with executive dysfunction have difficulty with prioritizing, problem-solving, organization, and time management. [2]

Common examples of executive dysfunction that I see in my work are:

  • ADHD
  • Autism
  • Bipolar Disorder
  • Trauma or an adverse childhood experience

I want to note that executive dysfunction isn’t a mental health diagnosis. But it does occur in people with specific diagnoses, such as the ones listed above. In the case of children, signs of executive dysfunction can be seen by early adolescence. [6]

The main skills affected, in general, by executive dysfunction are:

  • Attention
  • Focus
  • Memory,
  • Time Management (Prioritization)

Executive Dysfunction and ADHD

I feel that it’s worth looking a little more closely at executive functioning and ADHD. Perhaps not surprising to you, but people with ADHD commonly have issues with executive functioning. [5] As someone who works with quite a few children and teens with ADHD, I see this a lot.

This can be hard for them because they don’t understand why their brains don’t work in the same ways as other people. Likewise, it can be hard for the adults in their lives. This is because they may not understand how or why their kids’ brains work the way they do.

Areas where I see a lot of people with ADHD struggle are with:

  • Impulse Control
  • Prioritization
  • Attention
  • Focus

How a Person May Be Affected By Executive Dysfunction

Everyone’s experience of executive dysfunction varies. This is because, again, we are all unique individuals. Yet, there are certain ways that a person may be affected, such as:

  • Depression
  • Anxiety
  • Procrastination
  • Low motivation

What this looks like in one’s life depends on how old you are. If you’re a child or teen, you may find yourself falling behind on your schoolwork. As the parent of a child or teen, this may be especially stressful for you to witness. You may not be able to understand why your child struggles in ways that you never did. Whereas, if you’re an adult with executive dysfunction, you may have a hard time working or holding down a job. Needless to say, this can make “adulting” even harder.

Music Therapy To Support Executive Functioning

Again, there is no one type of music or way to use music in music therapy to support executive functioning. As a music therapist and counselor, I use music in different ways. I want to meet clients where they are and to be able to see them as who they are. This extends to how I approaching using music to develop executive functioning.

Attention and Focus

There are different ways that music can be used to address attention and focus. Some of these ways involve active music-making. And some involve more receptive means.

Learning to Play an Instrument or Song

One way is by having the client play an instrument or song that they want to play. It grabs their attention and requires focus in order to actually play the instrument. Because this is something that they want to do, they are more motivated to do it.

Rhythm Games and Percussion

drum kit
Photo by Dima Pavlenko on Pexels.com

Another way that I use music to address attention and focus is through rhythm games. These types of games often involve a back and forth of having to recall a rhythm played. We may do this on drums or other kinds of percussion instruments, or we may use body percussion. It requires paying attention to what is being played and not getting lost in your thoughts.

Rhythm games are good for other areas of executive functioning as well. For example, I often address impulse control through different rhythmic percussion games.

Listening to Music

Music listening can also help support the development of executive functioning. I encourage my clients to listen intentionally to music. This develops an ability to pay attention to the music and focus on specific parts. I might prompt them to listen to a particular part of the music or a specific instrument. This encourages increased attention and focus through music listening.

Motivation

For some of my clients, motivation is a struggle. Again, there are different ways that I use music to address this. For example, learning to play an instrument or a song they want to play is a great way to use music therapy to support this area of executive functioning. This is because the motivation is already there. Yet, issues with executive functioning may prevent them from knowing how to start. Knowing this, we can work together to harness their motivation and figure out how to begin.

I also might encourage my clients to do something else with music that they find motivating. Such as, they could engage in songwriting or recording themselves playing music. In doing this, they can also discover new talents and skills. At the same time, they may find new ways of understanding and expressing who they are. This can transfer over into other areas of their life.

Self-Awareness and Meta-Cognition

To support self-awareness and meta-cognition, I encourage my clients to think about a song as an overall piece of music. We’ll analyze aspects of the music. If they’re playing the music themselves, I might ask them to think about how they played the music. We process sections that could be improved and talk about what they did well.

Being able to take a step back and really take in what they’ve done and assess it accurately is a good test of a person’s self-awareness and meta-cognition. In these cases, a question I often ask clients is “What was your experience like playing that?” and we process the experience together.

Impulse Control

One of my favorite ways to work on impulse control is drumming. This is because it’s versatile and accessible. Plus, sometimes it just feels really good to hit something!

When I’m using drumming to address impulse control, we play games where the person has to stop when told to stop. Think of it as a variation of “Red Light, Green Light.” (This is especially popular with children). Impulse control is also demonstrated by not playing the instrument when they haven’t been given permission to play.

Likewise, if someone has a tendency to play fast and hard, I’ll invite them to slow down. In doing so, we can explore different ways of playing. The added bonus is that this can sometimes lead to talking about feelings that may come up for them. As well, we can talk about their internal experience. For example, we can explore what sort of sensations they’re noticing in their body. A question I may ask includes, “What’s going on in your mind or body that makes you want to play that way?”

Too often we lose connection to our bodies, instead focusing only on our minds. Music can help us to reconnect to the fullness of who we are.

Short-Term Memory

This is another area of executive functioning where I like to use rhythm games. Rhythm games test a person’s ability to remember the rhythms played. This, of course, requires the activation of short-term memory. But as well attention and focus are also activated through these types of games.

Call and Response Rhythm Games

One rhythm game in particular I like to use is a call-and-response type game. I look to see if the person can play what I just played. Yet, it’s not just me testing them. They also test me because we do this together by taking turns leading. Needless to say, kids especially love trying to “trick” me by playing hard rhythms. (And sometimes they succeed!)

Musical Performance

person playing the piano
Photo by Caleb Oquendo on Pexels.com

Pre-COVID I sometimes had clients who wanted to perform in public. In those cases, I would approach short-term memory through working on memorizing the piece. To do this, we’d break it up into small chunks for them to memorize. For example, learning just the chorus or a verse. It could be even smaller than that, if necessary, like a musical phrase. Then I’d then have them play back the section without looking at the music. Gradually as they learned more of the song, they could play it back in its entirety.

As you can see, this type of approach also ties into planning and prioritization.

Planning and Prioritization

The last executive functioning skills I’d like to address in this post are planning and prioritization. Music therapy is a great opportunity for people to practice planning and prioritizing things. Two ways that I approach this are through learning how to play a piece of music and learning how to play an instrument.

Playing a Piece of Music

When learning how to play a piece of music, there many things to do in order for it to sound like “music.” For example, with a song there may be rhythms to learn, as well as melody. Dynamics and tempo also come into play. When first learning a piece of music, what gets prioritized as the first thing to focus on?

Learning How to Play an Instrument

Likewise, when learning how to play an instrument, there are also steps to follow. How do you hold the instrument? How can you approach making the sounds you want to make? What does your body need to do in order for music to happen? It can be as simple as knowing where to place your finger on the fingerboard of a guitar or ukulele.

anonymous young mother with little son practicing on guitar at home
Photo by RODNAE Productions on Pexels.com

After all, great sound can’t be produced without having a plan for producing the sound. This means knowing how to plan and prioritize what needs to be done.

In working with clients through music, I have them identify what they need to play or practice. This is especially true if they’re working towards a performance. But it can work without the prompt of performance as well. We work together on figuring out what the first steps are to learning to play a song or instrument. What needs to happen first in order to be able to accomplish their goal?

Supporting Executive Functioning At SoundWell Music Therapy

If improving your executive functioning is a goal of yours, contact me. At SoundWell Music Therapy I use music to address these needs in a safe, non-judgmental space. I provide music therapy to teens and adults of all ages. I offer a free 15-minute phone consultation during which we can talk more about what your needs are. You can schedule here.

References

[1] https://developingchild.harvard.edu/science/key-concepts/executive-function/#:~:text=Executive%20function%20and%20self%2Dregulation%20skills%20depend%20on%20three%20types,in%20coordination%20with%20each%20other

[2] https://www.additudemag.com/what-is-executive-function-disorder/#:~:text=Executive%20dysfunction%20is%20a%20term,%2C%20organization%2C%20and%20time%20management

[3] http://www.mghclaycenter.org/hot-topics/adolescent-brain-primed-thrills-high-life/ 

[4] https://www.beyondbooksmart.com/executive-functioning-strategies-blog/the-adolescent-brain-why-executive-functioning-in-teens-is-a-challenge#:~:text=By%20adolescence%2C%20most%20of%20the,long%2Drange%20goals%20take%20place.&text=Teenagers%20just%20get%20a%20whopping,feels%20so%20good%2C%20so%20right

[5] https://www.understood.org/en/learning-thinking-differences/child-learning-disabilities/executive-functioning-issues/what-is-executive-function 

[6] https://www.hillcenter.org/7-executive-functioning-skills-your-child-should-have/

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