Is having ADHD connected to musical success?
Maybe. Some people seem to think so.
Joyner Lucas dropped his debut album ADHD a few weeks ago, which—among other things—explores how his life has been affected by ADHD.
In his song “ISIS” featuring the rapper Logic, a narrator defines ADHD as a condition and describes its prevalence in the population.
I have previously written about the connection between bipolar disorder and musical talent. In this newsletter, we take a look at the connection between ADHD and musical talent.
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What is ADHD?
If you didn’t pick up the definition from the song, here goes:
ADHD stands for Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder. It is a mental disorder that is typically diagnosed in children around age seven but is sometimes first diagnosed and treated in adults. The symptoms of ADHD are typically divided into three main groups:
Children and adults with ADHD often have difficulty focusing for long periods of time, or focusing on solving specific problems.
Someone with ADHD may be restless or have difficulty sitting still for long periods of time. But ADHD doesn’t always come with hyperactivity, and sometimes the “H” is dropped from the acronym to reflect that. Girls often have AD(H)D without hyperactivity.
People with ADHD might have a hard time waiting in turn. They might spend their money recklessly, interrupt others, or make big decisions on-the-spot.
What causes ADHD?
Much like bipolar disorder or schizophrenia, ADHD is likely caused by several different genetic factors. On average, genetics are supposedly responsible for 74% of the variation in whether someone had ADHD or not.
One factor under investigation (out of many) is the gene for the D4 dopamine receptor (DRD4). A variant of this gene—DRD4-7R—goes by many nicknames, including “the rockstar gene.” Stanford biologist Robert Sapolsky, in his pop-sci book Behave, describes DRD4-7R as being weakly correlated with “sensation and novelty seeking, extroversion, alcoholism, promiscuity, less sensitive parenting, financial risk taking, impulsivity, and, probably most consistently, ADHD.”
Treatment for ADHD often involves either:
stimulant drugs like Ritalin, Adderall, or Vyvanse.
non-stimulant drugs like Strattera, the stimulant-like antidepressant Wellbutrin, or the blood pressure drug Kapvay (clonidine).
Some people with ADHD (diagnosed or not) self-medicate with caffeine or nicotine—mild stimulants that can temporarily alleviate some of the symptoms. People with ADHD smoke twice as frequently as normal American adults.
Others self-medicate with cocaine or other illegal stimulants. The ADHD self-help book Driven to Distraction claims that fifteen percent of cocaine addicts report feeling focused by cocaine as opposed to feeling high, which might be a sign of having ADHD. Molly Oswaks describes treating her undiagnosed ADHD with cocaine in a piece for The Atlantic.
Are people with ADHD more creative?
Researchers have conducted various studies [at least 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7] trying to answer this question. They typically find people with ADHD outperforming neurotypical people on some cognitive or creative tests, but at the cost of being weaker in other areas. However, some studies [8, 9] found little significant difference.
A 2007 study found that many creative children met some, but not all, of the diagnostic criteria for ADHD. This might offer an explanation of why the genetics of ADHD exist—having “some” ADHD genes but not “all” of them could offer creativity without excessive concentration issues. There are similar theories for the evolutionary origins of bipolar disorder and schizophrenia.
A 2018 paper examined when people with ADHD periodically overcome their inattention and experience “hyperfocus”—sometimes allowing them to complete projects like musical compositions with great attention.
Does music help with ADHD symptoms?
There is limited evidence that musical training may improve attention in children and adults with ADHD. A 2018 paper in Frontiers in Computational Neuroscience found that developing musical expertise appears to strengthen some of the neural circuits that ADHD weakens. The BBC in 2013 also covered various research efforts exploring how musical training may treat ADHD symptoms.
Additionally, music therapy is a branch of therapy that involves the patient either listening to music or making music. Some researchers have explored music therapy [at least 1, 2, 3, 4, 5] as a treatment for ADHD—especially for children in a classroom setting. The studies show some weak benefits but are plagued by small sample sizes.
Some musicians diagnosed with ADHD
Of course, this list couldn’t miss him. In October 2018, Lucas took to Facebook to describe his lifelong struggles with ADHD and to announce his then-upcoming album. In the post, Lucas describes receiving “Individualized Education Programs” (IEPs) at every school he attended growing up, marking him as a special-needs student on a track separate from the majority of the school.
Maroon 5’s lead singer has been a loud voice in ADHD advocacy. He has written a piece for ADHD magazine ADDitude and appeared in a public service announcement for OwnYourADHD.com.
Knowles came out with her diagnosis in 2008. She was diagnosed, but received a second opinion confirming her diagnosis before she chose to believe it. As Bang Showbiz records:
She said: “I was diagnosed with ADD twice. I didn't believe the first doctor who told me and I had a whole theory that ADD was just something they invented to make you pay for medicine, but then the second doctor told me I had it.
“I guess I was in denial. I don't understand exactly what it is. The symptoms seem to apply to everyone around me in the industry - loss of memory, starting something and not finishing it.”
The Aerosmith guitarist has struggled with long-undiagnosed ADHD for much of his life. In his memoir Rocks: My Life in and out of Aerosmith, he describes how—as a child—his then-undiagnosed ADHD dashed his dreams of becoming a marine biologist, causing him to turn towards music instead.
Perry's self-professed slow learning dogged him during his school years and was largely the result of ADHD, a condition that remained undiagnosed until recently. “It was looked at as a discipline problem when I was in school. And certainly, over the years, after I left school, I had forged my way into this thing called rock 'n' roll and it was less of an issue.” However, Perry now considers the possibility that the learning disability was something of a double edged sword for his career: “I'm starting to realize than in some ways it's helped my guitar playing and it's hurt my guitar playing in the way that I kind of learned certain things and my ability to retain certain things.”
In 2013, he spoke with The Mirror about his lifelong struggles with ADHD, including his efforts to manage his condition through making music as opposed to psychiatric medication.
In the interview, he also described how his condition affects his songwriting:
“I’ve figured out a place for it. If you listen to the songs I write, they are the most ADHD songs ever. They have five hooks in one and it all happens in three minutes. I figured out a way of working with it.”
January 11, 2021: Minor formatting changes.
February 13, 2022: Minor formatting changes. Removed unnecessary links.
Thanks for Andrew Aldridge and andy.company for reading drafts of this post.