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The myriad of factors responsible for the development of ADHD may be still largely unknown to us, but while medical research into the causes of the disorder is only recently beginning to shed some light on the condition and its genesis, the symptoms have been well-documented throughout the centuries. This idea appears most notably in the 1798 writings of Sir Alexander Crichton, whose term ‘mental restlessness’ is believed by many to be the first recognized attempt at labeling and understanding ADHD. So, this may not be a modern disorder at all – but rather mistakenly labeled as such because historically the indicators of ADHD were never categorized under one common appellation. While today’s physicians can correctly diagnose the hyperactivity and inattentiveness as a known phenomenon – these same traits witnessed in the mannerisms of some of history’s most well-respected figures can only be viewed as clues into a larger mystery.

From Isaac Newton to Albert Einstein, historical biographers and those interested in uncovering the ‘secret history’ of ADHD have found evidence to support their claims – mostly in anecdotal stories that seem to point to some other factor at play than simply pure genius. By viewing these biographies in the light of what we now know about the specific facets of this disorder, we may better understand the mental impetus that propelled these men to create works that are still enjoyed – and studied – today.

Note: In the interest of cohesion, this particular selection features composers who have frequently appeared on lists making the case for historical diagnoses.

George Frideric Handel

Though today Handel is mostly remembered for his oratorio The Messiah, featuring the still-popular ‘Hallelujah Chorus’, in his day this German-English Baroque composer was regarded as an accomplished and early musical talent. Having become a ‘skilled performer’ at the harpsichord and pipe organ by age 7 (incidentally the average age at which ADHD begins to manifest), he published his first two operas, Almira and Nero by age 20. Despite his father’s wishes of a career in law, Handel continued his musical works, garnering acclaim from composers of his day (among them Mozart and Beethoven) for the way in which seemingly simplistic melodies could deliver such strong effect when combined. At his death, Handel had over 40 operas, 29 oratorios and 120+ cantatas, trios and duets to his credit – and The Messiah is still performed annually in cities around the world.

Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart

Considered by aficionados and musical scholars alike as the greatest composer to have ever lived, Mozart produced over 600 works during his short life – many of which are still performed and celebrated today. Like Handel, Mozart was a child prodigy – first developing his interest in the keyboard at the age of 3 while watching his older sister’s lessons. Mozart began composing his own works at 5, and travelled with his family throughout Europe performing for the royal courts. Much has been made of his lifelong ‘restlessness’ – no doubt the reason for his frequent inability to sustain tenure as a court composer, the accepted position for a composer of his abilities in that era. Although he was constantly working, searching out new musical challenges, Mozart would die penniless at the age of 35.

Young Mozart Marionette

Robert Schumann

An influential 19th century Romantic composer, Schumann was the first to marry literary tradition with classical music. Influenced by his father, a bookseller and publisher, Schumann began his early professional career as a writer and critic. He would later create musical works based upon fictional characters – at the time considered an innovative approach – most notably in his compositions Papillons and Carnaval. Schumann was also fond of inserting symbols into his works, as the opening notes of each Carnaval section corresponds to a letter, spelling out Asch in German. (Likely representing a Bohemian town of that period and in reference to his name). Despite success in both music and literary fields, Schumann struggled with depression – which today has been linked in some studies to ADHD. Although an injury suffered in his 20′s would prohibit Schumann from playing piano, he continued to compose pieces for the instrument until his death in 1856.

We may never be able to say conclusively that ADHD had a role in the celebrated and prodigious achievements of these figures – but it may indeed be true that to fully comprehend the vast potentials and abilities hidden within this disorder, we have to ferret out the signals left by those who came before.