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I’ve always been enthralled by music. My dad is a professional musician, my grandpa was a music teacher and organ scholar, and my mum a child prodigy that learnt to play everything from the flute to the piano. I began piano lessons at a young age, and later dabbled in drums. On my thirteenth birthday, I was gifted with a Fender acoustic guitar and spent the money I earned working at my local pub on every gig ticket and every dusty old record I could muster.
So when I was diagnosed with ADHD, I realised that there was a reason music had felt so cathartic my entire life. ADHD is defined as a “developmental disorder that is marked by persistent symptoms of inattention (such as distractibility, forgetfulness or disorganisation) or by symptoms of hyperactivity and impulsivity (such as fidgeting, speaking out of turn or restlessness)”, as cited in the Merriam-Webster Medical Dictionary.
The archetypal image associated with ADHD is that of a disruptive schoolboy: it’s then little surprise that a mere 4.2% of women (Source: Healthline) will be diagnosed in their lifetime, with the American Psychological Association finding that a sizeable number do not receive a diagnosis until their 30s or 40s. 23 years of living with symptoms that made me feel alienated or even estranged from my peers was enough for me.
Music isn’t just sonic patterns to me: it’s an emotional release, a way of life. Both listening to and performing music evokes a sense of deliverance. There’s an odd joy in streaming ear-splittingly loud hyperpop, and a physical comfort in the sensations of hitting the keys of my grandfather’s piano. Each note, each beat is therapeutic, as though I’m releasing the emotions I’ve long held captive, and it’s not really a surprise: whether played or listened to, music releases dopamine, a form of monoamine neurotransmitter that acts as a chemical messenger. The quick-acting, instantaneous happy chemical has been compared to the “reward centre” of the brain, and ADHD brains are chronically devoid of dopamine; hence why we seek it out externally. It’s no wonder that I’ve been listening to hyperpop since even before my diagnosis – I was seeking those feel-good, repetitive rhythms that aided both as a distraction from my inner turmoil and acted as a match for my fast-paced, energetic brain.
Living with ADHD, I’ve often felt as though I carry an innate sense of energy within me, but also an inbuilt trauma: I feel so deeply responsible for the happiness of my friends and family that I’d do anything to ensure their wellbeing, and that often comes at the expense of my own. An inch of rejection, whether actual or perceived, can be so debilitating that my chest feels at risk of caving in any second. Everything is personal; everything is painful. It’s exhausting. I need an outlet through which to dissipate that.
When I was diagnosed with ADHD in November 2021, I was embarking on a rediscovery of hyperpop icon, Charli XCX. Releasing tracks from Good Ones to New Shapes in the lead-up to her latest endeavour, Crash, I quickly rekindled my love. The deep thud of the bass and the repetitive magic of the synth so often employed in textbook Charli XCX songs provided instant dopamine for me, and I was hooked, once again. Snapping up tickets to her sold-out gig at Alexandra Palace, the power of Charli’s music hit me in waves: there was something joy-inducing, infectious even, about the energy of each note. The pure, unadulterated happiness in that room was infectious.
The relationship between ADHD and music is interesting, to say the least. Dave Grohl, Mel B and Joe Bonamassa are just some of the famous faces diagnosed, and according to ADHD resource ADDitude, music can strengthen areas of the ADHD brain that are typically weak. One study conducted by Donald Shelter of the Eastman School of Music perceived that children who listened to classical music for twenty minutes per day experienced an improvement in both speech and language, alongside a stronger memory and greater organisational skills. Similarly, Bulgarian scientist Dr. Georgi Lozanov found that selective pieces of classical music altered the electromagnetic frequency of brainwaves by 7.5 cycles per second, termed the Alpha Mode, momentarily enhancing concentration and facilitating hyperfocus.
Learning to love my ADHD brain has been a challenge. Some days I feel so depleted from my medication that I struggle to get out of bed, or so sleep-deprived from my racing thoughts that I can’t function. I can’t always relate to my surroundings, but music helps me to bridge that gap. It’s my puzzle piece; my catharsis; my world. In the words of Charli XCX, I’m “like a white Mercedes; always been running too fast”. And I wouldn’t have it any other way.