You drive me crazy

Musical geniuses: are they all mad?

An ability to see the world differently is a feature of both the highly creative and the mentally ill. Is creative genius one step from madness?

Anecdotally, there is a fine history of odd behaviour among musical geniuses. Mozart was renowned for his eccentricity (some suggest he had Tourette syndrome). A commonly hypothesised cause is bipolar disorder (manic depression), where individuals experience alternating periods of depression and intense highs. The young Rossini was astonishingly productive, writing 39 operas by the age of 37 (but none thereafter), possibly driven by mania. German composer Robert Schumann attempted suicide and spent his last two years confined to a mental institution (at his own request).

Oddly, bipolar disorder and schizophrenia have a genetic component. Why are the risk genes not eliminated? One possible explanation is that ‘mild’ forms, associated with enhanced creativity, actually improve reproductive success. A recent study of UK poets and visual artists provided some support for this idea.

Creative people are more likely to act outside conventional norms of behaviour. On some measures of ‘abnormality’ they rate as highly as people with schizophrenia. Ideally, they can channel this instinctive non-conformity towards positive ends. Unfortunately, with no suitable outlet, or when swamped with negative emotions, these ways of thinking can become highly damaging.

About this resource

This resource was first published in ‘Music, Mind and Medicine’ in June 2009 and reviewed and updated in July 2014.

Psychology, Neuroscience
Music, Mind and Medicine
Education levels:
16–19, Continuing professional development