Adam was born in Paris July 24, 1803 as the son of a music professor at the Conservatoire. His mother the daughter of a notable physician. As a child, he preferred to improvise music of his own rather than study music seriously.
Adam began musical studies at boarding school and entered the Conservatoire in 1821, studying organ and harmonium under Benoist and later Boïeldieu. His father did not encourage him to pursue a musical career. Rather it was his friendship with one of his father's students, Ferdinand Hérold (who is best known today as the composer of La Fille mal gardée), that influenced Adolphe to want to be a composer, specifically for the theater. Boïeldieu also encouraged him at this pursuit. By age 20 Adam was writing songs for Parisian vaudeville houses and was playing in the orchestra at the Gymnase, where he would later become chorus master.
In 1825 Adam helped Boïeldieu with the preparation of his opera La Dame blanche, which he also transcribed to piano for popular sale. With money he made from this enterprise Adam traveled to Belgium, Holland, Germany and Switzerland. In Geneva he met Eugène Scribe with whom he would collaborate on numerous operas over the coming 30 years.
By 1830 Adam had completed 28 theater works including some dances. His first dramatic composition was a one act operetta, Pierre et Catherine that was performed at the Opera Comique in 1829, and went on for another 80 performances. His first 3 act opera, Danilowa, came in 1830, but performances were interrupted by the Revolution. Adam returned to his vaudeville activities and co-wrote his first ballet, La Chatte blanche, with Casmir Gide the same year.
Adam's first solo ballet composition was Faust in1833 for choreographer André Deshayes at the King's Theatre in London. His first work for the Paris Opera was the music for the ballet La Fille du Danube for Taglioni in 1836. He traveled to St. Petersburg to present the same work, a new ballet, L'écumeur de mer, and an opera for the court of Tsar Nicholas I.
Adam's next important work was the music for the ballet Giselle, for which he is probably best known today. It premiered at the Paris Opéra June 28, 1841.
Shortly after the successful Giselle, a new director was in place at the Opéra with whom Adam had serious quarrels. It was made known that a work of his would never again be performed at the theater. Adam invested his own money and borrowed heavily to open a third opera house of his own. In 1847 Adam opened the Théâtre National, in Paris, as a showcase for young composers. Due to the Revolution it had to be closed the following year, leaving Adam in huge debt. Assigning all his royalties to pay off the debt, he turned to journalism to earn some money. In 1849Adam became Professor of Composition at the Conservatoire, a position he held until his death. All the while he continued his compositions, among others his ballet Le Corsaire premiered January 1856. Eventually, through hard work, he paid off all the debts but at the cost of his own health.
Adolphe Adam died May 3, 1856 in Paris having written 40 operas, 14 ballets and numerous light operas and vaudevilles.