The Neuroscience of Drumming: Researchers Discover the Secrets of Drumming & The Human Brain

An old musician’s joke goes “there are three kinds of drummers in the world—those who can count and those who can’t.” But perhaps there is an even more global divide. Perhaps there are three kinds of people in the world—those who can drum and those who can’t. Perhaps, as the promotional video above from GE suggests, drummers have fundamentally different brains than the rest of us. Today we highlight the scientific research into drummers’ brains, an expanding area of neuroscience and psychology that disproves a host of dumb drummer jokes.

“Drummers,” writes Jordan Taylor Sloan at Mic, “can actually be smarter than their less rhythmically-focused bandmates.” This according to the findings of a Swedish study (Karolinska Institutet in Stockholm) which shows “a link between intelligence, good timing and the part of the brain used for problem-solving.” As Gary Cleland puts it in The Telegraph, drummers “might actually be natural intellectuals.”




Neuroscientist David Eagleman, a renaissance researcher The New Yorker calls “a man obsessed with time,” found this out in an experiment he conducted with various professional drummers at Brian Eno’s studio. It was Eno who theorized that drummers have a unique mental makeup, and it turns out “Eno was right: drummers do have different brains from the rest.” Eagleman’s test showed “a huge statistical difference between the drummers’ timing and that of test subjects.” Says Eagleman, “Now we know that there is something anatomically different about them.” Their ability to keep time gives them an intuitive understanding of the rhythmic patterns they perceive all around them.

That difference can be annoying—like the pain of having perfect pitch in a perpetually off-key world. But drumming ultimately has therapeutic value, providing the emotional and physical benefits collectively known as “drummer’s high,” an endorphin rush that can only be stimulated by playing music, not simply listening to it. In addition to increasing people’s pain thresholds, Oxford psychologists found, the endorphin-filled act of drumming increases positive emotions and leads people to work together in a more cooperative fashion.

Clash drummer Topper Headon discusses the therapeutic aspect of drumming in a short BBC interview above. He also calls drumming a “primeval” and distinctly, universally human activity. Former Grateful Dead drummer Mickey Hart and neuroscientist Adam Gazzaley have high hopes for the science of rhythm. Hart, who has powered a light show with his brainwaves in concerts with his own band, discusses the “power” of rhythm to move crowds and bring Alzheimer’s patients back into the present moment.

Whether we can train ourselves to think and feel like drummers may be debatable. But as for whether drummers really do think in ways non-drummers can’t, consider the neuroscience of Stewart Copeland’s polyrhythmic beats, and the work of Terry Bozzio (below) playing the largest drumkit you’ve ever seen.

Related Content:

Playing an Instrument Is a Great Workout For Your Brain: New Animation Explains Why

Isolated Drum Tracks From Six of Rock’s Greatest: Bonham, Moon, Peart, Copeland, Grohl & Starr

Josh Jones is a writer and musician based in Durham, NC. Follow him at @jdmagness.


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  • F Again says:

    Terry Bozzio is a great drummer, but that kit is maybe 1/3 Billy Cobham’s.

  • Stuzz says:

    May I present a big kit?
    https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=R0PQYRXuXb8

    If anyone has an example of bigger, It’d be happy to see it :)

  • Stuzz says:

    I’d* be happy to… (see an edit button)

  • Juan Pablo says:

    This one has a bigger kit and is a better solo, imho.

    https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=1FpbD2F1AEQ

  • tim says:

    An interesting read, and a lot I disagree with, drummers aren’t metronomes, they are musicians, or some are, and the whole band keeps time together.

    They shouldn’t refer to the drummer as some kind of conductor.

    After years of playing I have concluded there are two types of musicians, one who listens to the others whilst they play, and the ones that just listen to themselves.

    All (half decent) musicians have good timing as does anyone who can dance, it’s not just drummers

  • Jim says:

    @ F again

    That kit is ancient. His current kit is much larger.

    @ Stuzz

    http://www.sevenstring.org/forum/drums-percussion/278434-terry-bozzio-touring-worlds-largest-tuned-kit.html

    @ tim

    I agree!!

  • Marq says:

    Actually that’s about a fifth of Terry’s normal drum kit.

  • Thomas says:

    I was gonna suggest Carl Palmers’ kit used to be big… But I think the Grant Collins one beats it.

  • GB says:

    Very well said. From my experience of having performed in various drumming/percussion ensembles, I find that the ability to listen to others is often directly reflective of their personality. I find some of my more “stubborn” and subjective friends tend to drift off tempo more often than people who, outside of musical activities, seem to be better listeners in general. Of course it’s not invariably the case, but VERY often it is. I’ve also worked with dancers and theatre folks and it’s the same, in terms of being able to follow movement, or physical pacing.

  • MM says:

    I’m sorry, has no one seen Neil Peart’s kit?

  • dan winter says:

    glen velez – paul winter consort could drum a rhythmn scheme – 2 hands in ratio 1/2 , 2/3 , 3/5, 5/8 … and where that climaxes.. bliss physics: http://www.fractalfield.com/implosionsound

  • Tom Myron says:

    “I have concluded there are two types of musicians, one who listens to the others whilst they play, and the ones that just listen to themselves.”

    That is a WAY more meaningful distinction. Many thanks!

  • hipbilly says:

    And jealousy rears it’s ugly head lol

  • rick thunberg says:

    I knew something was afoot.
    I think dancers have a unique edge too.
    Cuase I can drum but surely not dance a footstep.
    anecdotal yet interesting I believe

  • Andrea R Huelsenbeck says:

    I think “the four limbs moving independently” has a lot to do with the positive impact on the brain. Dancing does the same thing. Not that it’s necessary for drummers to be good dancers, Rick Thunberg. ;)

  • Siba says:

    Very interesting post. As a drummer I can truly relate but I feel that there should be more diversity in the people who participate in these tests, research.
    Latino cats, African american percussionists, African griots musicians…Mix it up!

  • Doug says:

    Nice quick conclusions on poor science. Random tests need to be done using bar bands and patrons. You supply the refreshments for cooperation. Then grab some ball players and some people from the library. We need real random tests if we want to actually try to prove anything outside of conjecture and bias.

    Tim … you posted the best response so far… at least in my opinion … someone who can follow the beat of a bar band and dance well … well, they have a special brain too. And I would not be calling drummers ‘intellectuals’, when I only test the cream of the crop.

  • VikingCharlie says:

    How about Shivamani’s drum kit here (see 2:36th minute): https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=b1-3znOxk8k

  • haliphax says:

    Better shot of Peart’s set during The Rhythm Method: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=zAWscUC1UMQ

  • agumonkey says:

    @rick try to virtually play bass drum double pedal flat footed, you’ll dance salsa in a month.

    Interesting they mentioned Copeland since his drumming was quite sophisticated for the ‘genre’. Even though Lazarus Heart drummer was Manu Katche, and that the Little Wing cover on Nothing like the sun with Kenwood Dennard is even more interesting in modulation and sensitivity IMO.

  • clement boylan says:

    there is more here than meets the eye! new science claims that there are ways we humans can tune into the cosmic
    symphony! happening all around us all the time!
    Phychic? Intuitive? or ? music an people are inseperatable, so when you sing, or dance or (?) play drums (!) we are tuning into the cosmic essence, which we are a part of but now , some of us, searching for the timing an tempo,
    stumbling upon it…experience a timelessness, an inclusion, an a europhic experience! an are continually looking for more!
    Being drawn to the drum as an expression not completely understood but sustaining interest an inclusion for many years now…some of the mystery, esoteric? comes to light in my life…share your propensity with someone…the more the merrier! Drum your truth! such as it is…and always improving! To you all, in love and music!
    clement

  • David Warman says:

    Back in the early 90’s I was developing a pro networked MIDI routing system. We discovered, to our surprise, that pro drummers bitch loudly if they can hear their stick hitting the pad separately from the sound of the sampler in their headphones. click – boom was a no-no. The surprising bit was not the separation itself, nor the bitching (we also found everyone on stage has big egos), but the magnitude: pro drummers are upset at a 5 msec delay. Some even at 4 msecs. I had to polish the code until I got to a 2 msec network latency before they were all happy. And on a 2 MHz 8 bit micro that was hard to do. No other musician demographic was even close – 10 msecs for pros, 20 for good amateurs, 30+ for general public. I got myself down to only 15 doing that practice.

  • neek says:

    haha, there are some monstrosities out there…
    https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=bwCD9JfTpB4

  • Randy Sears says:

    Trilok Gurtu (John McLaughlin, Oregon)is one of the most amazing ever! His setup is completely unique and he’s a phenomenal tabla player as well. Check Him Out…especially with Joe Zawinul as a duo. Sorry I don’t have a clip.

  • Karl Landgren says:

    Brother Cobham sure knows what to do with a set of skins, too, doesn’t he!

  • mimi says:

    i completely agree with you. Drummers are musicians who need to have great musical sensitivity to fly and swim with the other musicians. I have sung for 25 years now, and have found that the best music is when we all listen to one otherand let the music take form and space…..A true artist is part of a whole body. Good timing is a singer’s business also, that s why Ella Fitzgerald was such a great artist!

  • mimi says:

    since i have been drumming i have gotten to be a much better singer!

  • bruce says:

    Couldn’t agree more. While there may be some physical and/or mental element that could suggest that some psychological make-up may be more suitable for percussion and drum patterns and the playing of them, I agree with Tim above completely when he suggests that all musicians have a hand in the playing of music in time, particulary in complex, multi-level composition styles such as odd-time fusion or big band or latin.

    I think all too often the drummer or percussionist is pointed to with the all-encompassing responsibility of being the time-keeper at all costs. In fact, I learned a long time ago that in big band, for example, the bass player has equal if not more responsibility for time keeping and the drummer as the time ENFORCER. Ultimately, listening, collaborating, and finding the ideal common time denominator is key.

    But, if it makes people feel better to consider drummers as intellectually superior, who am I to argue? :-)

  • Dan Colman says:

    Just out of curiosity, does anyone know who mentioned our post on Facebook today?

    Thanks in advance,
    Dan (editor)

  • draep says:

    Lol terry bozzios kit makes Neil pearts look like a trap kit and he makes use of all of it in much more creative fashion imo. Why does everyone always gotta cite Neil peart?

  • albert reyes says:

    what about hand drumming is it the same thing congas bongos dejimbe?

  • WorrierPrincess says:

    There are two kinds of commenters – those who want to talk about the ideas in the article, and those who want to know who has the biggest drum kit.

  • EJ says:

    Interesting article, however if this is correct drummers brains are different even before they start playing drums? I would say the very act of playing and learning to play drums changes your mind, not the other way round.

  • Bongo Dave aka Keith Reitman says:

    I enjoyed the article. In my own decades of research as a percussionist I discovered an interesting fact about my own music making as heard by others: The farther away they got, the better it sounded!

  • tony says:

    lol do you play the drums? no? then booooo…..and drummers aren’t musicians anyway…….we just hang out with them…(-:

  • tony says:

    sorry albert ….but no….(-:

  • tony says:

    lol…so clearly you aren’t a drummer either…but look, if it makes you feel better to refute this wonderful study…sell ya’ bass guitar and buy a drumkit…you too can perhaps rewire your brain….or….pick up a six string and become a lead guitarist….that way you can just let your fingers do your talking….(-:

  • johannes kröher says:

    Thanks, this underlines my essay “The Drummer`s Drama” ( in German). Too many people, especially other musicians do not appreciate what we ( drummers ) contribute to the music growing in colaboration. The spine of dynamics, tempo and density lies in what we do.
    Even though I dare not to put me ( in a scale of 1 to 10 ) above a medium 6, most musicians who played with me, appreciated what I did/do. The drummers who inspired me unfortunately have passed away : Keith Moon, John Bonham, Jeff Porcaro, and especially Richie Hayward. Why did they leave the stage so early ??? Yo `Hannes, right now playing with Nursery Cryme.

  • Drummers wife- Adelaide Rosella says:

    Rex explained in drummer speak, that Eno (of the huge drum kit) is using every limb in a rhythmic pattern independently of each other limb and, instead of keeping time with his base-drum or the rim of his snare-drum or cymbals etc. he is holding it together independently of his limbs with his brain.

    He also explains with one band that the musicians were so in sync that he could play complicated cross-patterns (whatever?) because the other members held together.

    Apparently, it is extremely rare to find a band whose individual members are not only good, experienced musicians but also share the same feel or bond with one another.

    Believe me when I say drummer’s brains are very different.

  • Michael obryan says:

    I to didn’t really love the band -but Pert was the Man!!!!!!

  • Dave D. says:

    Terry B. Lol… Try Buddy, The man with the world’s fastest left hand. Did more on his 5 piece then these mega kit performers out there.. Just saying is all..

  • ron conigliaro says:

    years ago i set up the drum set that was the guiness book of world records – had chad smith playing it for the record moment. Dont have the vid anymore but i have a photo, i will try to post it – traveling now

  • Paul says:

    It seems like there really are “three” types of drummer reading the comments… those that discuss the article and those obsessed with kit size… compensating for something lads ? 😀

  • Jeff says:

    Too bad Buddy Rich isn’t alive to have Mr. Gazzaley analyze his drumming brain!

  • Unicorns says:

    I am hungry:3

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