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.

Note: An ear­li­er ver­sion of this post appeared on our site in 2015.

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

The Neu­ro­science of Bass: New Study Explains Why Bass Instru­ments Are Fun­da­men­tal to Music

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

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  • Jack says:

    With regard to beat, I can’t help but won­der if my own brain is dif­fer­ent than most oth­er people’s.
    Sev­er­al music instruc­tors insist­ed that I tap my foot in order to keep a beat. But the beat is already inside my head. What is the point of also tap­ping my foot? I don’t get it. Some­times while lis­ten­ing to music, my toes top to the beat. Some­times my feet swing back and forth. Oth­er times there’s no phys­i­cal man­i­fes­ta­tion of the beat, but I strong­ly feel it inside of me. Ste­vie won­der was well known for mov­ing his head to the beat, but I always felt he was show­ing the beat that was already inside of him.

    Is this why metronomes were invent­ed? For peo­ple who don’t have a beat inside their heads?!

  • Woo Thang says:

    I fart­ed rhyth­mi­cal­ly , lit­tle winds , high pitched and pro­gres­sive­ly until it just mere but­tlips trem­bling , quiv­er­ing releas­ing air .

    I need no metronome!

  • Rasbroos says:

    Makes sense to me. And I believe good bass play­ers have some­thing smi­lar going on.

  • EDWARD says:

    I had a SEVERE Brain Injury when I was 15 years old. I already was study­ing drums in school band.I was shot in my left cheek at close range with a .22 pis­tol. The bul­let passed behind my eyes through my sinus cav­i­ty and right tem­po­ral lobe. I nev­er lost con­scious. This was acci­den­tal. I was tak­en to a Hos­pi­tal and by luck there was a Neu­ro­sur­geon who had been a MASH Doc­tor in the Kore­an war. they per­formed a Cran­ioto­my and removed the right tem­po­ral lobe and patched my sinus­es. My recov­ery was 68 days in the Hos­pi­tal and fol­low up treat­ment with the Neu­ro­sur­geon and giv­en Dila­tan for pre­ven­tion of seizures. I was expect­ed to have any­where from a min­i­mum 20 t0 50% motor loss on the left side of my body. This hap­pened in the sum­mer and as expect­ed I start­ed High School at the reg­u­lar time. I did enroll in band. Unknown about PTSD at the time i had night­mares and at time I could­n’t sleep and would be awake for sev­er­al days until I would sleep. After those side effects sub­sided I’ve led a fair­ly nor­mal life and became a Pro­fes­sion­al Drum­mer. I went to a Clin­i­cal Psy­chol­o­gist who per­formed a bat­tery of tests and he said “Play­ing Drums obvi­ous­ly reha­bil­i­tat­ed any infir­mi­ties that the injury caused.

  • Saroj Gilbert says:

    Wow… what a sto­ry… glad you made such a great recov­ery (even though a very tough ride).

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