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.
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Josh Jones is a writer and musician based in Durham, NC. Follow him at @jdmagness.
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?!
I farted rhythmically , little winds , high pitched and progressively until it just mere buttlips trembling , quivering releasing air .
I need no metronome!
Makes sense to me. And I believe good bass players have something smilar going on.
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.
Wow… what a story… glad you made such a great recovery (even though a very tough ride).