By Hrayr Attarian, MD
It is safe to assume that anyone who has watched a (good) drummer perform has been intrigued by the agility of their movements and the seeming independence of their limbs. The first time I was exposed to this was as a teenager, when I saw an Art Blakey solo on TV. The way he moved each one of his four limbs independently to create mesmerizing music amazed me. Years later, I came across it again in Richard Linklater’s film School of Rock (Paramount, 2003). Dewey Finn (Jack Black) shows the same Blakey clip to the student drummer as an example of someone to emulate.
Recently, I came across some intriguing research on drummers’ unique brain function and structure, which I will highlight later in this article. I decided to dig deeper into the scientific literature. Some of the earlier work on neurological function in drummers was done by Dr. Shinya Fujii of Keio University, Tokyo. Himself a jazz drummer, Fujii used various performance tests to quantify different aspects of drumming. Between 2006 and 2010, he published the results of his experiments in five papers. Fujii reported that drummers were more likely to use both their dominant and non-dominant hand with equal dexterity and speed (1), that higher speeds were achieved by maintaining a compliant wrist joint (2), and that use of drum sticks resulted in increased stability, higher power of percussing (3), enhanced bimanual coordination (4), and eliminated asymmetry between the hands (5). For all these experiments he used a strain-gauge force transducer (Figure 1) that would translate the movements and impact of drumming into measurable and recordable electric signals. He also recorded electric activity from individual wrist muscles, showing more consistent activation of individual muscles in drummers compared to non-drummers, that also correlated with amount of experience (6).
Fujii postulated that the brains of drummers must have more symmetrical movement control areas (also known as primary motor cortex) than non-drummers. It is important to note here that the right side of the body is controlled by the left half, or hemisphere, of the brain and vice versa. So, depending on the handedness of the individual, the opposite side of the brain may have a more developed motor cortex.
Researchers at University of Bologna (a powerhouse of neuroscience) compared drummers with other professional instrumentalists and non-musicians. They studied spatial performance—how one responds to stimuli presented to their right side or their left. The drummers responded faster and more accurately to these stimuli than the other two groups, and experience improved their ability to do so (7). Therefore, this skill is the result of training and hence a learned behavior.
In 2011, an international group of scientists was the first to utilize functional magnetic resonance imaging, or fMRI (Figure 2), in drummers. As I have mentioned in previous editions of this column, fMRI is a technique used to map specific brain function to its corresponding areas both at rest and during specific tasks.
Eleven professional drummers were compared to 11 age- and gender-matched non-drummers. They were each shown 3D stylized movements of a professionally played swing groove beat with either a congruent sound or an incongruent sound. The areas of the brain involved in performing complex movements were less active among the drummers than the controls when sound matched movement—but not when there is a mismatch. In other words, these regions did not activate in predictable situations. This indicated that the congruence of movement and sound has become “second nature” to the drummers, allowing them to reallocate “resources” to other brain areas and increase efficiency in non-music related everyday tasks (8).
Using similar techniques, Taiwanese scientists showed increased activity in specific parts of the brain of 15 professional drummers. These areas, called the posterior temporal lobes (Figure 3) are involved in connecting hearing and movement. They were more active when the drummers listened to new sounds than when they listened to a learned routine—and were more active when performing the movements of drumming than when reciting the beats. Therefore, the brains of drummers showed robust activation of areas involved in ear-hand coordination when necessary (9).
German experimental psychologists approached the issue from a different angle. They wanted to test the hypothesis that the posterior parietal cortex (PPC) (Figure 3), an adjacent area to the ear-hand coordination region, is responsible for professional drummers’ superior synchronization ability. They used a technique called transcranial direct current stimulation (tDCS), a treatment modality for people with pain and chronic depression. The tDCS (Figure 4) uses a low intensity current and painlessly stimulates certain parts of the brain.
The researchers asked 20 drummers to synchronize their finger taps to a metronome as well as perform a routine task with their right hand. Stimulating the PPC with the tDCS disrupted the finger taps but not non-musical tasks (10). They concluded that the PPC is another part of the brain that is involved in a drummer’s ability to maintain a beat.
Particularly in jazz drummers, fMRI has shown intriguing results. When presented with beats that deviate from rule-based rhythmic structure, an activation of the primary language area and those involved in syntax and harmony processing occurred. This was not true in lay people listening to the same sounds. This indicated that the improvisational process in trained musicians originates from the areas that result in coherent and spontaneous language production (11).
Because of the physicality of drumming, parallels have been drawn between athletes and percussionists in general. Regular, rigorous aerobic exercise has been associated with improved cognitive adaptability and brain plasticity (ability of the brain to change). Utilizing electroencephalography (EEG) (Figure 5), Italian scientists compared the brain wave patterns of 12 drummers to 12 age- and gender-matched athletes, 12 musicians who did not play percussion, and 12 people who were neither musicians nor athletes. After an array of EEG sensors were attached to the participants’ heads, they were seated in front of a screen and asked to perform a go/no-go task: to press the button with the right hand when a specific pattern appeared on the screen and not when other patterns did. Analyzing the data, researchers discovered that both the level of motor preparedness (readiness to perform a movement) and attention control were enhanced equally in drummers and athletes but not in the other two groups. This suggests that both playing sports and drumming resulted in similar brain functional changes that enhance coordination, rhythmic skills, and cognitive abilities (12).
At long last, we come to the article that first intrigued me and got me to delve into this specific literature. When comparing the brain function and structure of 24 drummers to 24 age- and gender-matched non-drummers, neuroscientists at Ruhr University in Bochumon, Germany, discovered remarkable differences. Using two different types of MRIs they found that the corpus callosum, a structure in the middle of the brain that connects both halves and allows for bilateral coordination, was denser and had fewer, yet thicker, connections. This allows for faster, more efficient coordination between the right and left side of the body. The thickness increased with the experience of the drummer. In addition, the brain areas involved in movement showed less overall activation in drummers—yet they had higher efficiency and better organization (13).
In conclusion, drummers are able to use both their left and right limbs with equal dexterity and precision. This is due to their training that has resulted in both structural and functional brain changes. These include more efficient organization, better communication among various brain regions, and overall improved cognitive and motor functions similar to those seen in professional athletes.
Maybe understanding the complex mechanisms behind a great drum solo will enhance the thrill of hearing it. In either case, it will not diminish its enjoyment.
1) Fujii S, Oda S. Tapping speed asymmetry in drummers for single-hand tapping with a stick. Percept Mot Skills. 2006; 103(1):265-72.
2) Fujii S, Kudo K, Ohtsuki T, Oda S. Tapping performance and underlying wrist muscle activity of non-drummers, drummers, and the world's fastest drummer. Neurosci Lett. 2009; 459(2):69-73.
3) Fujii S, Oda S. Effect of stick use on rapid unimanual tapping in drummers. Percept Mot Skills. 2009; 108(3):962-70.
4) Fujii S, Kudo K, Shinya M, Ohtsuki T, Oda S. Wrist muscle activity during rapid unimanual tapping with a drumstick in drummers and nondrummers. Motor Control. 2009; 13(3):237-50.
5) Fujii S, Oda S. Effects of stick use on bimanual coordination performance during rapid alternate tapping in drummers. Motor Control. 2009; 13(3):331-41.
6) Fujii S, Kudo K, Ohtsuki T, Oda S. Intrinsic constraint of asymmetry acting as a control parameter on rapid, rhythmic bimanual coordination: a study of professional drummers and nondrummers. J Neurophysiol. 2010; 104(4):2178-8.
7) Pellicano A, Iani C, Rubichi S, Ricciardelli P, Borghi AM, Nicoletti R. Real-life motor training modifies spatial performance: the advantage of being drummers. Am J Psychol. 2010 Summer; 123(2):169-79.
8) Petrini K, Pollick FE, Dahl S, McAleer P, McKay LS, Rocchesso D, Waadeland CH, Love S, Avanzini F, Puce A. Action expertise reduces brain activity for audiovisual matching actions: an fMRI study with expert drummers. Neuroimage. 2011; 56(3):1480-92.
9) Tsai CG, Fan LY, Lee SH, Chen JH, Chou TL. Specialization of the posterior temporal lobes for audio-motor processing - evidence from a functional magnetic resonance imaging study of skilled drummers. Eur J Neurosci. 2012; 35(4):634-43.
10) Pollok B, Stephan K, Keitel A, Krause V, Schaal NK. The Posterior Parietal Cortex Subserves Precise Motor Timing in Professional Drummers. Front Hum Neurosci. 2017; 11:183. doi: 10.3389/fnhum.2017.00183.
11) Herdener M, Humbel T, Esposito F, Habermeyer B, Cattapan-Ludewig K, Seifritz E. Jazz drummers recruit language-specific areas for the processing of rhythmic structure. Cereb Cortex. 2014; 24(3):836-43.
12) Bianco V, Berchicci M, Perri RL, Quinzi F, Di Russo F. Exercise-related cognitive effects on sensory-motor control in athletes and drummers compared to non-athletes and other musicians. Neuroscience. 2017; 360:39-47.
13) Schlaffke L, Friedrich S, Tegenthoff M, Güntürkün O, Genç E, Ocklenburg S. Boom Chack Boom-A multimethod investigation of motor inhibition in professional drummers. Brain Behav. 2020; 10(1):e01490.