Scientists find that drumming changes the brain—for the better

Drumming requires impeccable accuracy, musical timing, and the ability to play several different rhythms all at once.

As it turns out, researchers are finding that this combination of skills also builds a more efficient brain—more so than any other instrument.

So you can imagine how happy I was when I saw this headline: “Studies show that if you’re a drummer… you’re a little bit smarter than everyone else.”

“Finally, some vindication…” I laughed to myself.

As it turns out, this research is actually pretty remarkable.

And today, I’ll tell you how you can start to reap these benefits, whether you’re a beginner, intermediate, or advanced drummer—or have never drummed a day in your life.

Percussionists can do “impossible things”

Drummers have a unique set of skills. They have the ability to perform complex motor tasks with all of their limbs… all at once. For instance, drummers can play a different rhythm with each hand and foot simultaneously. (And some can do this incredibly well, like the late, great, percussion master, Neil Peart.)

“Most people can only perform fine motor tasks with one hand and have problems playing different rhythms with both hands at the same time,” explains Dr. Lara Schlaffke, a lead researcher from Ruhr-University in Bochum, Germany. “Drummers can do things that are impossible for untrained people.”

So Dr. Schlaffke and her research team set out to explore the difference between the brains of trained drummers versus non-musicians.

Drumming changes how the brain communicates

The researchers used neuroimaging to study the brains of 40 participants. They were split into two groups: 20 untrained, non-musical participants and 20 drummers. (The drummers had been playing for an average of 17 years and practiced approximately 10 hours a week.)

The research team wanted to see if there were also stark differences in any biochemical markers, or the function or structure of the brain.

Both groups played the drums to test their rhythmic accuracy. Each participant then underwent a brain scan.

At the conclusion of the study, researchers found several significant differences in the drumming group, compared to the non-musical group:

  • As one might predict, the drummers scored higher on the rhythmic accuracy test with 83 percent accuracy as compared to 62 percent accuracy in the untrained group.

  • The drummers also displayed structural differences in a part of the brain called the corpus callosum—a band of nerve fibers that connect the left and right sides of the brain, allowing both brain hemispheres to communicate with one another.

  • The drummers’ corpus callosums also contained thicker fibers. This meant their brains could send signals and communicate more quickly and efficiently between the two hemispheres.
a drummer's brain
The brain’s corpus callosum
IMAGE SOURCE: WiseGeek.com

But the brain benefits of drumming aren’t limited to musicians with years of experience…

Sticking with the beat improves cognition

In 2008, researchers from the Karolinska Institute in Sweden examined the link between keeping rhythm and problem-solving skills.

In the study, 34 men between the ages 19 and 49 tapped a drumstick to various rhythms. They were then given a 60-question intelligence test.

As it turns out, the participants who kept the best drum rhythm achieved the highest test scores and had the highest volume of white matter in the brain’s frontal lobes (the part of the brain associated with problem-solving, planning, and time management).

But the benefits of drumming don’t stop there…

There are countless studies citing how drumming helps improve mood, attention, and even pain tolerance (also known as a “drummer’s high”). Some have even witnessed rhythm’s ability to bring Alzheimer’s patients back into the present.

And additional research shows that you don’t necessarily even need to be the one doing the drumming. Some studies have found simply listening to a steady beat leads to improvements in cognition.

Build your brain with rhythm

If you’d like to start reaping the brain-building benefits of drumming, here are two beginner-friendly rhythm exercises I created just for you:

And don’t worry: You don’t need to go out and buy a drum set to do these exercises. You can use some old pots and pans or mixing bowls along with some pencils for drum sticks—or even just softly drum on your lap with your fingers. As long as you’re practicing rhythm, your brain is happy.

You may also want to seek out a local drum circle. Most are beginner-friendly and some even provide drums to borrow.

Facebook and Meetup.com are good places to start. Simply search the keywords “drum circle” “group drumming,” or “drum workshop.” (You can also follow my schedule of drumming workshops on Facebook. I facilitate all over the country!)

And remember, you don’t even need to be “good” at drumming to get the health benefits! Just being a part of the process brings about your body’s positive chemical changes.

jim donovan drumming workshops
A peek into one of my drumming workshops
IMAGE SOURCE: Jim Donovan

Happy drumming!


SOURCES:

Schlaffke, L. (2019). Boom Chack Boom—A multimethod investigation of motor inhibition in professional drummers. Retrieved from: Wiley Online Library. Retrieved from: onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/full/10.1002/brb3.1490

Weiler, J. (2019). How playing the drums changes the brain. Ruhr Universitat Bochum. Retrieved from: news.rub.de/english/press-releases/2019-12-09-neuroscience-how-playing-drums-changes-brain

Karolinska Institutet. (2008). Intelligence and Rhythmic Accuracy Go Hand in Hand. ScienceDaily. Retrieved from: sciencedaily.com/releases/2008/04/080416100459.htm

Sloan, T., (2014). Science Shoes How Drummers’ Brains Are Actually Different From Everybody Elses’. Mic.com. Retrieved from: mic.com/articles/89363/science-shows-how-drummers-brains-are-actually-different-from-everybody-elses

Jones, Josh. (2015). The Neuroscience of Drumming: Researchers Discover the Secrets of Drumming & The Human Brain. Retrieved from: openculture.com/2015/08/the-neuroscience-of-drumming.html

Jim Donovan image
About the author

Jim Donovan M.Ed., is a professional musician and educator. He's an Assistant Professor at Saint Francis University where he teaches music and how the power of sound can help you experience a healthier life.