Rock & Roll Neurology: Playing The Drums Changes Brain Structure, Study Finds

BOCHUM, Germany — There’s an old trope in the rock scene that drummers are always the forgotten members of a band. The drums aren’t quite as exciting as guitar, not as provocative as the bass, and don’t demand the same attention as a mic stand. Interestingly, this propensity to forget drummers had even extended into the scientific research community. Somehow, there had been absolutely no research performed on how playing the drums influences brain structure and activity.

With this incredibly glaring musical oversight in mind, a team of researchers from the Ruhr-Universität Bochum in Germany analyzed a group of seasoned drummers’ brains. They discovered that playing the drums does indeed change one’s brain structure; drummers’ motor brain areas are organized more efficiently, and also appear to have fewer than normal, but also thicker, connecting fibers between the two halves of the brain. 

These observations explain, on a neurological level, why experienced drummers are able to coordinate their hand movements on both sides in a manner that appears impossible to non-musicians or novice drummers.

“It has long been understood that playing a musical instrument can change the brain via neuroplastic processes,” explains Sarah Friedrich, who wrote her bachelor’s thesis on this project, in a release. “But no one had previously looked specifically into drummers,” she adds.

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“Most people can only perform fine motor tasks with one hand and have problems playing different rhythms with both hands at the same time,” comments research leader Dr. Lara Schlaffke. “Drummers can do things that are impossible for untrained people.”

During the research phase of the study, a group of 20 professional drummers, each with an average of 17 years’ experience and a habit of practicing over 10 hours per week, were gathered for observation. The researchers wanted to observe how each musician’s brain behaved , so each musician was asked to complete a drumming test, and then underwent an MRI. Next, those brain scans were compared to the MRI results of 24 non-musician control group participants.

An analysis of the two sets of MRI scans revealed obvious differences in the drummers’ brains, specifically the corpus callosum, which connects the two hemispheres of the brain and is also responsible for motor planning. The presence of fewer than normal, but also thicker, connecting fibers in this region make it possible for drummers to send information back and forth between the two sides much more quickly than other people.

In fact, the researchers noted that the thicker the connecting fibers in a drummer’s brain, the higher they scored in the experiment’s drumming test.

It was also observed that the drummers’ brains were less active while performing motor tasks, in comparison to the control subjects. Essentially, this means the brain of a veteran drummer is more efficiently organized and connected, meaning it does not need to use as much energy.

The study is published in the scientific journal Brain and Behavior.

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