Drumming and the Brain: The Physiology of Keeping Time

  • Posted on: 2 July 2011
  • By: Sheldon Kreger

Basics of the Brain - Drumming is a Mental Task

Although often considered a very physical instrument, learning and playing the drums is primarily a mental feat. The complexity of the brain is dumbfounding. As any drummer will tell you, different parts of the brain communicate with the entire body to create a live, streaming flow of consciousness. However, few drummers understand even the most basic biological mechanisms and processes which manifest through this magnificent organ. This is unfortunate, because even a rudimentary understanding of the brain can create new levels of self-awareness which open space for immense self-improvement - both on and off the drum set.

The brain is composed of  innumerable electro-chemically active cells. These cells communicate to one another through pulses of electricity which are triggered by incredibly complex chemical mechanisms. These micro-organs run throughout the entire body to create the central nervous system, or CNS. Because of the wide variety of tasks the human body performs, different parts of the brain take responsibility for different activities. Some simply regulate rudimentary bodily processes, while others serve to create emotions such as fear, love, desire, anger, and gratitude. Others still are responsible for one's ability to complete motor tasks, focus on abstract concepts, feel physical sensations, or listen to an impassioned string of profanities spewed from the mouth of excited individuals (hopefully this happens only at competitive debate tournaments).

Even though the entire CNS - which composes the mind - is interconnected, the different organs within the brain are distinguished from one another by the strength of the connections between their individual cells (as well as the diverse physiological characteristics of the cells themselves). Since these cells are all responsible for the same set of tasks, over time they learn to work together to complete them in a synchronized manner. DAy-to-day experiences show us that clear, effective communication creates fluid, smooth interactions with other people. Such synergy creates collaboration which allows us to accomplish more challenging and elaborate tasks. Similarly, when the different sub-organs within the brain 'speak'  to one another, they are able to function in unison, solving the various issues they face. Not unlike people, neurons communicate in a variety of ways. While some people have strong rhetorical skills, many express themselves through music and artwork. Influential inferences may be drawn from particular movements, postures, and (perhaps obscene) gestures. Clearly, it is advantageous to use all of these tools to communicate effectively, emphasizing one or the other depending on the situation with which we are faced. Any manager can tell you that the most spectacular (and profitable) accomplishments are achieved when people communicate effectively.

Our brains work the same way: When neurons are interconnected, lively, and expressing themselves to their fullest, the problems we face as human beings are easily resolved, tasks are accomplished smoothly, and higher states of conscious awareness are experienced.

Brainwave States

Information is sent through the mind when groups of cells fire electrical pulses together. Depending on what we feel and think, overall brain-wave patterns may be observed scientifically:

  • Beta brain wave patterns occur when cells fire rapidly. This state is seen during periods of intense focus and concentration - perhaps while drumming. Certainly, a creative computer programmer demands extended periods of intense beta activity. Frequent beta activity creates the analytical thinking skills, an increased concentration, and expanded social awareness and comfort.
  • Alpha activity is somewhat more relaxed than beta. Such patterns are seen when the body is relaxed  - such as during a walk along a beach. Scientists like Dr. Fred Travis have shown that Transcendental Meditation creates global alpha coherence. The benefits of regular alpha activity - especially the unique states created during Transcendental Meditation - are endless: Lowered stress levels, increased critical thinking skills, faster reflexes, normalization of blood pressure, and prolonged states of unbounded joy are all seen in those who practice this fantastic, simple, and effortless technique.
  • Theta brainwaves are even slower. These are experienced during freeway driving, long jogs, and during relaxing, simple, spacy tasks. Regular theta activity promotes an increased ability to relax, the development of emotional awareness, and improved educational performance.
  • At last, delta brainwaves are the slowest. Delta activity is observed during deep rest. Sleep is prerequisite to all health.

Remember, neurons communicate by pulsating in unison. For example, in order for data coming in from your eyes to be used to help steer the motions of your body, countless neurons across the brain work together. Obviously, more complex activities require greater levels of coherence between the organs of the CNS.

Transcendental Meditation Creates Alpha Coherence  


 

The highest observed forms of such coherence have been documented within individuals who practice Transcendental Meditation (TM). However, there is no doubt that drummers require lots of coherence, too! TM is unique because of it integrates the frontal lobe into other parts of the brain. This is fascinating, because the frontal lobe is primarily responsible for analytical reasoning, long term memory, foresight, and moral perception. Furthermore such widespread, powerful alpha coherence has never been documented during any other activity. As coherence builds within the mind, an individual's performance on geospacial and thought recollection tasks improve, creativity explodes uncontrollably, and reflexes become faster - all of this an addition to the innumerable health benefits TM has been proven to create.

Furthermore, as an individual meditates regularly as they grow older, the brainwave coherence seen during the practice of Transcendental Meditation begins to stick. Alpha coherence is observed during all states of consciousness - including sleep. This creates an advantageous experience of all day-to-day activities, and establishes a phenomenon described as "witnessing sleep." While witnessing sleep, a person is aware of the act of sleeping while asleep. Although such an experience is impossible to describe without experience, research shows that alpha coherence is sustained throughout the night.

Timekeeping for Drummers and All Musicians - Coherence is Prerequisite to Musical Expression

What does this have to do with keeping time? Imagine a band  who wants to play a composition (or improvise): They agree upon certain structural necessities before they play in order to make music. The most fundamental component of music is agreeing where the meter is - that is, deciding on a tempo at which to play. When a band shares awareness of a certain subdivision of time, they will  play music together. A beautiful language is spoken  when clear communication is present between the players. Remember, the most foundational element is the agreement upon where the beat stands: No time means no music. If the time is off, sounds are fragmented and the music cannot move convincingly. Just like the members of an orchestra  the cells within our body must work together if we are to experience happiness and success - especially while we play music.

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