In the music world, drummer jokes are always popular. Most of them have the same punchline: Drummers are idiots. Take, for example, the following: “How do you tell if the stage is level? The drummer is drooling from both sides of his mouth.”
Whether it’s being ruthlessly mocked for their idiocy, repeatedly killed in This Is Spinal Tap or just lusted after less often than the lead guitarist (whom we’ve already studied), drummers walk a tough road. But it turns out science holds them in really high regard: They have a rare, innate ability to problem-solve and change those around them.
For starters, rock steady drummers can actually be smarter than their less rhythmically-focused bandmates. A study from the Karolinska Institutet in Stockholm found a link between intelligence, good timing and the part of the brain used for problem-solving. Researchers had drummers play a variety of different beats and then tasked them with a simple 60-problem intelligence test. The drummers who scored the highest were also better able to keep a steady beat. Apparently figuring out how to play in time is just another form of problem-solving. At last, hard proof that John Bonham really was a genius.
But even though a steady drummer may be more intelligent than his or her bandmates, the drummer’s gifts can be shared: a tight beat can actually transfer that natural intelligence to others. In studies on the effects of rhythm on brains, researchers showed that experiencing a steady rhythm actually improves cognitive function. One psychology professor at the University of Washington used rhythmic light and sound therapy on his students and discovered that their grades improved. Similarly, one researcher at the University of Texas Medical Branch used that method on a group of elementary and middle school boys with ADD. The therapies had a similar effect to Ritalin, eventually making lasting increases to the boys’ IQ scores.
Granted, these studies focused more on the effects of rhythm on the mind rather than on the mind behind the rhythm. That being said, drummers’ consistent rhythmic focus has positive effects on them and those around them (yes, even their neighbors). That’s because when drummers bring a steady rhythm (and corresponding problem-solving abilities) to a group setting, they actually create a “drummer’s high” for everyone around them. University of Oxford researchers discovered that when drummers play together, both their happiness levels and pain tolerance increase, similar to Olympic runners. We give you Phil Collins:
Observing that high led researchers to hypothesize that drumming was integral to community-building and that sharing rhythms could be the sort of behavior necessary for the evolution of human society. Thanks, Phil.
Drumming is a fundamentally human thing. A lot of modern music has shifted towards drum machines over humans to create ultra-precise electronic rhythms. But it turns out that what we typically perceive as error is really just a uniquely human sense of time: Researchers at Harvard found that drummers harness a different sort of internal clock that moves in waves, rather than linearly as a real clock does. They match an innate rhythm that has been found in human brainwaves, heart rates during sleep and even the auditory nerve firings in cats. When a human drummer plays, he or she finds a human rhythm.
So the stereotypes aren’t just baseless, they’re also plain wrong. A lot of these studies have to do with rhythm just as much as with drumming, but drummers are more engaged with those mental elements than most. They are people tapped into a fundamental undercurrent of what it means to be human, people around whom bands and communities form.
And admit it, sometimes they even write great songs.