This essay examines the brain processes involved in and elicited by African Drumming class at the University of Toronto. Rhythm is normally considered as ‘of the body’, but according to Robert Jourdain (1997), it is very much of the brain. I started my African Drumming class at the university with this misconception, but was subsequently baffled by the processes involved in the difficulties and successes I was experiencing. I asked myself questions such as “Why is this so difficult?” and “How can I understand and execute this rhythm better?” These are the questions that led me to a bigger question: “What’s happening in my brain during drumming class?” With the help of Jourdain’s (1997) book, I have explored the issue of lateralization, the question of where in my brain the rhythm processing happens, my body’s response to these processes, how sensory and memory systems work together and how the learning of the rhythms takes place. These explorations lead to the inference that the understanding and performance of rhythm is not limited to one part of the body or one section of the brain.
Recently, research surfaced suggesting the strict lateralization of most brain functions. Jourdain (1997) disagrees with this theory wholeheartedly, saying that brain function is too complex to be limited to one section or hemisphere. This, he says, is especially true of rhythm. Generally speaking rhythm is considered to be a left brain affair, while harmony resides on the right. Michael H. Thaut (2005) is also an advocate of this theory, referencing a study that shows that pitch is processed separately from rhythm (Peretz and Kolinsky 1993) and suggesting that rhythm is bilateral. Jessica A. Grahn (2009) has also conducted research in favor of rhythm being less localized than pitch. Interestingly, patients who suffer left brain damage generally do not lose their rhythmic ability, but right brain damage can eliminate harmonic skills. This suggests that rhythm employs multiple types of cognition, and that its processes are far less localized than those of tonality.
Jourdain (1997) is generally less focused on rhythm in his book than he is on pitch, but he does outline areas of the brain where rhythm is involved. Newer research supports many of his findings, but some researchers are of the opinion that it is challenging to assign a particular function to a specific area of the brain (Grahn 2009).
Premotor Cortex – This is the part of the brain that becomes active just before the motor cortex. Thaut (2005) attributes this section to planning, voluntary control and movement execution. Grahn (2009), in her study, also mentions the involvement of the Supplementary Motor area in these functions.
Basal Ganglia – This primitive part of the brain manages lengthy sequences of adjustments of posture and is involved in action selection and learning.
Cerebellum – Balance is one of the main functions of this section of the brain but it also harmonizes the motions of the body. Thaut (2005) mentions that the cerebellum integrates sensory and motor information. This, and the fact that the cerebellum is a muscle coordinator suggests that this area of the brain may play an important role in proper instrumental technique.
Significantly, these three areas of the brain are closely connected. Research also shows that the arms and hands are controlled by two different parts of the brain. The cerebellum controls hand details while the basal ganglia controls the arms. It is fascinating to consider how these two systems are able to work together in the motions of African Drumming.
Parietal Cortex – “Assembles incoming sensations into maps of the body and its environment.” (Jourdain 1997 p. 217) The left parietal cortex sequences motions on both sides of the body. There are many neurons here that are specific to the arms and hands. This fact leads us into the investigation of how these neural processes manifest themselves in the body.
Generally, one thinks of rhythm as a bodily experience. For example, one might think of themselves as bodily (or culturally) predisposed to African Drumming, or not. Jourdain (1997) suggests that the coordination of limbs is not of the body, but of the brain, and that they are intermediated by the cerebral cortex. He illustrates this idea beautifully when he says “when people insist that rhythm comes from the body, they are really thinking about the pleasure they gain by representing rhythm in their motor systems.” (p. 149)
Although movement involves the entire brain, the motor cortex is lateralized. The volition of performance has been identified in previous sections, but what of the physical execution? The hands, one of the few parts of the body with very fine motor skills (another part is the face) have a disproportionately bigger chunk of motor cortex assigned to them. Additionally, Jourdain (1997) claims that there is no muscle that works alone, so beating a sogo rhythm in drumming class would include many more parts of the body than just the hands. Again, this supports the theory that rhythm and rhythm production cannot be confined to one section of the brain, or the body for that matter.
Then, finally, is the question of how learning takes place in the drumming class. There is no notation to follow and rhythms are expected to be memorized. How is this achieved in such a unique learning environment? From my own observation, I noticed different types of memory at work. I feel the drum under my fingers as I hit (tactile), I hear what the correct rhythm is supposed to sound like (auditory) and I watch the teacher’s hand movements carefully (visual). Jourdain (1997) describes performance as a never ending cycle of feedback and adjustment, and this is certainly true of African Drumming. My aim is truly to make the different beats into what Jourdain (1997) calls a property of the motor system. Thaut (2005) views this as a type of brain plasticity or entrainment. What he claims is that after repeated practice and experience, new synaptical networks emerge in the brain. Miell, Macdonald and Hargreaves (2005) claim that “Musical rhythm rapidly creates stable and precise internal templates for temporal organization of motor responses” (p. 184).
For me, being an auditory learner, the most helpful technique was the verbalization of rhythms. Thaut (2005) cites research that suggests that the motor system is sensitive to arousal by auditory cues and that this process happens without the individual being cognizant of the process. Perhaps this is why the internal sound of my drumming teacher saying jiki jiki jang jiki chaan jiki jang is a sure fire way for me to remember the particular drum beat associated with those syllables.
This brief investigation has led me to the conclusion that my brain is extremely active during drumming class. Not only is my brain processing what I hear and see, but it is eliciting appropriate responses from my body in a performance environment. This experience involves all parts of the body, but it seems that likewise, this rhythmic experience cannot be limited to one part of the brain.
Grahn, J. A. (2009). Neuroscientific Investigations of Musical Rhythm: Recent Advances and Future Challenges. Contemporary Music Review, 28 (3), 251-277
Jourdain, R (1997). Music, the Brain and Ecstasy. How Music Captures our Imagination. New York, NY: HarperCollins Publishers.
Miell, D., Macdonald, R., & Hargreaves, D. J. (2005). Musical Communication. New York: Oxford University Press.
Thaut, M. H. (2005). Rhythm, Music and the Brain. Scientifc Foundations and Clinical Applications. New York, NY: Routledge