A Drummer's Guide to the Brain

A group of drummers playing music on the grass outside.

by Tim Simmons
Music Teacher

After researching the neurologic components of both language and music, I have begun to better understand how music instruction can benefit students with learning differences, and, in particular, how drumming can help students with language processing and production.

Consider an experience I had with a student in my English class. Margie is a tenth grader who has been diagnosed with dyslexia and an auditory processing disorder. Dyslexia, as many of us know, includes a constellation of impairments in how people process and produce written and spoken language, while auditory processing disorders refer to impairments and delays in the systems through which the brain processes sound.

Margie came to class and told me that, although she did the reading that was required for homework, she literally didn’t understand any of it. Later in the same class, she asked me to repeat a few ideas that I had spoken several times. Each time, she asked me to say it slower. Later, when asked to read out loud, Margie willingly agreed despite her difficulties. However, as she read, she completely ignored all punctuation. The first word of a sentence was read as if it were the last word of the previous sentence. She paused where there was no reason to pause, and her reading did not sound at all like spoken language. Not only that, but she incorrectly decoded several words. This illustrates just exactly how difficult it must be for Margie to read independently, to process what she hears in the classroom, and to produce written assignments – all fundamental skills for academic success. Of course, she didn’t understand anything she read that night. In fact, with all of the inaccuracy errors, punctuation marks missed, and fluency difficulties, even though she read the same words as everyone else, to her, it was as if she actually read a completely different chapter than what was assigned.

There are two elements of music that are very closely related to language: beat synchronization and what I call melodic perception. In this article, let’s consider beat synchronization.
The prevailing view among neuroscientists today is that beat synchronization is a crucial skill when acquiring and processing language (Woodruff-Carr et al 76). Why is that? We don’t speak in time to drums. Language doesn’t run to a back beat (Patel 122). In fact, from a drummer’s perspective, language is like the most complex jazz fusion around. The time is constantly shifting as words vary their duration and emphasis depending on their placement within a sentence. The melody rises and falls at seemingly random intervals, and follows no key signature, or other hierarchical tonic structure like we find in music (Patel 203). So, what does it mean to say that beat synchronization is so essential to language?

Picture all the neurons in your brain. When stimulated, they send out tiny electric impulses to each other and trigger potential responses from our body. Those little electrical impulses that are careening around our skulls are so powerful that, at different frequencies, they can be detected on the scalp. The frequency of these impulses determines the part of the brain being activated. High frequencies activate the lower parts of the brain – those associated with intake of information – are being activated: the basal ganglia, the brainstem, the cerebellum. Mid-range frequencies correspond to the mid-brain – the auditory cortex, the inferior colliculus, and the higher frequencies relate to areas of the brain that process higher order thought – abstract thinking, language, memory, executive function – the temporal lobe, broca’s area, the frontal lobe, the occipital lobe (“Brain Rhythms: Functional Brain Networks Mediated by Oscillatory Neural Coupling”). All of these neurons are firing away all the time. Not only that, but they are doing it simultaneously all around the brain. That’s a lot of energy. How is it conserved? One way is through rhythm. When our synapses are activated, they tend to fire in rhythmic syncopation; they all fire at the same time (“Brain Rhythms: Functional Brain Networks Mediated by Oscillatory Neural Coupling”).

Consider a classic experimental procedure. You have electrodes attached to your head, and through some earphones, you hear a syllable - /dah/ (“dah”) (Woodruff-Carr et al 78). That sound goes into your ear, it travels into the cochlea, and vibrates the basilar membrane. In fractions of a second, the area of this membrane that gets vibrated creates a frequency that then gets transmitted into the brain. As it travels up the brainstem and into the auditory cortex for processing, it first passes through the inferior colliculus (IC), a tiny node that acts like a gatekeeper, determining where in the brain the stimuli will be sent for further processing and, ultimately, the triggering of more neurons (Riggs, “Special Senses 7- Auditory Pathways”). We call this the Ascending Pathway of Auditory Processing.

How does the IC know where to send information? While the Ascending Pathway is occurring, there is a simultaneous Descending Pathway also occurring. As information travels through the midbrain towards the IC, other parts of the brain are also being stimulated by that information (Riggs, “Special Senses 7- Auditory Pathways”). This is where memory and rhythm come into play. Previous experience with a sound like /dah/ triggers responses from the parts of the brain where memory and understanding of that stimulus is located. In the case of a syllable, it would come from the occipital lobe (Shaywitz 2003). So as the information is ascending into the brain, the brain is simultaneously sending down another signal that will take the information in and process it in the proper part of the brain, and therefore trigger the proper potential reaction - laughter, anger, the swing of a stick towards a snare drum. You hear the sound, and you know what it says. You know that this is a syllable beginning with the letter D, etc.

 This is basic phonological processing, unless the Ascending Pathway and the Descending Pathway are out of sync. As these areas of the brain are sending out signals and are being read as FRP’s on an EEG, we can see a series of pulses. All of these pulses should be happening together, rhythmically. No matter the area of the brain from which they originate, they should be happening in regular rhythmic oscillations (“Brain Rhythms: Functional Brain Networks Mediated by Oscillatory Neural Coupling”). Boom. Boom. Boom. Boom. We call this Oscillatory Brain Function, or Phase Coherence (Tierney and Kraus 782). However, in a student like Margie, who struggles with language processing, the mid-brain releases signals that are out of sync. Boom. (Bam) Boom. Boom. (Bam) Boom. (Bam) This dysfunction in phase coherence leads to auditory processing impairment and dyslexia, and overwhelmingly, we are beginning to see that musical training, especially training that involves a heavy focus on rhythm and improvisation can help improve oscillatory brain function (Kraus and Slater 210, 216).

One compelling study in this area looked at young children playing a conga drum. Some could synchronize their beat with the beat that the tester was playing. Among the ones who could not, there was a higher incidence of language impairment (Kraus and Anderson 56). Another study found that participants who could more quickly and easily synchronize to a rhythm, and also adjust to changes in a rhythm had stronger phase coherence (Tierney and Kraus 782).

The auditory system is constantly taking in and responding to sound at the millisecond level (782). Some researchers call  this Dynamic Attending Theory. As we grow and acquire language, we develop temporal expectancies based on the rhythms of all the signals that travel around our brain. Once these oscillations are out of sync, these expectancies begin to drift, and we process language and sound in a delayed manner (Kraus and Slater 210). Picture Margie asking me to repeat what I said. “Can you say it again more slowly, please? Ok. … I’m sorry, can you say that one more time?” Boom. (Bam) Boom. Boom. (Bam) Boom. (Bam). Think of this same student hearing that syllable /dah/. Delayed processing means that she does not always recognize that this is a syllable beginning with the D sound. Failure to recognize the syllable in sound, also means delayed processing of it in written form, hence inaccurate decoding and automaticity.

Am I arguing that teaching Margie to play the drums will help her language impairment? Well, yes and no. Kraus argues, “…musical experience can strengthen aspects of brain function which also support language related skills, and may thereby offer a framework for the remediation of language difficulties” (Kraus and Slater 212). In another study, Kraus states, “…children with dyslexia have a less accurate perception of musical rhythm than typically developing children do. Sensitivity to musical rhythm predicts phonological awareness and reading development” (Kraus and Anderson 55).

Am I arguing that teaching Margie to play the drums will help her language impairment? Well, yes and no. Kraus argues, “…musical experience can strengthen aspects of brain function which also support language related skills, and may thereby offer a framework for the remediation of language difficulties” (Kraus and Slater 212). In another study, Kraus states, “…children with dyslexia have a less accurate perception of musical rhythm than typically developing children do. Sensitivity to musical rhythm predicts phonological awareness and reading development” (Kraus and Anderson 55).


 I have no preconceived ideas that rhythmic musical training will completely “cure” Margie’s language impairments. However, many researchers are arguing that rhythmic musical training, because it forces the exercising of temporal expectancies that are so essential to phase coherence, can actually help improve oscillatory functions in the brain. Among test subjects with stronger beat synchronization skills, we also see a high occurrence of faster auditory processing speeds and stronger language skills (Tierney and Kraus 790). Therefore, I propose that systematic, multi-sensory reading instruction can be enhanced when partnered with musical training, especially musical training that is based in rhythmic exercises. Beat synchronization is linked to the discrimination of sounds within spoken language. When we speak, the spaces between the words, the duration of syllables, and the fluctuations in amplitude and pitch all help us determine where words begin and end, creating the illusion of a single flow of ideas, when in reality we are only hearing a series of sounds. But this illusion happens, in one way, through the synchronization of the Ascending and Descending Pathways, through Temporal Expectancies that already exist, and in the speed at which we can synchronize the neural responses within our brain. In this way, Students like Margie that struggle with impaired language skills can only benefit from drumming.

  • Brain Rhythms: Functional Brain Networks Mediated by Oscillatory Neural Coupling. Youtube.com. Http://spot.colorado.edu/~gilley 19 June 2014. Web. 20 Nov. 2016.

  • Flaugnacco, Elena, Luisa Lopez, Chiara Terribili, Marcella Montico, Stefania Zoia, and Daniele Schon. “Music Training Increases Phonological Awareness and Reading Skills in Developmental Dyslexia: A Randomized Control Trial.” PLoS One 25 Sept. 2015: 1-17. Print.

  • Goswami, Usha. “Dyslexia - in Tune but out of Time.” Psychologist Feb. 2013: 106-09. Print.

  • Kraus, Nina, and Jessica Slater. “Music and Language: Relations and Disconnections.” Handbook of Clinical Neurology 3rd ser. 129 (2015): n. pag. Web. 9 Aug. 2016.

  • Kraus, Nina, PhD, and Samira Anderson, Aud,PhD. “Beat-Keeping Ability Relates to Reading Readiness.” Hearing Journal (2015): 54-56. EBSCOhost. Web. 8 Aug. 2016.

  • Patel, Aniruddh D. Music, Language, and the Brain. 2nd. edition ed. New York, NY: Oxford University Press, Inc., 2010. Print.

  • Shaywitz, Sally E. Overcoming Dyslexia: A New and Complete Science-based Program for Reading Problems at Any Level. New York: A.A. Knopf, 2003. Print.

  • Special Senses 7- Auditory Pathways. Dir. Wendy Riggs. Special Senses 7- Auditory Pathways. Youtube.com, 16 Oct. 2014. Web. 20 Nov. 2016.

  • Tierney, Adam, and Nina Kraus. “Evidence for Multiple Rhythmic Skills.” PLoS One 16 Sept. 2015: 1-14. Print.

  • Tierney, Adam, and Nina Kraus. “Getting Back on the Beat: Links between Auditory-motor Integration and Precise Auditory Processing at Fast Time Scales.” European Journal of Neuroscience 43 (2016): 782-91. Web.

  • Woodruff-Carr, Kali, Adam Tierney, Travis White-Schwoch, and Nina Kraus. “Intertrial Auditory Neural Stability Supports Beat Synchronization in Preschoolers.” Developmental Cognitive Neuroscience (2015): 76-82. EBSCOhost. Web. 20 Nov. 2016.