The Police is starting their tour in Vancouver on May 28th and May 30th, and even though I’m more or less still a fan of Sting, I’ve just got to say that watching Stewart Copeland play those polyrhythmic drum beats at the Grammys was pretty impressive. Here, take a look yourself:
But how do drummers do that crazy syncopated, wierd off-phase stuff? Is there any biology behind this skill? Turns out there is.
In particular, if you PUBMED the term “polyrhythmic”, you’ll come across several publications, several of which look at off-phase motor skills, and a few, even, that looked at accessing this skill from a musical standpoint. All of them, of course, had a neuroscience angle to it, with many looking at particular regions of the brain excited under certain experimental situations.
In fact, ironies of ironies, one of the papers ["It don't mean a thing...Keeping the rhythm during polyrhythmic tension, activates language areas - BA47" Vuust, P. et al. NeuroImage, 31: 832 - 841 (2006)] even used a sampling of the Sting song, “The Lazarus Heart” in its experimental methodology.
“The stimulus consisted of 20 repetitions of an excerpt from Sting’s “The Lazarus Heart” containing three measures (3*2s) of main meter (M), 120 beats per minute (bpm), followed by three measures (3*2s) of counter meter (C), 160 bpm. In musical terms, the underlying polyrhythm induced by the counter meter is known as 4 against 3, implying that three measures are sufficient and necessary for the downbeats of the two meters to coincide (Fig. 1).”
And here is the figure associated with the stimulus.
Basically, the 18 or so participants in the study (who were all professional musicians), were asked to listen to this piece of music that oscillated in a 6 second non-polyrhythmic (gray)/6 second polyrhythmic (yellow) pattern, whereby they would take turns just listening, and/or trying to tap along. All the while, the participants’ brains were being monitored for activity as assessed by magnetic resonance imaging. Anyway, this is what you see:
And what you see is some serious activity going on in the areas of the brain known as BA47 and BA40 – both components of the Brodmann area (and actually the most pronouced activity occurring when participants were trying to tap along in the polyrhythmic sections).
Anyway, this is kind of cool, because these areas are known to be involved in higher processing of language. In other words, the idea here, is that polyrhythmic structures can create a sort of “tension” not unlike some components in language. i.e. a music can provide a wide range of sensations not only from its melody, but also from the beats it provides.
In any event, this kind of percussion is certainly an impressive skill to have. If you don’t believe me, let’s see how you stack up to someone like Stewart Copeland. In fact, go ahead and try some polyrhymic tapping!
Take a look at this figure from the paper ["Neural Networks for the Coordination of the Hands in Time." Ullén, F. et al. J. Neuro., 89: 1126 - 1135 (2003).]:
Is it me, or is trying to tap along to the off-phase stuff (the lower two schematics) just about freaking impossible to do?!? Anyway, if you do try (and if you can succeed), your brain again has specific areas that go into overdrive. And curiously, out of the context of music (i.e. just focusing on the motor movement of the tapping), this paper demonstrated that different areas of the brain lit up. Specifically:
We demonstrate different patterns of brain activity during in-phase and antiphase coordination. In-phase coordination was characterized by activation of the right anterior cerebellum and cingulate motor area (CMA). Antiphase coordination was accompanied by extensive fronto-parieto-temporal activations, including the supplementary motor area (SMA), the preSMA, and the bilateral inferior parietal gyri, premotor cortex, and superior temporal gyri. When contrasting polyrhythmic tapping with in-phase tapping, activity was seen in the same set of brain regions, and in the posterior cerebellum and the CMA. Antiphase and polyrhythmic coordination may thus to a large extent use common neural control circuitry.
… So, there you have it. There is, apparently, some biology to being fancy at drumming. Which inadvertantly leads to a question that begs to be asked: that is, whether some folks are genetically hardwired to be good at this, or whether this is one of those things that is more heavily reliant on training.
“Born to drum?” Who’d have thought?