The science of why drummers like Stewart Copeland are so good at polyrhythmic beats.

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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?

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Cool neuro, but Stewart Copeland? Check out Tony Williams or Elvin Jones some time...

Definitely. There are so many brilliant drummers out there (I'm familiar with Williams, but will definitely check out Jones), but Copeland is no slouch either. Plus, I scored me some great tickets for the show, so it's on my mind, so to speak.

Very interesting. Lazarus Heart, I believe, had Manu Kache on the drums. Sting has played with a string of absolutely incredible drummers, most notably those two and Vinnie Colaiuta. Lazarus Heart isn't even that good an example of a drummer doing difficult polyrhythms in Sting's music. Try Saint Augustine in Hell, which is in a very unusual 7/4 time signature. I have no doubt that this ability is partially genetic. I play drums, but I have a very difficult time playing that sort of stuff.

As with a number of other things, I suspect it's a bit of both.

I was a drummer for 15 years (every so often I think about getting back to it; it's a lot of fun) and I was very interested in polyrhythmic structures. While I never achieved Copeland's level of expertise (few people do), I listened to a lot of jazz and West African music, where you'll find plenty of examples of this. In fact, it's so integral to some genres of West African music that people in those societies develop a substantial level of expertise just by learning to play the music. As with language, it seems that the younger you start, the easier it is to gain the facility.

I can still play three beats against two if I concentrate, but I never did master four against three. One question about this that I don't know whether anyone has answered (perhaps the paper you cite addresses it) is whether when a drummer is playing polyrhythms, he/she is actually conceiving of a larger rhythmic structure into which both apparently independent rhythms fit. There's some evidence that this is what's happening in some of the African music I'm familiar with, which mostly originates in and around Ghana.

By Genevieve Williams (not verified) on 22 Feb 2007 #permalink

Polyrhythms can easily fit into a larger (quite simple) rhythmic structure (with standard '1e+a' nomenclature for sixteenth notes):

Three against two in 3/4 time:
Right hand: 1,2,3
Left hand: 1, + of 2

Four against three in 3/4 time:
Right hand: 1, a of 1, + of 2, e of 3
Left hand: 1,2,3

Five against four in 5/4 time:
Right hand: 1,2,3,4,5
Left hand: 1, e of 2, + of 3, a of 4

Etc. It's all math (and spare time in percussion class).

Ha! You want something to wrap your head around, look at phase angles in RF design. I remember that from my element 4A exams for my amateur Advanced license. I studied and studied until a friend pointed out the patterns of inductors to capacitors.

Remember that old AM thing QAM? I know how it works.

I've blogged about this elsewhere, but the late Nobel Laureate (and my coauthor) Richard Feynman was arguably the world's greatest amateur bongo drummer, able to play polyrhythms up to 19 against 20. Too bad he didn't live long enough for such brainscans to be taken wile he played, or listened.

A lot is being landed on 'genetic predisposition' here, but, like a predisposition for anything it doesn't come into effect unless it is very seriously stimulated.

I'm talking about PRACTICE. Any serious musician of high ability and creativity will spend at least half their working day for over 20 years just practising. Just repeating the same exercises over and over and over.

Without that, no 'talent' (for want of a much better word) will ever come to anything. In this genetically-aware age, it's becoming easier and easier for people to forget how much apparent skill is due (amongst other factors, of course) to just simple hard work.

Back when I was researching my book on music (Beethoven's Anvil: Music in Mind and Culture) I came across some "how-to" columns that Joseph Hoffman published in the Ladies Home Journal prior to 1909. He was asked how to play 3 against 2. Here's what he said:

In a slow tempo it may serve you to think of the second eighth-note of the triplet as being subdivided into two sixteenths. After both hands have played the first note of their respective groups simultaneously, the place of the aforsaid sixteenth note is to be filled by the second note of the couplet. In faster motion it is far better to practise at first each hand alone and with somewhat exaggerated accents of each group until the two relative speeds are well established in the mind. Then try to play the two hands together in a sort of semi-automatic way. Frequent correct repetition of the same figure will soon change your semi-automatic state into a a conscious one, and thus train your ear to listen to and control two different rhythms or groupings at the same time.

From a purely formal point of view, tempo shouldn't make a difference. But it does. Hoffman's advice implies that we use one mechanism at slow tempi and a different one at rapid tempi. At the slow tempo Hoffman, in effect, says to count it in six, thus eliminating the apparent conflict. That doesn't work at a more rapid tempo. I have no idea whether or not such a distinction has been verified through brain imaging.

I'm with Bill Benzon, the way my brain most easily resolves this tension is to subdivide the notes until they get a common denominator tempo. Asking people to 'tap the beat' might be a source of extra conflict, as I'm likely to divide the 'base beat' down to something faster than my voice/hands can count.

I agree strongly with two more comments: the power of "Frequent correct repetition" and "change your semi-automatic state into a a conscious one."

I apologize for not having the citations on hand, but I've heard the first summarized as "repetion gives the illusion of intelligence." The oldest results in psychophysics indicate that the skill of performance, up to some limit of possibility, improves with the logarithm of the number of repetitions.

Again, no citation on hand, but I recall that brain scans of music students show that the first six months (roughly) of several hours a day of first performing the first instrument, shows activity mostly in the left hemisphere (for the right-handed) and right hemisphere if left-handed, i.e., logical, analytical, linear processing. "This dot on the score means a C# which means this finger goes here..." and that, after that roughly six month period, the activity shifts to other hemisphere, i.e. gestalt, holistic, the person no longer playing note by note consciously, but shifted to conscious and unconscious awareness of the overall dynamics and style and character and "meaning" of the music.

Can someone more familar with the literature help me out here?

"How do I get to Carnegie Hall?"


This is an interesting thread. What is complex rhythmically here is not new and what I read in the responses seems to need another point of view.

Truly complex rhythms (23/16?) are not typical in Western music. So it is not surprising that any musical group which has distinguished itself by featuring complex rhythmical patterns owes some credit to the East needs not be studied for super brain activity. By 'group' I mean anyone in either the classical or popular forms of music which would also include 'world' music.

What seems to be missing in this discussion is that simple rhythms: 3 against 4 or 2 against 3 are to be found in Bach, Haydn or pretty well anyone working in composition from the unmeasured music from the early Greeks to now; it's not new. But add 7 to the 4 against 5 pattern in another voice, not dissimilar to what was mentioned but more complex; nevertheless, write it out in detail, rehearse it and then sound spontaneous: it has been done.

Take for examples the 23/4 ragas found in Indian music (check out Messiaen), or the drumming of Africa (in Michael Colgrass) or exotic phrases against rhythmic tone areas in John Weinzweig (a well known Canadian composer). These are complex, hard to explain, impressive on paper and infrequently heard but largely studied and used but unaccredited. In other words, the 'Police' "borrowed" a few bits and pieces and people are impressed. Why?

But let's go back to Africa where the melody may be simple but they have developed a highly diverse sense of rhythm. This was brought to N. America under duress, needless to say, which is to be found mostly in Jazz. Some classical musicians did take components, e.g. Stravinsky, Copland, Weinzweig, Colgrass, Cole Porter and Joan Tower to make a point in their own style. But most rehearsal time in their music is spent in figuring out the rhythm from the proper notation. Western musicians simply have not been taught rhythm. It's interesting that we have to look to a few examples from Pop or Rock, as the case may be.

Some musicans profess to have a 'feel' for the rhythm and then there are those who write everything out. If you were to look at the scores and compare, wouldn't it be also interesting to wonder at or study those who know how to write out these complex polyrhythmic patterns? In my opinion they might be worthy of further study.

What I heard on this thread on the 'Tube' by the "Police" was sloppy and only vaguely co-ordinated. I await the full Fourier transform data from the scientists to figure out whether the performers were actually accurate to the composer. Let's compare the performance with the score, sure I'll be happy to look at the brain scan too of the composer, the notator and the performers.

Now. if you really want to talk about weird rhythms, I was K S Sorabji's typesetter and he had bar notations of 35 1/4 over 16. Talk about about hard to play.

Respectfully submitted,

[i]a very unusual 7/4 time signature[/i]

Neil peart, from Rush, uses 7/4 in a majority of the band's songs. It's always a great addition to a song.

Thanks for this interesting story. I've always loved off time patterns and polyrhythyms. And it's always fun to see people clapping along in 4, only to be thrown for a complete loop.

I have been working on this type of rhythm for more than 20 years, starting with 2 against 3. Then I worked on 3 against 4. I had to analyze it at first, but after several years of practice, something clicked. On the keyboard, I do rhythms up to 13 against 9. If I can do it, most anyone can if he/she has the time and inclination to work on it. Learning to play these complex rhythms enabled me to improvise and actually play music, not just read notes on paper. I have been wondering what goes on in the brain for a long time.

The issue of brain malleability would suggest that the years of engagement/practice/learning/performance involved would change the brain structures. Of course, who would play for so long without some basic ability, which could in turn mean that such a difference in the brain was there, somewhat, from the start. But it might not be that, either.

I get a real kick out of polyrhythms. I enjoyed sharing the trick of clapping 5 against 4 (that I learnt from a friend in NY) with like minded musicians in Cuba. I found bounce metronome a few years ago and use it to show what a polyrhythm is visually.

By Amanda Kay (not verified) on 11 Aug 2015 #permalink

Its all right with drums , but the main course is music. These so called drummers plays music, they hear certain things certain way, like everybody else. You hear, you engage and put a sound to a sound. Analisys always come late. Sayin polirythm means lots of things, they are very common in Balkan and Africa, and those people dont measure anything, they just live by it.