On Musical Time and Drummers’ Brains

In a recent article by the always interesting Bikhard Bilger in this week’s The New Yorker (April 25), we learn about David Eagleman’s research on the brain and time perception.  Eagleman, a neuroscientist at Baylor College, wants to understand how we experience time, an especially interesting question considering how subjective time can feel in those moments when it seems to race ahead, or stand still, or slow down.  How much is our perception of time regulated by our brain structures, and how much is shaped by external forces?

In early 2011, Eagleman conducted a research project on musical time in London at the studio of music producer Brian Eno.  Eno was curious to know whether or not drummers’ timekeeping acuity is evidence of unique brain structures or brain functioning.  Eno wanted Eagleman to answer the question: “Do drummers have different brains than the rest of us?”  Eno, an adventurous thinker himself, was inspired by an experience he once had while recording the band U2 in the studio. During one studio session, the band’s drummer, Larry Mullen Jr., claimed that he couldn’t play with the computer-generated metronome click track because it was ever so slightly off–a tiny tad behind the beat, to be precise.  To Eno’s surprise, Mullen was right: the click track was in fact clicking behind the beat–by a mere 6 milliseconds.  How could a drummer know and perceive this?

Eagleton had a number of professional drummers and percussionists visit Eno’s studio to take part in a series of timing tests while hooked up to wireless EEG monitors clamped to their heads (!).  The tests were conducted on a laptop computer, with a software program asking the musicians to do four things: 1) keep a steady beat, 2) compare the length of two tones, 3) synchronize a beat to an image, and 4) compare rhythms to one another.  Perhaps not surprisingly, the initial results demonstrated that the musicians excelled at keeping a steady beat, wavering on average by less than 10 milliseconds as compared to the 35 millisecond variance of non-musician control subjects.  But I’m curious: Is this ability with musical time the result, as Eagleton says, of “something anatomically different about them [drummers]”, or is it the result of a body-mind skill set cultivated through years of specialized rhythmic training?  Neither Eagleton nor Bilger (nor Eno for that  matter) comments on this.  However, Bilger does speculate on what it might feel like to possess a drummer’s sense of timing, or even to have “perfect timing”–a rhythmic blessing analogous to so-called “perfect pitch”–that “may just make a drummer more sensitive to the world’s arrhythmias and repeated patterns.”

If I may weigh in here as a drummer: I think there is some truth to the idea that drummers sometimes hear rhythms in everyday soundscapes that others may not notice.  (I’ve had my own pleasurable moments of picking out a rhythm in the sound of subway train, or even in the pattern of my dog drinking water . . .) But what’s more interesting to me is that one of the qualities Eagleton’s test overlooks is how a good drummer generates a sense of kinetic, forward-moving musical motion–colloquially called a good “groove”–by not being perfectly steady, but rather by being subtly elastic.  Metronomes and click tracks, just so you know, are never elastic (unless they are tempo-mapped to subtly speed up or slow down over time).  So as I write this I’m starting to wonder why I once spent so many years dutifully practicing to metronomes . . .

Likewise, if you’ve ever wondered why some electronic music sounds “stiff” it’s because instead of a human drummer incorporating little pushes and pulls on the time (or what the ethnomusicologist Charles Keil once called “participatory discrepancies”), the groove is machine-generated and locked in or “quantized” to a rigid temporal framework that squares off notes to the nearest sixteenth- or eighth-note.  It’s the exact opposite of elastic: stiff.  And we hear stiffness as being “cold” or even as a kind of deadness–as if a chilled rigor mortis has set in on the music.   So, perfect timing is not really the thing for musicians.  In fact, good timing for a drummer means to be imperfect, albeit in a reliable and groovy way. It’s a difficult dance to master, maybe because, as the late Senegalese cultural theorist Leopold Sedar Senghor once observed, “rhythm is the most perceptible and least material thing”–and immaterial things are hard to grasp, let alone master.  At any rate, great drummers make the task of making good rhythm with good time look and sound effortless while lesser drummers make it look and sound as if something is subtly but oh so deeply wrong!

Here, then, are just a few examples of excellent musical timekeepers in action:

From India, the great tabla player Ustad Zakir Hussain:

From the USA, the great jazz drummer Tony Williams:

From Puerto Rico, the great conga drummer Giovanni Hidalgo:

From the USA, the great frame drummer Glen Velez:

14 thoughts on “On Musical Time and Drummers’ Brains

  1. great imfo.much appreciated.have been recording with click for 20 yrs,but still hear small wavers when matched to computer any ideas ?

  2. Hello Mr. Brett,

    Recent research by Hennig et al., referenced in this linked sciencemag article,


    explains that in a recent analysis of Jeff Porcaro’s recorded playing, deviations in his timing are actually found to be fractal patterns (!) Volume dynamics are also fractals, though independent of the timing fractal.

    Mr. Bosworth, this may help address your question.

    I have just discovered this blog and it is wonderful. Have you read of this recent research?

    Thank you,


  3. Thanks for this article. I need to ask: why record with a click or a metronom? I think the same answer to this is to why we eat shitty food: to save time and money. The greatest classical musicians in the world practice like crazy with metronomes and on rhythms, but in the end their musicality is more important. The rhythm is an integral part of the musicianship. It’s like having Isaak Stern and the Berlin Symphony orchestra recording the Brahms violin concerto with a metronom. I also suggest to look into the advanced rhythm program at Amsterdam university and the study of polyrhythm there.. Thanks also for great youtube links here. Salud from Mexico. Let the music flow from the heart…

    1. Thanks for your comment Paco. I suppose sometimes we play with metronomes during the recording process–to make later editing easier. Musicality must include one’s sense of time too–as you say, having a sense of rhythm is integral. As those videos illustrate, “good time” is often flexible yet still steady and forward-moving. Practicing to a metronome has its benefits though: sometimes it can suggest some of our perceptual shortcomings and prompt us to reset our time sense. Great performances seem to generate their own time worlds…I didn’t know about the program at Amsterdam U. so thanks for that information too.

  4. A very interesting read, I am a drummer myself and will often be sat at work and make a rhythm out of the seconds hand ticking on the clocks. Sometimes it’s annoying and I want it to stop but other times I find it quite enjoyable and I ask my colleagues and they can’t hear it. Maybe we are wired slightly differently… Fab post! 😀

  5. The notion go drummer as time-keeper is an old idea. As a drummer, I feel the best musicians all have good time and keep good time and interact on a more musical level. And the way one “feels” time or what I like to call “pulse” has a lot to do with what is often called “chemistry”. The music breathes and flows when all the players feel time in a similar way.

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