Saturday, 11 July 2015

How Drumming Changed The Way My Brain Processes Music

How Drumming Changed The Way My Brain Processes Music by Omar Cherif, One Lucky Soul

Three weeks ago, I found through my Finnish bungalow-mate, Jarkko, that there is an Underworld concert at the Hollywood Bowl. I thought it would be a cool event and we agreed to go together. We had our raving days back in our early 20s and it has been while for the both of us. So we were excited to listen to some oldskool electronic music after all those years.

Sunday afternoon, I left the Venice Beach Drum Circle early and we took an Uber from Venice and headed over there. We had a single beer each before entering the concert as the band had just started playing. This was around 8 pm.

Underworld began smoothly, slowly increasing the BPM (Beats Per Minute) with every song. The audience consisted of several thousand people, most in their late 20s and 30s. 

At some point, maybe two or three songs through, I noticed something peculiar: I realised that my brain is processing the music differently than how it used to. I sort of knew that a certain beat will fade and another one will come in. It was like I’m seeing a blueprint of the melody and rhythm of the music played — there was some visual pattern involved. The light show with the different colours also had a lot to do with the energy of the experience.

What is worth noting is that I only know two Underworld songs from my heydays: Pearl’s Girl and Born Slippy — the famous track from Trainspotting. So everything else was completely new to me.

I was also not on some pills or tripping on anything. In fact, I was quite conscious, only naturally excited. Yet, I could somehow ‘see’ and anticipate the music on a deeper level which I had never experienced before, especially when ‘sober’. This kept happening up until the end of the concert.

How Drumming Changed The Way My Brain Processes Music by Omar Cherif, One Lucky Soul
“Without music, life would be a mistake.”
― Friedrich Nietzsche

As I shared my experience with Jarkko, I remembered the fact that music is one of the few activities that practically uses and stimulates the entire brain. Music literally “lights up” the brain as it activates areas responsible for motor actions, emotions, and creativity.

There are fireworks going off all over the brain,” as worded in the simplified Ted Talk video by Anita Collins added at the end of the article.  

I also remembered researching the topic when I first heard about it; and I learned that playing a musical instrument is an intense multisensory and motor experience, which eventually leads to acquiring specialised sensorimotor skills.

The new thing in my life is that I have been religiously drumming every Saturday and Sunday for the last year. This is roughly about 10 hours a week, amounting to 520 hours of drumming. Therefore the rational explanation as to why I’m processing music differently is that I have been playing an instrument for all these hours.

Further, I usually drum with my eyes closed as a sort of meditation, so naturally this practice must have affected me one way or another.

I equally hold that because this instrument is specifically a drum, there is a lot of correlation with the electronic music in terms of beats, rhythm, and repetition. I have been listening to my usual music from Rock, Blues, and Soul, but I didn’t really sense any major difference. This, however, is the first electronic music event I attend after starting to play the djembé. And this is the first time I experience music in such a way. 

You can check the following photo-video articles for lots of cool visuals: A Year at the Venice Beach Drum Circle in Photos & Videos (2014-’15), Another Year at the Venice Beach Drum Circle in Photos & Videos (2016-’17), One More Year at the Venice Beach Drum Circle in Photos & Videos (2017-’18).

How Drumming Changed The Way My Brain Processes Music by Omar Cherif, One Lucky Soul

Now, in Cognitive Neuroscience, the term used to explain the ability of the brain to change in response to learning and experience is Neuroplasticity — also known as Brain Plasticity.

Research in the field has shown that, contrary to the previously-predominant idea that changes in the brain were only possible during infancy and childhood, the brain never stops changing through learning. The reason being is that it has a remarkable capacity to alter existing pathways as well as create new ones.

This confirms that training the mind, having a hobby such as music playing, or inducing specific modes of consciousness can have valuable and lasting healthy effects. Meditation, yoga, and other mindfulness practice could equally cause behavioural and mental changes due to changes in the very brain structures.

Neuroplasticity, however, remains a fairly new field of scientific study. So only recently — perhaps the last two decades or so — has research been able to show that learning to play a musical instrument has a direct impact on other functions, such as the ability to multitask and to understand emotions in the voice, as well as speech perception.

Generally, brain plasticity results from experiences which require our full attention, engage the brain through emotion, and are repetitive. This is the exact case with music. This is why it has proven to modify the structural and functional organisation of the brain in response to changes in environmental input.

Even though listening to music has soothing and beneficial effects, for it engages and activates multiple areas of the brain. But a study from Northwestern University has revealed that to enjoy the full cognitive benefits of music, one has to be actively engaged in it, and not just listen as it was previously thought. The so-called “Mozart effect,” which is the belief that certain types of music improves intelligence, especially in the case of children, has already been disproved.

The analogy used by Nina Kraus, one of the co-authors of the study, is that one is not going to become physically fit just by watching sports. For biological changes to occur in the brain and in the central nervous system, one has to be engaged with the sound of music. This engagement requires adept motor skills, which, over time, can allow musicians to solve problems more effectively and creatively; it also enhances the creation, storage, and retrieval of their memories.

You can find more about the subject on this 2010 study: Music Making as a Tool for Promoting Brain Plasticity across the Life Span; as well as a more recent one published in 2015: Musicians and music making as a model for the study of brain plasticity.

Interestingly, there is a whole new field now called the Cognitive Neuroscience of Music, which is the scientific study of brain-based mechanisms involved in the cognitive processes underlying music. These behaviours include music listening, performing, composing, reading, writing, and ancillary activities. It is also increasingly concerned with the brain basis for musical aesthetics and musical emotion.

Being an abstract art form less complex than language, music can indeed help science advance its understanding of the human brain and its mental functions. Knowing that it’s a relatively new field of research, I hold that more will be revealed to us within the next decade.

How Drumming Changed The Way My Brain Processes Music by Omar Cherif, One Lucky Soul
“If I were not a physicist, I would probably be a musician. I often think in music. I live my daydreams in music. I see my life in terms of music.” ― Albert Einstein

More than ten years before I switch to drum circles, I used to go out clubbing and dancing like many young people. Whether it was clubs in London, illegal raves in L.A, or the 50,000-people/25-DJs Inner City in Amsterdam, I sure loved to party. And in that regard, music was and still is everything.

That said, all this electronic music I listened to throughout the years is one way or another still engraved in my mind and soul. Interestingly, now that I regularly drum, I noticed that the tunes unconsciously come unto me, especially when playing solo.
Even Jarkko pointed to the stage at some point during the concert and said: “It reminds me of your drumming.

Moreover, as I came to witness during this electronic event, my brain seems to process music in a novel, and perhaps more sophisticated, way like a series of vibrational echos which somehow “make sense” rather than just a mere sound or noise. It really felt like I'm listening to a harmonious spoken language, despite being devoid of words.
Perhaps this is what neuroplasticity has done. And it is caused by the altering of the neural pathways in my brain and the creation of new ones due to drumming.

In summation, playing a music instrument is one great way to develop the brain and enhance creativity. It also has calming effects, reduces tension and anxiety, and releases emotions. Like sports, I believe every child should be given the opportunity to try. Who knows what could happen.

As for adults, it’s never too late to pick up whatever instrument you may fancy. It sure is one heck of a fun and therapeutic activity. For it truly heals the body, mind, and soul.

To see how things evolved, read the more recent The Intertwining of Music and Sexuality ― A Djembefola’s Tale and Drum Circle Etiquette — The Do’s and Don’ts , both written several years after this piece. And don’t forget the Ted Talk below. 

*All four photos were captured by Jarkko in Los Angeles in July 2015


The Intertwining of Music and Sexuality ― A Djembefola’s Tale

Drum Circle Etiquette — The Do’s and Don’ts

A Year at the Venice Beach Drum Circle in Photos & Videos (2014-’15)

Another Year at the Venice Beach Drum Circle in Photos & Videos (2016-’17)

One More Year at the Venice Beach Drum Circle in Photos & Videos (2017-’18)

How Do We Know We Are Good at Something?

Different Shades of Passion

Who Are We?

My Journey Towards Self-Transcendence

Why I Share Stuff

Dealing with High Awareness and Empathic Accuracy

Why I Choose to Remain a Non-Dad for Now — Reflections on Being Childless

The Evolution of Dance Music Through 20 Years [Videos]
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1 comment:

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