Can drumming improve brain function?

The effects of a rock drumming intervention on children with additional educational needs

The situation

Combining physical activity, music and four limb coordination into an engaging and enjoyable activity, rock drumming has become renowned as a powerful model for physical activity research.

The Clem Burke Drumming Project (CBDP) was founded in 2008 by Dr Clem Burke (drummer, Blondie), Professor Steve Draper (Academic Dean of Research and Knowledge Exchange, Hartpury University) and Professor Marcus Smith (University of Chichester).

What initially set out to examine the physiological demands of playing ‘live’ during one-off and multiple gigs has grown into an exploration of the overarching physical, mental and health benefits of drumming. The research has been pivotal in revealing the impact of physical activity through drumming on brain plasticity in autistic disorders.

Project partners

The process

Fourteen schoolchildren, aged 12-14, took part in the study using electronic drum kits arranged in a circle around the tutor’s kit. Lessons were 30-40 minutes, twice per week for 10 weeks and included instruction as well as playing to popular music in the classroom.

Pre and post the intervention, the children were assessed for motor skill (ABC2) and teachers completed the Strengths and Difficulties Questionnaire (SDQ).

In addition, an electronic record of all lessons was made by capturing the MIDI data from the electronic drum kits. Focus groups were also held with parents and teachers post intervention to investigate benefits beyond those seen at the drumming lessons.

The impact

The project supported scientists' previous work that demonstrated playing leads to structural changes in the networks of the cerebellum. These sit below and behind the main structure of the brain and are associated with plasticity; the ability to change as the result of experience. Preliminary results showed;

  • A vast improvement in movement control while playing the drums, including dexterity, rhythm, timing.
  • Movement control was also enhanced while performing daily tasks outside the school environment, including an improved ability to concentrate during homework.
  • A range of positive changes in behaviour within school environment, which were observed and reported by teachers, such as improved concentration and enhanced communication with peers and adults.

Focus groups indicated that parents had also seen profound changes in behaviour and motor skill. For example, one child could successfully clean their own teeth properly for the first time by the end of the short intervention. Children involved in the study were also able to perform for their parents and carers for the first time in their school life.

An accessible resource

Steve has made many appearances on national and international media and spoken about his research and events includes Cheltenham Science Festival and the Dublin Science Gallery. CBDP subsequently released a short animated short video to make the scientific investigation more accessible to a wider audience.

“It is exciting to see our findings communicated in such an engaging and accessible way,” Steve explains. “There is enormous potential to improve physical and mental wellbeing through learning to drum.”

Watch the video

Research at Hartpury

Research is central to life at Hartpury. Every year we support projects across a wide range of subject areas that help drive positive change. Many have gone on to be published and presented at conferences worldwide.

With expertise and experience spanning all areas of agriculture, animal, sport, equine and veterinary nursing, our academics are actively involved in research and knowledge exchange. Studies undertaken here are often embedded in larger scale research projects.

Our research centres