The Metacognition of Drumming: Interview with Mark Colenburg

From his work with Common, Q-Tip, and A Tribe Called Quest, to gigs with Kenny Garret and Kurt Rosenwinkel, not to mention a Grammy win with Robert Glasper, drummer Mark Colenburg’s resume speaks to his virtuosity and innovative approach to rhythm. I’ve admired his playing for a long time, so I was very pleased to find that he is interested in rhythm cognition and was happy to share some thoughts on his mental and physical strategies as an elite musician and timing specialist. Life as a trainee scientist has been heavy (in a good way) lately, so this piece is a long time coming. Thanks for staying tuned!

ADM: I know you started out really young, but as you developed as a musician, were there any particularly difficult concepts or techniques (e.g., a feel, or maybe a specific series of movements) that come to mind? What was the breakthrough? Was there a mental strategy, a movement, or maybe something like a mnemonic that helped you to finally ‘get it’?

MC: Yes, I did start at the very young age of two. Early on in my development (which is continual), everything seemed difficult. The concept of single strokes, double strokes, and triple strokes, playing those patterns with drumsticks on a floor, was very challenging but so intriguing at the same time. Independence between my limbs, conviction, and tempo control are just a few other challenging concepts that come to mind. My strategy to overcoming some of those humps were intentional quality, effort, learned and unlearned exploring, and time. Using those strategies really helped me to establish a strong foundation mentally, physically and spiritually.  Continue reading “The Metacognition of Drumming: Interview with Mark Colenburg”


The Metacognition of Drumming: Interview with James McRae

This interview is the first in a series I’m calling “The Metacognition of Drumming”. Getting musicians to speak in concrete language about performance and other forms of musicking is notoriously difficult, but it’s crucial that artists, scientists, and amphibians dissolve our hard disciplinary edges. To this end, I will share my conversations with drummers (and maybe a lucky few non-percussionists) in an attempt to articulate these very non-wordy things we do when we play music together.
James McRae is a Vancouver Island institution, a fabulous musician, and a stalwart friend. I’m sad we don’t jam so often since I moved to England, but I’m grateful we could exchange some thoughts on the types of cognitive/active strategies drummers use here. If any readers have a perspective they’d like to share, drop me an email! And stay tuned for the next edition, featuring Robert Glasper Experiment drummer, Yamaha-sponsored artist, and Grammy Award-winner Mark Colenburg.

ADM: What is your approach to groove, both as a drummer and as a teacher?
JM: All music has to feel good. If it doesn’t feel good, people are going to turn away! How much of this is based on groove? A lot, probably. The feel changes based on the tempo. Steady tempos are great, but having metronomic time seems more artificial than natural.

Continue reading “The Metacognition of Drumming: Interview with James McRae”

Feeling It: Movement and Learning Rhythm


Civilised, enlightened, square

Western scientists noticed as early as the Victorian era that rhythm was bound with movement. In his 1894 essay “Rhythm”, Thaddeus Bolton reported to The American Journal of Psychology that no “primitive” person “is able to listen to music […] without making some kind of muscular movements”. He marvels at the effect that “rhythm of drums and the repetition of a simple melody” holds over “certain classes of people, savages and children”. Bolton operated within a colonial framework, and much of his later scholarship was concerned with racial psychology, so it’s unsurprising that he contrasts groove-oriented rhythm against what he saw as higher faculties, best represented in the mature, civilized, rational, and self-controlled white man, a la G. Stanley Hall.

Painful as it is to sift through Bolton’s ideologies, his focus on the “terrible leaping and gesticulations [to] the accompanying tom-tom” is prescient in light of modern behavioural, neurological, and neuroimaging investigations of rhythm. For instance, the way in which we move to a rhythm may impact how we hear it. Researchers found that participants were better at predicting a tone at the end of a series of beats having tapped along, compared to when listening alone, even when they couldn’t hear their own tapping. Using an ambiguous rhythm that could be interpreted in either a waltz or in common time, another group report that children and adults prefer and interpret new rhythms according to how they moved during the training phase, i.e., in 3/4 or 4/4 time. Movement also appears to enhance one’s ability to detect and locate an interrupted beat, when compared to listening-only conditions, especially for non-musicians. Intriguingly, we may even covertly move to music: anticipatory muscle activity while tapping to a rhythm differs substantially from unpaced movements, yet muscles show an almost identical preparatory profile during “passive”, or immobile, listening.

Functional brain imaging studies that use rhythm tasks or stimuli show activity in what are traditionally considered the motor areas of the brain, even when experimental subjects are lying perfectly still—not that MRI machines are ever really conducive to dancing.

If you love hiphop, thank your basal ganglia

These regions typically include the basal ganglia, cerebellum, and cortical motor areas. Moreover, evidence from people who have Parkinson’s disease, which affects the basal ganglia, suggests that their ability to process rhythms with a beat may be compromised. These and corroborating data lead some cognitive scientists to argue that our ability to perceive and process rhythms are entirely based in action: whether covert, imagined, or arising from past motor experiences.

But could movement play a role in learning rhythm, especially qualities like groove or swing? Continue reading “Feeling It: Movement and Learning Rhythm”

Book Review: Music and Embodied Cognition by Arnie Cox

Music and Embodied Cognition
Listening, Moving, Feeling, and Thinking
Publisher: Indiana University Press (September 6, 2016)


In their essay Down with Disembodiment; or Musicology and the Material Turn, Holly Watkins and Melina Esse call for for “A musicology that navigate[s] the ‘mind/body problem,’” one that “expand[s] self-awareness beyond the limited domain of symbolic thought.”[1] Hotly debated by cognitive scientists since the 1980 publication of George Lakoff and Mark Johnson’s Metaphors We Live By, Conceptual Metaphor Theory (CMT)  assumes that semantically sophisticated notions do not arise as output from a dislocated mind, but are instead facilitated by one’s bodily experiences.[2] Lakoff and Johnson turned heads, that is to say, scholars strongly attended to their argument that language—hence thought itself—is rooted in metaphor, and that the primary source domain of metaphor is physical interaction. Influential in linguistics and neuroscience, and preceded by feminist philosophies of the body in art theory and cultural studies, embodied approaches confront the cognitive revolution’s framing of the brain as computer-operator to the body-machine. This bring us, nearly four decades later, to Associate Professor of Music Theory at Oberlin Conservatory Arnie Cox’s book Music and Embodied Cognition, in which he develops a musicological application of CMT.[3]

For such is the present meaning of embodied cognition: Cox’s version roughly amounts to the interpretation of musical experience as viewed through the periscope of semiotic language, an entity often equivocated with “thought”. I contend that semantically-driven bodily awareness and embodied cognition are separable, and that their conflation is problematic particularly for music. That is not to say that Cox’s project is unworthy; on the contrary, actualizing the cerebral Venn diagram that correlates “high pitch” with “high mountain” (p. 92) is of interest to musicians, semioticians, and perhaps mountaineers. With respect to embodiment, however, the knot lies in the insidious notion that language is cognition, or at least its oracle. Cox’s system of gauging embodiment relies on words as both infrastructure and conductive medium. The order of operations in this epistemology of musical experience follows accordingly: (1) non-musical actions are embodied and codified as discourse; (2) this discourse subsequently influences and codifies future actions that are musical; (3) knowledge of embodiment in musical action is advanced through reverse-inference via discourse. In the following review I describe alternative conceptions of musical embodiment that resist contingency on referential mapping.

Let us begin with the voice. Continue reading “Book Review: Music and Embodied Cognition by Arnie Cox”