The Metacognition of Drumming: Interview with James McRae

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.

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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