Imagine being cursed with a headache right before a live gig. Your head is pounding as you set up the drums. You try to keep your eyes half closed as the bright, hot lights sear into your skin. You’re ready to set the PA on fire if the background music gets any louder. It’s the worst time for a headache to strike, and you’d do anything to make it go away.
Without realizing it, you’re about to do something that may help you get through the next hour: play the drums. And by the end of the set, you might have even forgotten about the pain.
It sounds counterintuitive, right? Wouldn’t loud noises, physical exertion, and concentration make your headache worse? Believe it or not, drumming may be a natural painkiller. While it isn’t guaranteed to cure physical pain by any means, there’s strong evidence that it has its own analgesic properties.
Do you get a major rush after playing? Do you feel happy, exhilarated, and even ‘high’ after you walk offstage? It’s not just you. The phenomenon is commonly known as ‘runner’s high’, which describes the euphoria, reduction in anxiety, and higher pain tolerance typically felt by people after they go for a run or perform aerobic exercise for an extended period of time.
A University of Oxford study looking at pain threshold and positive mood concluded that active, vigorous performance of music generates similar effects. In the drumming world, it’s being referred to as ‘drummer’s high’.
Increased pain tolerance comes from a release of endorphins, a morphine-like substance created by your body. They produce a similar euphoria to opioids – except they’re free, legal, and don’t come with a risk of overdose. According to this study, continuous drumming likely triggers an endorphin release in the central nervous system. Since interruptions can lessen the euphoric effects, you’re more likely to experience it during a long rehearsal or gig.
While listening to music is well known to have emotional effects, achieving the ‘drummer’s high’ takes more than just listening to music. Researchers concluded that it’s the act of playing music that activates the endorphin release.
The results of this study may also have social and evolutionary implications. Throughout history, many different cultures have included drumming as a group activity, and research shows that playing music together can strengthen social bonding and cooperation – explained at least partially by endorphin release.
It’s amazing how many bonus rewards we get just for doing something we love. Increased pain tolerance aside, drummers also tend to be happier and experience other major health benefits. If you’re ever feeling down or unmotivated, a long session on the drums might be just what the doctor ordered.
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