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Nadia Azar, UWindsor Kinesiology Associate Professor, is studying the biomechanics and muscle activation patterns of drummers.Nadia Azar, UWindsor Kinesiology Associate Professor, is studying the biomechanics and muscle activation patterns of drummers.

Breaking down the beat: Studying the biomechanics of drummers

Nadia Azar enjoys concerts differently than you and me.

Packed into a music venue, swaying with the crowd, Dr. Azar narrows her focus on the musician at the back of the stage.

“What you’re supposed to be thinking about when you’re at a rock concert is what’s going on with the drummer’s back muscles, right?” Azar joked.

Azar, an Associate Professor of Kinesiology at the University of Windsor, has launched a study into the biomechanics and muscle activation patterns of drummers.

The idea for the study came while watching drummer Mike Mangini of Dream Theater perform.

“I wanted to know what his back muscles were doing to keep him upright during those high-force, high-velocity dynamic movements,” Azar said.

“He’s got both his arms and legs going, they’re usually doing different things at different times, and so I started digging into the research on drumming biomechanics.”

Azar said she quickly realized that very little research had been done to date on the subject.

So, when Mangini tweeted about his technique, Azar responded that she would love to study his form – and he agreed. Jeff Burrows, the drummer for The Tea Party, also heard about Azar’s research and offered to get involved.

The Tea Party's Jeff Burrows performs at the Horse Shoe Tavern in Toronto while wearing a BodyMedia Armband. (Photo courtesy of Adrienne Jones/UWindsor)

The Tea Party's Jeff Burrows performs at the Horse Shoe Tavern in Toronto while wearing a BodyMedia Armband. (Photo courtesy of Adrienne Jones/UWindsor)

In November and December, Azar attended four of Burrows’ and Mangini’s live shows (two each with The Tea Party and Dream Theater) and equipped them with the BodyMedia Armbands, which contain sensors that monitor movement, sweat, skin temperature, and heat flux.

“A computer program uses all that information to estimate how many calories the person burned during that period,” Azar explained.

“So, we were able to get the total calories for the entire show but also a song-by-song breakdown.”

Prior to this study, Azar’s focus had been on occupational biomechanics, pain mechanisms, and the impact of exercise on adults with autism spectrum disorder and an intellectual disability.

Azar said although the armbands don’t provide any information about the biomechanics of drumming, she’s using them to demonstrate how physically demanding drumming is, and also how it can be a suitable form of exercise.

“Maybe you have a child who is not interested in traditional forms of exercise like going to the gym or joining organized sports, this is a viable option,” she said.

“When you get to the point when you can play along with music …  you are still going to get as good of a workout as you would if you rode a stationary bike for half an hour.”

Phase two of Azar’s research will be to distribute an online survey to drummers of all skill levels to document injuries associated with drumming.

“The survey is sort of the ground zero for figuring out where we need to go from here, to see which aspects to study more in depth and find ways that we can help them prevent injuries,” Azar said.

“My goal is to do for drummers what sports science has done for athletes.”

She said the survey will include questions about playing-related characteristics like drum kit setup, style of music played, and hours spent in practice and performance, but also lifestyle characteristics like personal exercise routines.

Because so little research exists in this field, most of the injuries she’s heard of are anecdotal.

“Largely upper limb injuries, wrist problems, but I don’t have a good sense of the overall pattern,” she said.

Those interested in participating in the survey or learning more information can follow Azar on Twitter or Facebook  (@DrNadiaAzar).


Dylan Kristy

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