Journal of Cognitive Neuroscience
Musical rhythm engages motor and reward circuitry that is important for cognitive control, and there is evidence for enhanced inhibitory control in musicians. We recently revealed an inhibitory control advantage in percussionists compared with vocalists, highlighting the potential importance of rhythmic expertise in mediating this advantage. Previous research has shown that better inhibitory control is associated with less variable performance in simple sensorimotor synchronization tasks; however, this relationship has not been examined through the lens of rhythmic expertise. We hypothesize that the development of rhythm skills strengthens inhibitory control in two ways: by fine-tuning motor networks through the precise coordination of movements “in time” and by activating reward-based mechanisms, such as predictive processing and conflict monitoring, which are involved in tracking temporal structure in music. Here, we assess adult percussionists and nonpercussionists on inhibitory control, selective attention, basic drumming skills (self-paced, paced, and continuation drumming), and cortical evoked responses to an auditory stimulus presented on versus off the beat of music. Consistent with our hypotheses, we find that better inhibitory control is correlated with more consistent drumming and enhanced neural tracking of the musical beat. Drumming variability and the neural index of beat alignment each contribute unique predictive power to a regression model, explaining 57% of variance in inhibitory control. These outcomes present the first evidence that enhanced inhibitory control in musicians may be mediated by rhythmic expertise and provide a foundation for future research investigating the potential for rhythm-based training to strengthen cognitive function.