The Therapeutic Effects of Drumming

Drumming Therapy taps into layers of the mind and body that other modalities cannot. Studies have shown that repetitive drumming changes brain wave activity, inducing a state of calm and focused awareness.

The first sound we ever heard while still in our mother's womb was the beating of her heart, and the rhythm of her breath. No matter our race, gender, age, religion or belief system, this common experience exists for all human beings. Rhythm is our natural inheritance. It exists in our bodies, our hearts, and our breath. It exists in the vibration of atoms, the cycles of the seasons, the ticking of clocks, the orbit of the earth.

Drumming is a practice that spans the globe and has a presence in every culture. It has been used for centuries in rituals, ceremonies, communication, rites of passage, music and dance, celebration, healing, community building, and cultural events.

What is Drumming Therapy?

Drumming Therapy is a method of utilizing the natural power of rhythm and sound and applying it to an individual or group for healing. A truly holistic healing approach, group drumming breaks down social barriers, promotes freedom of expression, non-verbal communication, unity and cooperation. Drumming awakens dormant emotions and unexplainable feelings of excitement, peace, and ecstasy. It can elevate the mood, decrease anxiety, and stress, and it boosts immune system functioning and benefits physical health.

Repetitive drumming changes brain wave activity thus inducing a state of tranquil and focused awareness for the psychological, emotional, physical, and/ or spiritual benefit of the individuals. In a therapeutic drumming session, you are guided to achieve a targeted result by sound and rhythm.

The purpose of the drum therapy session, but not limited to are to treat stress, depression or other mental distress or trauma, supporting the body to make physical recovery from illness or disease, building self-confidence and self-esteem and embracing positive working relationships in one`s life.

Drumming induces deep relaxation, lowers blood pressure, and reduces stress. It also helps to control the chronic pain, promotes the production of endorphins and endogenous opiates, the bodies’ own morphine-like painkillers, and can thereby help in the control of pain.

This rhythmic stimulation also synchronizes the frontal and lower areas of the brain, integrating nonverbal information from lower brain structures into the frontal cortex, producing “feelings of insight, understanding, integration, certainty, conviction, and truth, which surpass ordinary understandings and tend to persist long after the experience, often providing foundational insights for religious and cultural traditions.” The more connections that can be made within the brain, the more integrated our experiences become.

Drumming Therapy Applications

Latest studies’ results scientifically validate the therapeutic effects of ancient rhythm techniques. Recent research reviews indicate that drumming accelerates physical healing, boosts the immune system and produces feelings of well-being, a release of emotional trauma, and reintegration of self.

Other studies have demonstrated the calming, focusing, and healing effects of drumming on Alzheimer's patients, autistic children, combat veterans, emotionally disturbed teens, recovering addicts, trauma patients, and prison and homeless populations. Study results demonstrate that drumming is a valuable treatment for stress, fatigue, anxiety, addiction, hypertension, asthma, chronic pain, arthritis, heart disease, mental illness, cancer, multiple sclerosis, Parkinson's disease, stroke, emotional disorders, and a wide range of physical disabilities.

Research studies mentioned below indicate that drumming:

Reduces tension, anxiety, and stress

Drumming induces deep relaxation, lowers blood pressure, and reduces stress. Stress, according to current medical research, contributes to nearly all disease and is a primary cause of such life-threatening illnesses as heart attacks, strokes, and immune system breakdowns. A 2003 study found that a program of group drumming helped reduce stress and employee turnover in the long-term care industry and might help other high-stress occupations as well. A groundbreaking 2005 study demonstrated that group drumming not only reduces stress, but reverses genetic switches that turn on the stress response believed responsible in the development of common diseases. A 2001 study, led by Dr. Bittman, have shown that blood samples from participants of an hour-long drumming session revealed a reversal of the hormonal stress response and an increase in natural killer cell activity.

Helps control chronic pain

Chronic pain has a progressively draining effect on the quality of life, and may become a significant factor triggering depression and suicide thoughts. Researchers suggest that drumming serves as a distraction from pain and grief. Moreover, drumming promotes the production of endorphins and endogenous opiates, the bodies own morphine-like painkillers, and can thereby help in the control of pain. Endorphins are among the brain chemicals known as neurotransmitters, which interact with the opiate receptors in the brain to reduce our perception of pain and act similarly to drugs such as morphine and codeine. In contrast to the opiate drugs, however, activation of the opiate receptors by the body's endorphins does not lead to dependence or addiction. Although more research needs to be done, endorphins are believed to produce four key effects on the body/mind: they relieve pain, reduce stress, enhance the immune system, and postpone the aging process.

Boosts the immune system

A 2001 medical research study indicates that drumming circles boost the immune system. Led by renowned cancer expert Barry Bittman, MD, the study demonstrates that group drumming actually increases cancer-killing cells, which help the body combat cancer as well as other viruses, including AIDS. According to Dr. Bittman, "Group drumming tunes our biology, orchestrates our immunity, and enables healing to begin. It's simply a matter of letting go, joining in and having fun -- Mind Over Matter!"

Alleviates depression

By helping people express their emotions, music therapy appears to be an effective treatment for depression. Twice a week, with the help of trained music therapists, the participants in a 2011 research study learned how to improvise music using a mallet instrument, a percussion instrument or an acoustic, West African djembe drum. Study results demonstrated that participants receiving active music therapy in addition to standard care had a significantly greater improvement in their symptoms than those receiving standard care alone after three months of treatment.

Produces deeper self-awareness by inducing synchronous brain activity

Research has demonstrated that the physical transmission of rhythmic energy to the brain synchronizes the two cerebral hemispheres. When the logical left hemisphere and the intuitive right hemisphere begin to pulsate in harmony, the inner guidance of intuitive knowing can then flow unimpeded into conscious awareness. The ability to access unconscious information through symbols and imagery facilitates psychological integration and a reintegration of self. Drumming also synchronizes the frontal and lower areas of the brain, integrating nonverbal information from lower brain structures into the frontal cortex, producing "feelings of insight, understanding, integration, certainty, conviction, and truth, which surpass ordinary understandings and tend to persist long after the experience, often providing foundational insights for religious and cultural traditions."

Accesses the entire brain

The reason rhythm is such a powerful tool is that it permeates the entire brain. Vision for example is in one part of the brain, speech another, but drumming accesses the whole brain. The sound of drumming generates dynamic neuronal connections in all parts of the brain even where there is significant damage or impairment such as in Attention Deficit Disorder (ADD). According to Michael Thaut, director of Colorado State University's Center for Biomedical Research in Music, "Rhythmic cues can help retrain the brain after a stroke or other neurological impairment, as with Parkinson's patients..." The more connections that can be made within the brain, the more integrated our experiences become.

Induces natural altered states of consciousness

Rhythmic drumming induces altered states, which have a wide range of therapeutic applications. A recent study by Barry Quinn, Ph.D. demonstrates that even a brief drumming session can double alpha brain wave activity, dramatically reducing stress. The brain changes from Beta waves (focused concentration and activity) to Alpha waves (calm and relaxed), producing feelings of euphoria and well-being. Alpha activity is associated with meditation, shamanic trance, and integrative modes of consciousness. This ease of induction contrasts significantly with the long periods of isolation and practice required by most meditative disciplines before inducing significant effects. Rhythmic stimulation is a simple yet effective technique for affecting states of mind.

Creates a sense of connectedness with self and others

In a society in which traditional family and community-based systems of support have become increasingly fragmented, drumming circles provide a sense of connectedness with others and interpersonal support. A drum circle provides an opportunity to connect with your own spirit at a deeper level, and to connect with a group of other like-minded people. Group drumming alleviates self-centeredness, isolation, and alienation. According to music educator and leadership consultant Ed Mikenas, "Drumming provides an authentic experience of unity and physiological synchronicity. If we put people together who are out of sync with themselves (i.e., diseased, addicted) and help them experience the phenomenon of entrainment, it is possible for them to feel with and through others what it is like to be synchronous in a state of preverbal connectedness."

Provides medium for individual self-realization

Drumming helps reconnect to the core, enhancing our sense of empowerment and stimulating creative expression. “The advantage of participating in a drumming group is that you develop an auditory feedback loop within yourself and among group members—a channel for self-expression and positive feedback—that is pre-verbal, emotion-based, and sound-mediated.” People in a drum circle are expressing themselves through his or her drum and listening to the other drums at the same time. “Everyone is speaking, everyone is heard, and each person’s sound is an essential part of the whole.” Each person can drum out their feelings without saying a word, without having to reveal their issues. Group drumming complements traditional talk therapy methods. It provides a means of exploring and developing the inner self. It serves as a vehicle for personal transformation, consciousness expansion, and community building. The primitive drumming circle is emerging as a significant therapeutic tool in the modern technological age.

Helps us to experience being in resonance with the natural rhythms of life

Rhythm and resonance order the natural world. Dissonance and disharmony arise only when we limit our capacity to resonate totally and completely with the rhythms of life. The origin of the word rhythm is Greek meaning "to flow." We can learn to flow with the rhythms of life by simply learning to feel the beat, pulse, or groove while drumming. When drummers feel this rhythmic flow, especially at a slower, steady beat, they can shift into a state of deep relaxation and expanded awareness. It is a way of bringing the essential self into accord with the flow of a dynamic, interrelated universe, helping us feel connected rather than isolated and estranged.

Releases negative feelings, blockages, and emotional trauma

Drumming can help people express and address emotional issues. Unexpressed feelings and emotions can form energy blockages. The physical stimulation of drumming removes blockages and produces emotional release. Sound vibrations resonate through every cell in the body, stimulating the release of negative cellular memories. As a counselor of at-risk youth, Ed Mikenas finds that, "Drumming emphasizes self-expression, teaches how to rebuild emotional health, and addresses issues of violence and conflict through expression and integration of emotions." Michael Winkelman, a leader in neurotheological perspectives on shamanism, believes that drumming and other shamanic altered states of consciousness activities can also address the emotional needs of addicted populations. In his 2003 article, "Drumming Out Drugs," Winkelman concluded that, "Drumming circles have important roles as complementary addiction therapy, particularly for repeated relapse and when other counseling modalities have failed."

Places one in the present moment

Drumming helps alleviate stress that is created from hanging on to the past or worrying about the future. When one plays a drum, one is placed squarely in the here and now. One of the paradoxes of rhythm is that it has both the capacity to move your awareness out of your body into realms beyond time and space, and to ground you firmly in the present moment. It allows you to maintain a portion of ordinary awareness while experiencing non-ordinary awareness. This permits full recall later of the visionary experience.

Drum circle etiquette

Drum circle events of any kind, are about dynamic interactive musical and personal relationships. These relationships, when involved in any group rhythmical alchemy event, are based on a simple set of unwritten guidelines. When adhered to, these relationship guidelines can help direct the group of players to their highest musical potential.

In culturally specific circles, these unwritten guidelines have been developed through centuries of ancestral evolution. They can also apply to any contemporary western version of a drum circle, from a "free-form" drum jam to a facilitated community rhythm event. These unwritten musical and personal relationship guidelines are contained within what I call Drum Circle Etiquette. To most drum circle regulars, Drum Circle Etiquette is just a set of nonverbal agreements that everyone adheres to in order to create a fun and exciting musical experience together.

Here are some standard general guidelines:

* Don’t wear rings, watches, or bracelets while playing drums. This protects the head on the drum as well as the drum itself from the metal. It also protects your hands.
* Ask permission before playing somebody else’s drum. For some drummers, his or her instrument is a very personal possession. Also, if someone gets up and leaves the circle to get a drink or go to the bathroom, don’t immediately jump in and take their seat. In some drumming communities, the drummers will put something on their seat, cover her or his drum with something, or lay their drum on its side to signify that they will be back.
* Listen as much as you play. By listening to what is going on in the circle as you play, you will have a better sense of how you might fit into the groove that is being created.
* Support the fundamental groove that you hear in the drum song being created in the circle. You do not have to be a rhythm robot and hold down the same part all night long. There is plenty of freedom within the fundamental groove to experiment with while expressing your rhythmical spirit.
* Leave rhythmical space for other players in the circle to express themselves. Do not fill up the space with your own notes so much that there is not much creative space left for the other players.
* Play at the volume of the group. If you can only hear yourself, you are probably not having a constructive musical relationship with the rest of the players in the circle. Good volume dynamics create good relationship dynamics. Play softly enough so that you can hear everyone around you. While you are drumming, be sure to follow and support the dynamic changes in volume and tempo that the group will go through during a drum circle event.

Advice for first comers

Along with the standard drum circle etiquette’ suggestions, there are few recommendations for beginners who are joining a drum circle event for the first time:
* Enjoy the Journey. In all the excitement, do not forget to have fun. Although it will help you to follow the simple Drum Circle Etiquette guidelines, you do not really have to be an experienced drummer to fully participate and have a good time.
* Don’t worry even if you might think that you are rhythmically challenged. Just get started and you will find rhythms inside of you that you did not know you had. All you have to do is actively participate in the drum circle event and the excitement and rhythms that will surround you will pull out of you exactly what you need to fully contribute to the group song. You do not even need to play a drum. You can bring a simple percussion instrument, like a shaker, a bell or a wood block. They are a lot easier to play than a hand drum.
* Support the drum community experience. If you are participating in a drum circle event for the first time, the best way to play is with an attitude of humility and support. Be very observant of the actions and reactions of the more advanced drummers who are playing in the circle and you will learn a lot quickly.
* Keep it simple. Listen for, then play along with, and around the pulse that will always be somewhere in the music. It is like keeping the side of the pool within reach, as you are learning how to swim. The simple pulse will always be there for you to “grab on to” if you ever get rhythmically lost while playing. Once you are comfortable with what you are playing, you can explore deeper rhythmical waters. Just keep the pulse in site.
* Every rhythm event is different, and has its own particular variations of Drum Circle Etiquette. If you are not sure what is appropriate, just ask somebody. They usually will respond with supportive suggestions.

How to find Drum Circle near you?

There are many websites, listing the available drum circles by geographical location. But, I would recommend Meetup as the first place to start your search, as it lists the biggest amount of groups, and information is always updated.

Note that in most cases, you do not need even to bring your won drum, if you do not have one. Regular members are usually bringing extra instruments for newcomers. 

Sources and Additional Information:


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