The Healing Drum, Part 1

By Kalani • January 21st, 2011

You've probably been hearing and reading a lot about the healing effects of drumming, especially on-line. That's likely because more and more people are turning towards drumming as a way to release stress, make personal connections, and do something that's just plain fun. Another reason you hear more about it is because more people are creating drumming-based programs, attending drumming-based courses, and creating businesses that are based on the idea that drumming can be used as a healing modality. What is behind this movement? What are some of the claims people are making? and how much of those claims can be backed up?

Drumming is perhaps one of our oldest forms of music making, besides singing. It's one of the first ways children 'make music' and the rattle, a percussion instrument, is one of the first items we give our children. The rattle is considered by some to be a 'purification' instrument and is said to mirror the sounds of the mother's voice as heard by babies while in the womb. Would listening to or using a rattle, as a way to connect with the 'pure' (pre-world) self be a form of healing? Perhaps.

Drumming, weather alone or in a group, is a mental, physical, and emotional activity. Rhythmic patterns can very mathematical and even as complex as an algebra equation. Just study Indian drumming for a few years and you will likely agree!. The physicality we experience while drumming can be powerful and primal, from striking a large drum with a big stick, to slapping an animal skin with our bare hands. Members of the Japanese percussion group Koto are in extremely good shape. They need to be in order to play the way they do - very intensely and for long periods of time. The question is: Do they work out in order to drum or are they fit because of the drumming. The answer is probably, Yes! There are several drumming programs that focus on the fitness or work out aspect of drumming. Does that count as healing? Intense, physical drumming can certainly help you break a sweat, which helps process and release toxins, and can help reduce blood pressure. So, in a way, physical drumming could be though of as one form of healing.

Emotionally, drumming can be both frustrating and exhilarating. Frustrating when you're trying to master a certain technique or rhythm pattern, and exhilarating when you get it. I've personally gained self-confidence through the practice of drumming. As someone who suffered both academically and emotionally from having a learning disorder at a young age (dyslexia), I can attest to the power of drumming to carry one through tough times and help boost self-confidence (no reading in drumming! - until you get into the high school band! Oops). Even as I write this post, I struggle with spelling, but it's OK because no longer is anyone is grading my work, telling me that I just need to "try harder" and making me feel like I'm not smart because I can't spell. Thanks to drumming, my self-confidence is where it should be and thanks to spell-check, so is my writing. So, if drumming can help someone feel more confident, and that confidence can be generalized to other areas of life, then I think that could count as healing. After all, the general definition of the term 'healing' includes a 'return to one's natural state.' I think it's natural to be confident and feeling good about one's self. Don't you?

It seems that many are fond of citing 'ancient peoples' when asserting the healing powers of the drum, but who are these people? It's hard to say, since thay are - well - ancient. It would be great if they were around to answer some questions, but since they're not, we'll have to imagine. According to some people who have researched ancient drumming traditions, such as Layne Redmond, author of "When the Drummers were Women," drumming was used as part of rituals that were performed by priestesses. These folks were few and far between and used drumming in very specific ways, usually to accompany singing. They were certainly very specialized and highly skilled in what they did. They played drums in specific ways and worked for the benefit of the community. It's hard to say if just anyone can pick up a drum and do what those shaman did. If drumming, as a craft, was an important and specialized form of ritual, then it's doubtful that simply playing a drum without that knowledge could have similar results.

We know that the ritualistic use of music and its effectiveness depend largely on cultural context. That is to say that a particular rhythm (or song or dance) could have deep meaning for someone in a particular culture and no meaning for someone outside of that culture. Consider the ways certain cultures use specific expressions, gestures, and customs to communicate meaning. If you're an outsider, you could even end up insulting someone without knowing it! These cultural aspects are subjective and vary greatly from culture to culture and from era to era. Because of this, it's not likely that 'rituals' from one culture and time period would carry the same meaning and/or potency for anyone not from that culture or time. So when someone does an 'ancient healing drum ritual,' it may or may not have an effect. It probably depends on who is doing it and the people it's done for. Like most rituals, if you believe in and expect something to come from it,  it probably will, at least to some degree. So - Did the 'ancients' use drumming for healing? Probably in some ways. Can we use those same rituals today? Sure (If you can find out what they were!), but it's hard to say what the outcome would be.

What about drum circles? Well, drum circles are fun, but it's hard to say if they're healing or not because there's not really any research on the subject. A drum circle is a jam session, which means that people get to play whatever they want and don't have to worry about following instructions, performing, or even playing. They can start and stop anytime they feel like it. They don't even have to know how to drum! Wow - I wish we had that when I was a kid. I guess we did. It was called kindergarten music time! I suppose it's up to each individual to say whether or not they felt better after participating in a drum circle. It's probably safe to say that someone could expect as much healing from a drum circle as from any other recreational activity, as long as the person doing it is enjoying themselves. What seems to be important in these cases, is not what's happening on a musical level, but more on a personal level. Stress is usually related to how one perceives his environment (unless he's actually being chased by a tiger). Today's stressors are often more intellectual and emotional than physical, so drumming might be a way to escape from worry and regret, freeing the mind to be in-the-moment. Usually, things are not so bad in the present moment, at least in developed countries. When people who do a lot of worrying, such as 'modern working types,' they can really get stressed out. participating in a music-based experience where you don't have to worry about anything (because no one is looking over  your shoulder, telling you what to do, or even requiring that you do anything specific) could be an opportunity to express, relax, relate, and find some self-healing. Can we make a prediction about any of this happening? Probably not, but if people show up to drum, it's likely they're getting something positive out of it, which is a good thing.

Music therapists sometimes use drumming in their work. When they do, it's often within very specific types of treatment strategies that are meant to help clients in certain ways, such as helping them to increase their range and depth of movement, or make interpersonal connections. In music therapy settings, the term 'healing' is usually not used because it tends to be vague and imply that someone is 'being healed' by someone else - a claim that is ethically shaky and very difficult to verify. A music therapist would more likely use a term like "treatment" or "intervention" to describe what they do, so healing doesn't really fit into the music therapy model, unless the music therapist is working in a different setting. Music therapists often do provide recreational, supportive, and other types of services. Although those services are not music therapy, the MT brings with him/her a vast skill set that can only add to the possibilities when it comes to reaching a positive outcome. More on that later. Let's get back to healing in Part 2 of this post.



By Carol Shively Mizes on January 27th, 2011 at 1:46 pm

There is research in drum circles; check out Dr Barry Bittman who has done several good studies. Also, drumming with people who have drug and alcohol addictions (google it)

I’m familiar with Dr. Bittman’s studies (See part 2 of this article). His involved various programs that use drums and drumming. I’m not sure that I would call those drum circles because they were not improvised as such, but rather structured. I would love to see the research you mentioned. If you could provide a citation, that would be useful. There are some articles on the web about drumming with various populations. As I mentioned, many of those are ‘stories’ rather than studies. It’s important to know who did it as well as how the drumming was used. Thanks for sharing.


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