The Healing Drum, Part 2

By Kalani • January 24th, 2011

...Continued from Part 1

You might be surprised at the shear amount of information that is floating around on the internet and in books about the healing powers of drumming. Most of it comes from anecdotal evidence, people's first- or second-hand stories about 'drumming' and 'healing.' I'm by no means implying that people don't have positive experiences after drumming. They do. It's just difficult to quantify and even more difficult to predict because there are so many individual factors that have to be accounted for. One person might have a wonderful story about an illness and how he/she recovered from it using drumming. As they say "Correlation is not causation." It's difficult to say what causes us to 'heal' or feel better. Often there are many contributing factors to getting better (healing), not the least of which is our body's natural healing process. A person could likely do some drumming while healing. It's more challenging to prove that they healed because of drumming.

Healing can be assisted by a healthful diet, rest, sleep, proper and appropriate exercise, stress reduction, and many other strategies, including receiving various therapies. It's very natural for someone to believe that it was one specific thing that caused a 'healing' to occur and it's more than likely that it was a combination of many things. People sometimes tell stories about having a challenge and how 'drumming' helped them get through it. When you have a challenge in life, it's often a good idea to do things that you like, things that help you feel better. As mentioned above, when you're not thinking about what's wrong, that's a good thing. But was it the drumming that made the difference or was the drumming one of many things they did while they were getting better? Without scientific (evidence-based) research, it's hard to say.

An important factor in drumming programs (groups that are often led through a step-by-step process that includes drumming) is not only what the participants  are doing, but who is leading the session. Take for example, a study that was done by a group of doctors to measure the effects of 'drumming' on the immune system (Bittman et al 2001). They theorized that drumming would produce a positive change in the participants' immune system, based on the premise that 'drum circles' had been used in 'healing rituals' since antiquity (a statement that is difficult to verify and probably not historically accurate, but let's take it as a given.) What they were surprised to find out, is that the drumming actually was having a negative effect on people's immune systems. That's right. It was stressing people out. Now. Understand that these people were not drummers. They were first-time drummers, meaning that they had no prior experience or bias around drumming. So the researches consulted with a Board-Certified Music Therapist who designed a new intervention for them. This became known as "Group Drumming Music Therapy" (later, changed to "Composite Drumming"). In the final study, they had several groups of research subjects participating in a variety of different activities including reading, listening to recorded drumming music, participating in a basic recreational drumming session (drumming 50% of the time), impact drumming (drumming 80% of the time),  shamanic drumming, and "group drumming music therapy."

In the "group drumming music therapy" intervention, participants were introduced to each other, then led through a "lighthearted" game that made everyone laugh (about 10 minutes). After receiving some basic drumming instructions, they were guided in tapping out the rhythms of their first and last names on drums. This provided the foundation for a short drumming segment (about 20 minutes). After the drumming segment, subjects were led through two short guided imagery activities (30 minutes total). Following all the sessions, blood samples were taken and analyzed. As it turned out, the "composite drumming" intervention did produce small but measurable positive shifts in stress indicators. Since other studies have shown that humor (laughter), positive social experiences, and skillful guided imagery can all have positive effects on the immune system, the question remains "Was it the drumming that did it, or the other elements?" To answer this question, more research is needed. What we can be certain of, is that drumming can be a part of a positive overall social/musical experience. Of course, history has already shown us that and many of us have experienced it first-hand.

Would it be reasonable to claim that, because of the above study, 'drumming' has been proven to lower stress levels and boost the immune system? The researchers stated that more research is needed in order to make claims about the potential benefits of drumming, so perhaps not. This study does raise some interesting questions about the role of drumming and in what ways it might contribute, or not contribute, to positive immune system shifts. From examining the data that was collected, it would appear that, in general, the groups that did less drumming had a lower stress response. Drumming without humor or guided imagery seemed to have no measurable health benefits, according to the study. What then, is the role of humor and imagery? Would a group that focused on laughter and imagery show greater health benefits than a similar group with drumming? What about the person running the group? The other drumming groups were led by community-based instructors, while the experimental group was led by a music therapist. What was the effect of having an experienced music therapist run the "composite drumming' session as opposed to an instructor or facilitator?

Since the experimental group was the only one that showed statistically significant improvements in stress indicators, would it be fair to claim that this study showed that music sessions that were led by a Board-Certified Music Therapist showed statistically significant improvements in subjects immune system indicators versus sessions that were led by non-MTs? Because this is what the data shows, it appears that this interpretation would be valid. Without more research, it's difficult to make predictions and claims about what various forms of drumming could do for people, in terms of healing. The person leading the session has a lot to do with it, since so many aspects of a session are formed in-the-moment and shaped according to a person's level of training and experience. Chances are that people with different backgrounds and experience will have very different outcomes, even if they use the same program. Other questions that future studies could answer include" How long did the effects last? How does a drumming intervention compare with other activities, such as drawing or meditating? What are the effects of leader training and experience on outcomes? To better serve consumers of drumming and promote healing, these , and other questions need to be explored.

Whether  you approach drumming from an educational, recreational, social, performance, therapeutic, or spiritual perspective, there's probably a way to make your drumming experience feel right for you - and that, my friends, is all you really need to do. Personally, I wouldn't worry about whether or not the drumming is 'massaging your body' or 'boosting your immune system.' I would just do it because you like it and be thankful that you have the opportunity to share it with others. It's all pretty self-evident when you let go and enjoy what you do. As far as making claims that drumming has the power to heal. It's probably safe to say that it has the potential to help, but that environmental, social, personal, and other factors, including the experience of people who present drumming programs, need to be taken into consideration. There are many ways to 'drum' and it's probably best to find which ones feel the most 'healing' for you. At the end of the day, it comes down to personal preference. Take people's claims with a grain of salt, but give it a try. The worst that can happen is that you will have spent an hour drumming, which is a pretty good way to spend your time.


Bittman, B. et al (2001). The effects of group drumming music therapy on modulation neuroendocrine-immune parameters in normal subjects. Alternative Therapies, Vol. 7, 1

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