A Quick Guide to Drumming Types

By Kalani • March 7th, 2011

With the rise in popularity and use of group drumming over the past 15-20 years, there are more ways than ever to include these amazing instruments in all types of group experiences. Some of the most popular and publicized include drum circles, traditional drumming, and drumming ensembles of various kinds. The following helps to define some of the major categories and identify the characteristics that make them unique. Note that these types will overlap with each other and that a drumming-based event or program will often include more than one type. Nevertheless, these will help you to identify and choose which types might be the best for a certain situation or to reach a specific goal. There are examples of all of these on-line. Search YouTube to watch. For more on this subject, read the Taxonomy of Drumming Experiences post on the Music Therapy Drumming website.

Traditional Drumming

This is the oldest and still most popular form of group drumming. It is defined by unique cultural traditions that are passed from one generation to the next and preserved as a living tradition, although this does not preclude the introduction of new ideas and modifications. Traditional drumming incorporates a top-down structure, where new players are introduced to the music through receptive methods (listening, dancing, and then singing), then slowly enculturated as a musician through a student-teacher relationship. Players often begin by learning and performing basic techniques and rhythms, working their way towards taking on more central roles and responsibility. Eventually, a musician will move into a leadership position and switch roles entirely, taking on students as a master drummer. Traditional Drumming is what people refer to when they talk about the 'ancients' and 'drumming culture.' You can hear traditional drumming examples in the music of most cultures, especially those of the African diaspora. Traditional drumming is historically done by a few experienced individuals to support singing, dance, rituals, cultural events and performances. Today there are many professional and recreational ensembles that study, practice and perform traditional drumming for any number of different reasons and occasions. Most people who choose to play hand drums participate in some form of traditional drumming.

Drum Circle

A drum circle is a form of recreational community music making, meaning that it is informal, open to anyone who wishes to join in, and largely unstructured. The term "drum circle" appears to be of US origin, made popular in the early 1990's and used to describe any group of people who voluntarily come together to play music on drums and percussion instruments (although other instruments are used as well). Drum circles are defined largely through the fact that the music is largely improvised and not taught, lead, or structured by any outside source. The participants create the music as a collective body, making in-the-moment choices based on individual skills, experience, and musical impulses. Drum circles often begin with a few individuals who gather to play music together and are then joined by others in an informal flow of music and participants.  Depending on the knowledge, experience, and skills of the player, the rhythms that are played can include both traditional and improvised patterns. There is no formal teacher-student relationship; however there might be someone who acts as host or facilitator to help organize and manage the event. A central concept in a drum circle is that everyone plays an equal role in shaping the music, regardless of skills and experience. It is largely because of this feature that people join drum circles as an introductory musical experience (accessible, supportive & open to all ages and abilities). The drum circle is an inside-out or bottom-up process where the result is a product of the collective in-the-moment expression of the participants. Locations include parks, beaches, community centers, etc. Drum circles are also often used as part of a musical program as a way to help people socialize, express themselves, release stress, and achieve other recreational goals. The main purpose of a drum circle is to produce a musical product of community and personal value.

Drum Accompaniment

Drumming to accompany songs is a common form of group drumming, used often in music education, music therapy, and recreational music making settings. In drum accompaniment, players use basic techniques to play along with a song or other musical composition. The rhythm, dynamics, and form is dictated by the song or tune, rather than a leader or by the whims of the players. During drum accompaniment, players will often use instruments that are not so loud that they would drown out singing or melodic instruments. Rhythms are often simple and largely within the participants existing capabilities, rather than being learned and rehearsed. Drum accompaniment is a way to structure and organize drumming while providing everyone in a group with a role to play.

Drum Play

Drum play is a general term for the non-musical use of drums and percussion instruments within an activity or experience. Drum play often includes using instruments as 'Art Objects,' to be considered for their color, shape, size, and non-musical features. Activities are not entirely non-musical, but the main goal is not to produce a musical product, but rather a social one. Drum play can include 'rhythm games' and uses of instruments as props to embellish pantomime, for example. The main purpose of drum play is to use drums and percussion in creative ways.

Guided Interactive Drumming

In this form of group drumming, play is structured and lead by an individual or team of leaders. Guided Interactive Drumming (GID) experiences include instruction, play rules, and specific actions to be performed by the participants as dictated by the leader(s). Participants are often asked to play unison rhythms and accents that are supported by the leader or core team of leaders. GID is very popular for very large groups where everyone is playing the same type of instrument and where the goals are to express unity, power, and working together to produce a group effect. GID is a top-down approach where specific parts are given to participants to perform, although at some point, individuals from the group may be invited to contribute unique ideas for the group to adapt. GID is commonly used in corporate team building and events where a large number of musically unskilled participants will be playing instruments together. The main goal of GID is to promote accessibility, unity, and group cohesiveness.

DCM courses include all of the above group drumming formats and more. DCM Leaders create programs that use one or more drumming types to help their participants reach various goals in a safe and supportive environment.

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