Drumming with Persons with Special Needs

By Kalani • May 28th, 2013
Group Drumming - Drum Circle - World DrummingThere's been a lot of talk about the health benefits of drumming. From studies in group drumming as a social tool to the science of brain rhythms, drumming has caught the eye of many who work in (or want to work in) health care settings.

This article looks at some of the current trends and applications and will help you filter through some of the information, and misinformation, that you might run into.

We're going to look at three very small, yet important, words to help us understand how drumming (music) is being used in healthcare settings. The words are: WITH, IN, and AS.


Drumming can be used "with" just about any population, from children to older adults. When use 'with' a specific population, the drumming is usually part of a recreational program. The approach to drumming can take the form of: a drum circle (improvisation with social goals), a musical jam (improvisation with musical goals), a drum class (music lessons), or a performance (music presentation for an audience). What's important to note, is that the drumming is an activity that is being offered to the group as a recreational experience, for fun. Drumming can be done WITH just about anyone. Even if the population has special needs, the drumming is still recreational, just as if the same people went bowling or to the movies.

What you need to know about "WITH"

Just because people have special needs, does not mean that everything that someone does with them is a form of therapy. Someone who provides a drumming experience for persons with autism, for example, is providing a drumming experience, not therapy, unless they are themselves a therapist and the music is an integral part of their program (We'll get to this in a moment). Drumming with any population does, however, often require specific knowledge of that population in order to provide quality service and avoid possible negative effects, such as reactions to loud noises, for example. WITH and FOR can be used interchangeably. You can also provide a recreational drumming experience FOR just about any population.


Drumming can be used 'in" all types of programs. People who are already in a therapy program, weather ongoing or temporarily, can often benefit from group music making and other forms of creative expression. In fact, music and art have a long history of being use in programs aimed at providing some form of therapy. In this case, the drumming is used to complement other components of the program. The program itself is often designed and run by a therapist or other healthcare professional. When used 'IN' a program, the drumming experience may still be recreational, but it is chosen for a reason, such as to help participants get to know one another, to help people bond, or to help them find a way to express themselves without words. The healthcare professional uses the drumming in the program, as one of many components, to help his/her clients reach their goals. 

What you need to know about "IN"

Similarly to "WITH," drumming done "IN" a program is also not itself a form of therapy. It may still take the form of any number of drumming types (drum circles, jams, classes, performance groups, etc.) and be mostly recreational in nature. The difference between "WITH" and "IN" is that in the case of "IN.", the drumming experience is used, for a reason, as part of a treatment program. The person running the program does not need to be specially trained in music, but they are usually trained in some healthcare profession.


Drumming can be used as a type of therapy. When any or all of the many aspects and components of drumming (techniques, rhythms, cultural components, sounds, etc.) are specifically and purposefully incorporated into a treatment program to help the client reach his/her goals, that drumming is used as a form of therapy. The application of musical instruments, the music itself, and the relationships that are formed within the musical experience, to reach specific non-musical therapeutic goals, defines the profession of Music Therapy.  Although music therapists are not the only people who might use music therapeutically, the profession is defined by the use of music and musical experiences, within a client-therapist relationship, to reach therapeutic goals. In the case of music therapy, the musical experience is not simply recreational (as it is in the "WITH" experience), nor is it simply one of many other components (as it is in the "IN" experience). In Music Therapy, the musical experience is the main tool the therapist uses to help the client.

What you need to know about "AS"

Music used AS therapy is not only most commonly provided by a music therapist (someone trained in both music and therapy), it is provided with the understanding that it is the therapist's job to help the client reach specific therapeutic goals and objectives. This is similar to the job of the person who uses music "IN" a therapeutic program, and different than the person who does music "WITH" people with special needs. Because music is being used specifically as a tool (similar to the use of medicine or medical tools by a doctor to treat patients), special training and credentials are needed in order to provide this type of service.
For more about becoming, or working with, a music therapist, visit the American Music Therapy Association's website: musictherapy.org.

What about Therapeutic Drumming or Drum Therapy?

Therapeutic Drumming is a term that has popped up in recent years. It appears to be used when people are referring to the use of drumming both WITH certain populations and IN certain programs. As we know from the above definitions, drumming that is used "WITH" populations and "IN" programs is largely recreational in nature and is therefore, not a form of therapy itself. A more appropriate term for this type of drumming is "Beneficial Drumming" or "Beneficial Music Making." Both these terms are accurate, useful, and are likely to reduce any possible confusion with drumming done as part of Music Therapy; however, it is not necessary to label this type of drumming anything other than simply, 'drumming.'

Drum Therapy is another term that has been created to describe drumming that is done WITH certain populations that have special needs. Similar to Therapeutic Drumming, Drum Therapy appears to include both recreational and/or educational types of drumming experiences. Because 'Drum Therapy' sounds so much like Music Therapy (Drumming is part of music, of course), it is advised that this term not be used and that Beneficial Drumming, or just 'Drumming With' be used instead (i.e., Drumming with persons with autism.)

Ultimately, both the terms Therapeutic Drumming and Drum Therapy (or Drumming Therapy) are not necessary, since neither differ from other types of drumming experiences that are commonly presented by a wide variety of people. (Anyone with ample drumming and facilitation skills can do 'Drumming WITH' or 'Drumming IN'). Because there are no training or certification requirements to provide "Therapeutic Drumming" or "Drum Therapy" they do not constitute professions, yet they have the potential to be confused with Music Therapy.

Whether something is a form of therapy is not determined by the activity itself, but by the application of the activity, the relationship between the people (client-therapist), and the training and qualifications of the person leading the experience. To help make this point clear, consider "Talk Therapy," which is a service provided by a licensed psychotherapist or psychologist. It would be unthinkable, and also unethical, to promote yourself as a talk therapist (or a provider of 'therapeutic talking'), simply because you are 'talking' with people, even if they get some benefit from talking to you. Don't make the mistake of thinking that you are providing a service just because think you are "doing what that person did." There's a lot more to any profession than meets the eye and most healthcare services require some form of training and certification. Creating a term that 'sounds like' an established healthcare service can be confusing to both clients and businesses. 

I'm a facilitator, but I don't have special training in healthcare. Is it OK to offer drumming to people with special needs?

Absolutely! People who live inside institutional settings, or who have limited access to creative and social experiences need those experiences as much, if not more, than the rest of us. Find out about volunteer opportunities in your area and offer your services to as many people as you can. The world needs more music making. When you do visit a facility, do some research on the population beforehand and try to talk to someone at the facility to learn about their community. When facilitating drumming for any population, make sure that you have staff members present in case a client needs attention or you have a question about how to best serve a client. You don't need to call what you do a form of therapy for it to provide real value. We all know that music making can help people feel better. The term "Drumming" is enough.


Now you know that there's a difference between services where drumming is done WITH people, IN a program, or AS therapy. You know that there is a difference between recreational drumming that is done with people with special needs, drumming that is part of a therapeutic program led by a therapist, and drumming that is used by a music therapist. And you know how to define and talk about the kind of drumming experiences that you can offer in a way that is both accurate and ethical. If you have questions or comments, leave them below. We'll answer them here or in another blog post.

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