The Social Benefits of Rhythm

Musical training is a more potent instrument than any other, because rhythm and harmony find their way into the inward places of soul, on which they mightily fasten, imparting grace, and making the soul of him who is rightly educated graceful, or of him who is ill-educated ungraceful; and also because he who has received this true education of the inner being will most shrewdly perceive omissions or faults in art and nature, and with a true taste, while he praises and rejoices over and receives into his soul the good…
Socrates, The Republic III


The peak experience, the vision of another world, or another level of living – melts into or fuses over into dancing or rhythm. The rhythmic experience, even the very simple rhythmic experience –the kinds of things that kids do with drums- music, – athletics, an awareness of and respect for the body – these are clearly good paths to peak experiences.

Abraham Maslow, The Farther Reaches of Human Nature


The best bit about it was all the noise we could make and not get told off about it!

Primary school pupil after workshop with Kakatsitsi


Since the dawn of humanity, rhythm and dance have played a central role in ritual ceremonies and building community awareness. Historically, it is in Africa, and perhaps West Africa in particular, that this phenomenon has been developed to the highest technical, social and cultural levels.                                   

Rhythm and dance are languages of positive emotion. They are at the heart of community promoting empathy, a deep and lasting bond between individuals and to the natural world, the central building block of all moral and social development and hence a core ingredient in contemporary notions of ‘citizenship,’  ‘environmental education’ and ‘diversion from risk.’        

Drumming is a social metaphor. The interaction of the various component instruments, and the rhythms they play, can be understood to represent a harmonious community in which the contribution of each individual integrates with that of those living, or playing, around him. The common culture of the drumming community is embodied in the traditional rhythms, chants and dances that are passed down through the generations or is newly imagined by the master drummers, the custodians of the tradition.

The heartbeat of the collective rhythm is the bell, the smallest yet most important part of the ensemble that keeps the group together. Junior drummers always begin on the bell, learning the root of the tradition and how to play it correctly irrespective of what is being played around them. Once the bell has been mastered, the apprentice drummer will graduate to the backing drumming parts, which he must learn to play in time with the bell. Most of the time the rhythm is played in simple repetition, but as he matures, a drummer will learn to insert small variations whereby he will alter a component part of the rhythm before returning immediately to the original pattern. Overtime, the variations may become integrated into the rhythm, which may therefore evolve over the course of a session. The one component that never changes, however, is the bell, the objective core of the rhythm against which the individual drummers achieve their definition.

African drumming traditions are strictly observed, though different communities within the wider tribe will have their own interpretations – a harmonious balance between conformity and diversity. In the same way, the more experienced and mature drummers within a community may improvise solo patterns which are layered on top of the traditional backing. Sometimes the solos will be played with the rhythm, in harmony with and therefore reinforcing the community around the individual soloist.  At other times, the soloist will come off the rhythm completely, yet the backing rhythm continues as before, maintained by the concentration and discipline of the more junior drummers. After a while, the individual soloist will finish his moment of expression and return to the fold and rejoin the enduring communal rhythm.

In the West, drumming communities inevitably lack the cohesion seen in Africa, reflecting not only the lack of time for a mature Western drum culture to evolve, but the more individualistic nature of Western society. Most western drum jams are characterised both by an absence of adequate technique – the essential building blocks required for evolved playing – and an over-abundance of individual creativity existing parallel to a lack of communal cohesion. Less experienced players are often seen struggling to maintain a rhythm, confused by the playing of those around them and lacking the essential building blocks provided by tradition. Invariably, the self-taught drummers who are able to keep a simple rhythm grow impatient playing the backing rhythm and prefer to express their individuality through a solo. Often these solos feed the egos behind them – played loudly and incessantly and without sensitivity to those trying to keep a simple backing rhythm. Sometimes the solos will be played out of time with the backing, distracting the less adept backers who lose their concentration and their rhythm, causing the entire collective to disintegrate. Another manifestation of the western drumming ego is when a more experienced player will seek to increase the pace of the collective pattern to a point where less adept players will start to fall off. The race is won when only the most able players are left, showing off their talent to their would-be admirers or everybody drops out leaving the racer the winner.

In Africa, the more traditional, collective approach sees the more experienced drummers always play with and in support of his colleagues, not seeking to compete against them. Junior drummers spend considerable periods acquiring the discipline and concentration that many westerners are too impatient to acquire, such that western drum circles do not enjoy the strong foundation of their African counterparts, where respect for the collective and the need for harmony between senior Master Drummers and their junior colleagues provides the context for the celebration of individual talent.


Drumming and Health

The links between drumming and health, in its various guises, is well documented. In the traditional setting, drumming, dance and chanting serve to generate and reinforce a strong sense of local community and identity, in contrast to the prevalent atomisation and subsequent alienation of western industrial society. Traditional drumming is inherently participatory, with every member of the community offered a creative avenue, in contrast to the often stark division between audience and performer in the west. Membership of a strong creative community provides a sense of belonging that many identify as a basic human need, generating a sense of social and spiritual security that is an integral component of broader concepts of social health.

In the west, drumming is used in a wide variety of settings to treat a similarly wide variety of conditions. A growing number of corporations use drumming as a means of relieving stress amongst their workers, preventing burnout and reducing staff turnover rates. American drum manufacturer LP Percussion have concluded that:

Drumming affects us physically, mentally, and emotionally in profoundly uplifting ways. This is why people all over the earth have drummed in some manner throughout history. In the past few years, studies conducted in hospitals and universities (some commissioned by the US Senate and the Veteran’s Administration) have documented the health and healing aspects of drumming. Playing drums, whether solo or with a group of people, relieves stress, increases vitality and puts us in the transcendent state of clarity and heightened awareness that athletes sometimes call the Zone. In fact, drumming is very much like the athletics, and martial arts. In all these activities we practice repetitive movements until they become effortless, powerful and intuitive. In drumming, these movements result in patterns of sounds, that is rhythms. This repetitive movement and sound relaxes our conscious minds and allows the subconscious mind to guide our movements spontaneously, unencumbered by the conscious mind’s tendency to analyse and control our movements. One result of this state is the release of stress.

Commenting on research conducted by Dr. Barry B. Bittman, medical director of the Mind-Body Wellness Centre in Meadville, Pa on the effect of drumming on the physical and psychological health of participants in a regular drum circle, Professor Barbara J. Crowe, director of music therapy at Arizona State University concluded that

We know sensory input, particularly hearing, activates emotional states and that positive emotional states are good for the immune system. Drumming circles promote a positive emotional state by enhancing people’s sense of belonging and helping them release repressed emotion.

One effect of such a state is an increase in Interleukin-2, a protein made by the body that causes infection-fighting cells to multiply and mature. Psychologically, drummers in the Bittman study reported feeling less stress and less depression, as reflected on two psychological tests – the Beck Anxiety Inventory and the Beck Depression Inventory.

Drumming has also been shown to have a significant beneficial effect on young people with behavioural problems, developing skills such as commitment, self discipline, motivation, tolerance and co-operation. A drumming project at Castle School in Leamore – a special school for students with moderate learning difficulties, special emotional and behavioural, speech and communication needs, and varying degrees of autism – revealed that drumming can have “an impact in changing a culture of negative student behaviour, using drumming to form solid relationships and advocate the importance of respect, trust and self-belief”

Laureance Friedman, a American a psychotherapist and drum circle facilitator reported that

The drum is a great way to channel emotions that can’t be spoken. Sometimes people – especially children and adult males – can’t quite find the right words to say. With drums, you don’t necessarily have to find the right words. You just hit them, and it’s a very healthy exercise. One of the things we all need – one of the vital elements of life as a human being – is to feel heard and to make connections with others. The drum is one of the vehicles to make this happen. When a person hits a drum, any kind of drum, they’re immediately transported into the present moment. That’s good for stress levels, because stress is usually about the future or the past. In the present moment, it’s very difficult to be stressed.


Drumming has also been used to counter gang activity, replacing the sense of community and belonging found by alienated young people in a gang with that found in a drum circle. Barbara J. Crowe, Project Coordinator of Gang Prevention through the Arts in Phoenix, Arizona, confirmed that

The idea of a gang is very old. It’s taking a basic human need for identification; that in itself is not bad, what is bad the criminality. We are creating a village of drumming to create cohesion. Drumming allows us to do this in non-criminal and non-violent ways.

The ‘Drumming Out Drugs’ Project also revealed the way in which communal rhythm can act as a complementary treatment for drug addiction. In the American Journal of Public Health, April 2003, Michael Winkelman wrote that

Drumming produces pleasurable experiences, enhanced awareness of preconscious dynamics, release of emotional trauma, and reintegration of self. Drumming alleviates self-centeredness, isolation, and alienation, creating a sense of connectedness with self and others. Drumming provides a secular approach to accessing a higher power and applying spiritual perspectives.

Because addicted people are very self-centered, are disconnected, and feel isolated even around other people, the drumming produces the sense of connectedness that they are desperate for, he says.

All of us need this reconnection to ourselves, to our soul, to a higher power. Drums bring this out. Drums penetrate people at a deeper level. Drumming produces a sense of connectedness and community, integrating body, mind and spirit.

Ed Mikenas in “Drums, not drugs”, Percussive Notes. April 1999 wrote that

Drumming reinforces other programs for both prevention of and recovery from addiction in a community context. Drumming emphasizes self-expression, teaches how to rebuild emotional health, and addresses issues of violence and conflict through expression and integration of emotions. Drumming also provides opportunities for coordinating sound and movement to assist in mental, physical, and emotional development processes. The pulse of drumming in a context that combines self-expression helps coordinate activities and solve problems. Drumming teaches nurturing, respect, participation, and personal relationships. Drumming changes speaking, feeling, and acting, and helps you learn to act from the heart. Because group drumming gives participants different roles, individuals have to coordinate their parts. Therefore, they must focus on others. This gives them an experience with working together in a structured way.

Mikenas considers the benefits of drumming to include enhanced sensorimotor coordination and integration, increased bodily awareness and attention span, anxiety reduction, enhanced nonverbal and verbal communication skills, greater group participation and leadership skills and relationship building, and self-skills for self-conscious development and social and emotional learning.