Rhythm & Health

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.’     

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


Drumming as a social metaphor  

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.

African Drumming in the West

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.

Stress and Anxiety Relief

A 2014 study published in the Journal of Cardiovascular Medicine enrolled both middle-aged experienced drummers and a younger novice group in a 40-minute djembe drumming sessions. Their blood pressure, blood lactate and stress and anxiety levels were taken before and after the sessions. Also, their heart rate was monitored at 5 second intervals throughout the sessions. As a result of the trial, all participants saw a drop in stress and anxiety. Amongst the older drummers, systolic blood pressure dropped.

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.

Improved Brain Function

A 2014 study published in the Journal of Huntington’s Disease found that two months of drumming intervention in Huntington’s patients (considered an irreversible, lethal neurodegenerative disease) resulted in “improvements in executive function and changes in white matter microstructure, notably in the genu of the corpus callosum that connects prefrontal cortices of both hemispheres.”[ix] The study authors concluded that the pilot study provided novel preliminary evidence that drumming (or related targeted behavioral stimulation) may result in “cognitive enhancement and improvements in callosal white matter microstructure.”

Pain Reduction

A 2012 study published in Evolutionary Psychology found that active performance of music (singing, dancing and drumming) triggered endorphin release (measured by post-activity increases in pain tolerance) whereas merely listening to music did not. The researchers hypothesized that this may contribute to community bonding in activities involving dance and music-making

Improved Immunity 

A 2001 study published inAlternative Therapies and Health Medicine enrolled 111 age- and sex- matched subjects (55 men and 56 women; mean age 30.4 years) and found that drumming “increased dehydroepiandrosterone-to-cortisol ratios, increased natural killer cell activity, and increased lymphokine-activated killer cell activity without alteration in plasma interleukin 2 or interferon-gamma, or in the Beck Anxiety Inventory and the Beck Depression Inventory II.”

Music and Educational Achievment

A growing number of studies have demonstrated the relationship between music education and wider educational achievement.

Dr. Nina Kraus from Northwestern University in the USA has published a number of studies showing that “Music Education Can Improve Brain Function, May Close The Gap Between Rich And Poor Academic Performance.” Dr Kraus found that “community music programs can literally ‘remodel’ children’s brains in a way that improves sound processing, which could lead to better learning and language skills.” While musical instruction is bound to help any child, the results of her study suggest it may be even more important in disadvantaged children because of its ability to give them “the extra “boost” they need.” She is referring to the gap between academic achievement of affluent and low-income students, a gap which has been shown to have grown by about 40 percent since the 1960s. Interestingly, Dr Kraus has concluded not only does exposure to music lessons physically stimulate the brain and change it for the better, but that simply being exposed to music education does not seem to be sufficient, you have to also be actively involved. Previous research by Dr Kraus, published in the Journal of Neuroscience, indicated that the community music program can literally ‘remodel’ a child’s brain in a way that improves sound processing and was the first direct evidence that the music training has a biological effect on children’s developing nervous systems.

Drumming, young people and behavioural problems

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 powerful 2001 study published in the journal  Evidence-Based Complementary and Alternative Medicine  found that low-income children who enrolled in a 12-week group drumming intervention saw  multiple domains of social-emotional behaviour improve significantly, from anxiety to attention, from oppositional to post-traumatic disorders.

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.

Drumming and Focus, The Work of Jeff Strong

Groundbreaking research by ethnomusicologist Jeff Strong has shown that drumming can facilitate long-term behavioral and cognitive improvement in individuals with neurological disorders. Strong developed the “Rhythmic Entrainment Intervention” which is a “MusicMedicine therapy program utilizing recorded hand drumming rhythms to stimulate the central nervous system and improve brain function.”

One of they key concepts informing Strong’s work is that of entrainment. 

Drumming rhythms can influence the human body because of a phenomenon of nature called entrainment. Entrainment is defined as a synchronization of two or more rhythmic cycles and was first discovered by Dutch scientist Christian Huygens in 1665. While working on the design of the pendulum clock, Huygens found that when he placed two of them on a wall near each other and started them at different times, they would eventually end up ticking in unison. Entrainment has been found to be a universal force in nature and will act on any two or more vibrating bodies as long as they have similar rhythmic cycles.

Working with the concept of entrainment, Strong has developed “Rhythmic Entrainment Intervention” which is “therapy program utilizing recorded hand drumming rhythms to stimulate the central nervous system and improve brain function.”

Strong has discovered that

Rhythm also acts as an energizer of the nervous system, increasing neuronal activity and exciting the entire brain region even in people with severe neurological disorders. An unpredictable or varying rhythm causes the nervous system to activate in an effort to decipher it and find a pattern. This can a have an enhancing effect on learning and creativity.

Strong and his colleagues have had considerable success working with children with autism and other neurological disorders. You can read an account about the calming effects of drumming on autistic children and their effect on improving language and communications skills here, and stopping aggressive behaviour in autistic adults here.

You can read more about the work of Jeff Strong at www.stronginstitute.com  and http://jeffstrong.com/

UCLA Arts and Healing and the Beat The Odds Project

Beat the Odds is a “trauma-informed program that integrates activities from group drumming and group counselling to build core strengths such as focusing and listening, team building, leadership, expressing feelings, managing anger/stress, empathy, and gratitude.”

The ‘Why Drumming’ section on their web-page makes for interesting reading for those interested in the therapeutic role of drumming and rhythm. Here are some excerpts :

Drumming is a universal activity that is part of every culture. It is equally enjoyed by boys and girls. The National Education Association advocates the use of the arts as a “hook” for getting students interested in school. Drumming gets students interested in school. (Verdugo, 2006)

Drumming is an inclusive nonverbal activity that enables anyone to participate – even those who do not speak, do not speak the same language, or are wheelchair bound. No previous experience is required for participation.

Drumming, without expectations of perfection or mastery, reduces self-judgment and performance anxiety and encourages a growth mindset that is essential to learning and academic performance, and greater participation in classroom activities. (Gunderson et al., 2013; Moser, Schroder, Heeter, Moran, & Lee, 2011)

Creative expression that embraces mistakes as part of the learning process can bring the missing element of joy and laughter to the lives of traumatized children. The arts are uniquely capable of enhancing positive emotions, which in turn build resilience (Frederickson, 2012; Tugade & Frederickson, 2004). Children are empowered by discovering that they don’t need to be stuck in their feelings.

Active music making engages large areas of the brain, which quite literally crowds out stress, grief, and pain. It also keeps us in the present moment. (Tramo, 2001) In addition, repetitive rhythm promotes the relaxation response (Crowe, 2004) and can bring calm and centering through contained energy release. All of these aspects of drumming can calm stress reactivity in the brain after exposure to trauma and enable rational brain functions of sequential thinking, decision–making, and social behavior that are inhibited by trauma. (van der Kolk, 2014)

Traumatic stress responses inhibit speech center activity in the brain, which interferes with our ability to articulate what we are thinking and feeling. On the other hand, when under stress, we are hardwired for activity in visual, movement, and sound centers of the brain for self-protection. Therefore, drumming offers a non-verbal means of self-expression and engagement that can be useful in addressing trauma. (van der Kolk, 2014)

Rhythmic synchrony (a form of empathy) stimulates a reward center of the brain and leads to positive behavior. (Kokal, Engle, Kirschner, & Keysers, 2011) Synchrony, or mirroring, is akin to having a voice and being heard. Trauma expert Bessel van der Kolk, in The Body Keeps the Score, notes that: “Trauma almost invariably involves not been seen, nor being mirrored, and not being taken into account…Children will go to almost any length to feel seen and connected.” Beat the Odds® gives them this opportunity in a way that feels organic and safe. The experience of connection and safety provides an essential point of reference for resilience and, thus, is key to healing trauma.

With drumming, one can participate as much or as little as one likes, yet still be engaged and feel part of the group. Drumming is a contained activity, as everyone is seated, and participants feel safe behind their drum. Shared creative experiences offer organic opportunities for meaningful dialogue, development of empathy, and community building. (Freire, 1973) And they offer an opportunity for embodied social-emotional learning that is enduring. For example, “when students that don’t ordinarily get along are brought together for a positive shared experience, they form a group identity. One school counselor that we worked with noted that when she incorporated the use of a drum into her counseling groups, the students enjoyed sharing while drumming and stopped fighting with each other because, ‘you don’t beat up a member of your group.’ ” (Ho, Chinen, Streja, Kreitzer, & Sierpina, 2011)

Studies of group drumming with adults have shown measurable improvements in biological, psychological and social measures of stress, particularly when reflection and self-disclosure are incorporated. (Bittman et al., 2001; Fancourt, Perkins, Ascenso, Carvalho, Steptoe, & Williamon 2016) Research with other age groups also supports the benefits of this process. (Kirschner & Tomasello, 2009; Gerson, Schiavio, Timmers & Hunnius, 2015; Ho, Tsao, Bloch, & Zeltzer, 2011; Bittman, Dickson, & Coddington, 2009; Koyama et al, 2009)

Rhythmic strategies can be utilized easily in classrooms as a kinesthetic tool for facilitating learning, cooperative behavior, and a positive classroom environment.

Drumming offers an opportunity for students to shine, particularly those who struggle with academic subjects, and provides a positive activity alternative to unhealthy choices that might otherwise be made.

The Drumbeat Project, Western Australia

Describing itself as “the world’s first structured learning program using music, psychology and neurobiology to reconnect with ourselves and others”, the Drumbeat Project in Australia has conducted some impressive research into how drumming can be used to tackle a variety of mental health problems in young people. A summary of the studies they have authored can be viewed here.

Further reading into one of their studies “Drumming to a New Beat: A Group Therapeutic Drumming and Talking Intervention to Improve Mental Health and Behaviour of Disadvantaged Adolescent Boys” reveals the following observations :

  • World-wide up to 20% of children and adolescents experience a mental illness and in many countries suicide is the leading cause of death for young people.
  • Mental disorders are an antecedent to self harm, suicidal thoughts and suicide, and a precursor to adulthood major depression, anxiety disorder, illicit substance abuse/dependence, and intimate partner violence victimisation.
  • A constellation of other health risk factors is associated with poor mental health in youth including antisocial behaviour  (i.e., aggression, rule-breaking and oppositional behaviours),  lower physical activity, smoking and alcohol consumption.  These behaviours have a distinct impact on an individual’s long-term health, academic prospects and future employment.
  • Persistent antisocial behaviour is associated with mental health problems, substance dependence, financial problems and criminal behaviour in adulthood.
  • Adolescent antisocial behaviour leads to high social, interpersonal and financial costs to individuals, families and communities  and is an ongoing stress and burden for teachers and school administrators.

  • One study has noted that activation of the brainacoustic sensory streams (as measured using electrophysiological and autonomic instrumentation) led to changes in mental health and dysfunctional behaviours in youth diagnosed with generalised anxiety disorder or adjustment disorder.
  • Music therapy has also been seen to improve behavioural and developmental outcomes in children and adolescents with psychopathology.

DRUMBEAT is a multicomponent programme incorporating therapeutic use of music (i.e. drumming on a djembe), group therapeutic discussions and relationship building to assist people experiencing, or at risk of problematic health and social outcomes.

The programme includes goal setting (with a focus on generating competence and confidence) and culminates in a group performance to an audience. After an initial session, incorporating learning base rhythms and developing group guidelines, six learning modules are covered including (1) rhythm of life, (2) relationships, (3) harmony, (4) individuality and self-expression, (5) emotions and feelings and (6) teamwork. Sessions eight and nine focus on developing and practicing harmonies to deliver at the performance scheduled for session ten.

The success of the project was evaluated using a variety of instruments :

  • The Warwick Edinburgh Mental Wellbeing Scale (WEMWBS)
  • The Kessler 5 Psychological Distress Measurement Instrument
  • The Abbreviated Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) Checklist – Civilian version
  • The Adapted Self-Reported Delinquency Scale (ASRDS)

Analysis of all participants in the project suggested reduced antisocial behaviour and improved mental wellbeing post-DRUMBEAT. There were significant improvements in boys’ mental wellbeing, post-traumatic stress symptoms and antisocial behaviour after DRUMBEAT when compared to programme start. These changes were not evident for girls.

Following participation in the DRUMBEAT programme, on average boys’ recorded 7.6% higher WEMWBS scores (mental wellbeing), 19.3% lower A PCL-C scores (post-traumatic stress symptoms) and 23.9% lower ARSDC (antisocial behaviours).