To the beat of the drum

What springs to your mind when you hear an African drum beat? Perhaps a celebration, concert or a traditional ritual could be taking place? However, modern science is recognising a novel use for this popular musical instrument – in therapeutic healing, aptly called drum therapy…

Drumming1 What is drum therapy?
If the word ‘therapy’ creates the mental image of a clinical setting with a therapist in a white coat hitting a drum, that’s far from what actually takes place. People from all backgrounds and life experiences sit together in a circle, with various sizes of drum straddled between their legs or placed on their laps. Different instruments like maracas (a Mexican rattle filled with dried seeds and beads, and made of either wood or plastic) are at hand to provide a variety of sounds.

“The goal of the drum circle is to play as one. You don’t need to know rhythm or be a drumming expert to participate, just listen to the music and bring your own sound,” explains Robert Harris, Director of Drum Therapy Australia, who runs restorative drumming workshops for all ages including those suffering from degenerative diseases like dementia and Alzheimer’s.

2 What does a drumming session sound like?
As drummers start playing together, the deep and guttural boom of drums fills the air, followed by a few maracas emitting a ‘chink, ka-chink’. Basically, anything that can be hit to create sound is used.

The rhythm is led by the therapist, reaching a climax at one point and falling to a soothing wave in the next. There’s something both primitive and magical about this ancient beat that reaches deep inside your heart.

“It’s quite common to see a display of emotions, change in mood or spontaneous movements like breaking into song or dance from drummers overcome by the rhythmic beats in the drum circle,” says Robert.

3 How will drumming therapy help me?
When a person starts drumming, there’s a positive change in the brain mimicking the state of one in deep meditation. Psychotherapist Robert Lawrence Friedman, in his book The Healing Power of the Drum, reports that both sides of the brain work together to produce two opposite moods, making the drummer feel both energised and relaxed simultaneously. Usually only the left or right side of the brain is dominant as we carry out tasks in our daily lives.

Drum therapy is backed by a growing number of research studies, which show that it can play a vital role in healing the body and mind – promoting a sense of wellbeing and a stronger immune system.

Drumming is especially beneficial for those people who suffer from stress. High stress levels cause the body to stay in the fight-or-flight mode, which can lead to illnesses, mood swings and even depression in the long term. Drumming together with others relaxes the mind and body, helping to release any negative feelings, including stress.

Group drumming sessions also help boost the immune system by increasing the number of white blood cells in the body. Neurologist Dr Barry Bittman found that white blood cells were highest in those groups where drummers were relaxed and felt strong harmony with other group members.

Try a drumming session if you’re looking for a different wellbeing experience, or create your own drum circle by gathering a group of friends to play together. “You don’t even need drums – use anything you can hit, scrape or shake for instruments to get the same health benefits,” explains Robert Harris. You’ll relax, have fun and leave feeling euphoric, with a few extra white blood cells!