“The drums connected me with something I hadn’t known before, and I felt a huge lump in my throat that was equal parts sorrow, gratitude and joy. When I was coaxed out for my first inter-tribal dance, I closed my eyes and felt the drum and began to move my feet. It was magic. I could dance. It would be a few years before I was graced with the drum teachings of my people, but there was a spiritual connection nonetheless. Once I felt the drum in my chest, the hollowness I’d carried as a displaced Indian kid was gone. In its place was belonging.” — Excerpt from the book One Native Life by Richard Wagamese.
I recently participated in a shamanic drumming ceremony in the ancient, mountainous region of northern Portugal. Flashes of lightening dotted the horizon, accompanied by low rumbling exhales of thunder and a light breeze. Ten people lay scattered on the hard wooden decking, backs comforted by a thin slice of yoga mat, under the atmospheric pressure of the lingering storm.
The shaman, who sat crossed-legged opposite me, signaled that I start to beat the drum dangling from my left hand, whilst setting the desired tempo with the rhythmic movement of her arm. I struck the animal skin of what looked to be an extremely old and well used drum as she guided the group through what is called a “shamanic journey.”
The shaman assisted the navigation with her soothing verbal instructions, which were augmented by the trance-inducing, mind-penetrating drumming. What started off as the simple sound of a beating drum slowly yet solidly developed into a wave of vibration that seemed to shake my entire skull, the brief period between each strike of the percussive instrument seemed to be louder than the initial hit. Much like the use of a mantra or chant during a meditation, the pound of the drum was like a strict mentor refusing to allow their student’s attention to stray from the task at hand.
The group emerged from the other side of this experience with wide smiles and detailed experiences to share with one another. Although stunningly simple, there is an element of drumming that ignites something ancient and ancestral within, something that helps one cross the boarders into ecstasy. But what are the exact mechanisms behind this sensation? Direct and anecdotal experience is one thing, but bolstering experience by investigating history, culture and — arguably more importantly — science, lays the foundations to a solid information platform.
Drumming and percussion are elements of human culture that reach back over many epochs into the depths of antiquity and prehistory. Early drums were forged from the skins of reptiles and fish which were then stretched over tree trunks and struck with sticks. Later drums were materialized using mammal skins and frames.
From a shamanic and aboriginal perspective, the drum maintains a position on the pantheon of what is viewed as sacred. Many native cultures across the globe that developed completely independently from each other’s spheres of influence, from North America to the Arctic Circle to Africa, share common social themes, one of which is the ceremonial use of the drum.
Native Peoples Magazine states: “From the Inuit people of the Arctic region, the salmon and whaling cultures of the Pacific Northwest, and the Northern and Southern Plain tribes, to the Eastern Woodland, the Rio Grande Valley and elsewhere, Indigenous people of North America continue to use drums for dances, ceremonies, games and sacred practices.”
Black Elk, an Oglala Sioux holy man featured in the book Black Elk Speaks by John Neihardt, details the sacred cultural use of the drum from his perspective: “Since the drum is often the only instrument used in our sacred rites, I should perhaps tell you here why it is especially sacred and important to us. It is because the round form of the drum represents the whole universe, and its steady strong beat is the pulse, the heart, throbbing at the center of the universe. It is the voice of Wakan Tanka (Great Spirit), and this sound stirs us and helps us to understand the mystery and power of all things.”
Anthropological evidence makes it apparent that rhythm, drumming and percussion are closely and abundantly intertwined with human culture and also seem to produce quite a profound effect upon consciousness when used in ceremony and with intention.
Sayer Ji, a researcher, author and advisory board member of the National Health Federation, in reference to drumming, remarks: “The experience is so hard-wired into our biological, social and spiritual DNA that even preschool children as young as 2.5 years appear to be born with the ability to synchronize body movements to external acoustic beats when presented in a social context, revealing that drumming is an inborn capability and archetypal social activity.”
Best-selling author, researcher and lecturer, Lynne McTaggart, notes in her book The Intention Experiment: “Although the use of hallucinogenic drugs such as ayahausca is common, many cultures use a strong repetitive rhythm or beat to create that state; the Native American Ojibwe wanbeno, for instance, use drumming, rattling, chanting, naked dancing, and handling of live coals. Drumming is particularly effective in producing a highly concentrated focus; a number of studies have shown that listening to the beat of a drum causes the brain to slow down into a trance-like state.”
Evidently drumming has been implemented by our ancestors over epochs for a variety of reasons in a variety of settings. But what uses does this archaic medium serve for modern day Westerners? Does it still deserve a place in society and, if so, what science is in place to support such claims?
Science has made it quite clear that drumming has some profound and holistic uses to enhance physical, mental and emotional health, as demonstrated in a series of studies and research papers.
Immune boosting and stress reducing: Drumming has been found to increase immunity whilst reducing stress, a condition which plagues the 9-5 work-centric environment of Western culture. A paper published by researchers at the Meadville Medical Center’s Mind-Body Wellness Center in 2001 notes: “Drum circles have been part of healing rituals in many cultures throughout the world since antiquity.” A total of 111 age and sex matched volunteers (55 men and 56 women) were recruited for the Meadville study. Group drumming was found to result in increased immunity, boosting natural killer cell activity and increasing lymphokine-activated killer cell activity. A reduction in the stress hormone cortisol was also found.
Reduced blood pressure: A 2014 study on the benefits of djembe drumming published in the Journal of Cardiovascular Medicine found that drumming may improve cardiovascular health due to the physical nature of playing the instrument, without posing the risk to unhealthy or older populations that may be experienced with more intense forms of exercise. The same study also determined significant decreases in stress and anxiety in both middle-aged and younger drummers.
Reduced pain: A 2012 study published in Evolutionary Psychology, conducted by the University of Oxford’s Department of Experimental Psychology, details how the act of performing of music — as opposed to passively listening — elevates the pain threshold and is connected with endorphin release. The researchers concluded that it was the “active performance of music that generates the endorphin high, not the music itself.”
Transcendental experiences: A 2014 study conducted by the Department of Cognitive Biology at the University of Austria in Vienna states: “Exposure to repetitive drumming combined with instructions for shamanic journeying has been associated with physiological and therapeutic effects.” As well as “a significant decrease” in levels of the stress hormone cortisol, volunteers who were exposed to repetitive drumming combined with shamanic instructions reported experiencing “heaviness, decreased heart rate and dreamlike experiences.”
Increases white matter within brain: A 2014 study on the therapeutic benefits of drumming and rhythm exercises for patients with Huntington’s disease, found that after two months of instruction “improvements in executive function and changes in white matter microstructure” were observed.
Improves socio-emotional disorders: A 2001 study published in the journal Evidence-Based Complementary and Alternative Medicine hones in on how group drumming can impact low-income youth whose social and emotional problems are linked to chronic stress. The authors note that, “Drumming is a non-verbal, universal activity that builds upon a collectivistic aspect of diverse cultures and does not bear the stigma of therapy.” Following 12 weeks of school counselor-led drumming, vast improvements were observed in disorders such as anxiety and PTSD. The authors concluded that the findings “underscore the potential value of the arts as a therapeutic tool.”