Tuesday, March 17, 2009

Drum Circles

Drum circles are groups where people gather to pound drums together: producing, hearing, and appreciating rhythms.

The perception of rhythm is one of the core elements of human experience.

Over hundreds of thousands of years of human evolution--even before the development of culture--the perception of rhythm must have been a very important part of daily life experience.

Here are some examples of rhythms that have been part of life experience for millions of years:

-The rhythmic pounding of ocean waves
-The beating of the heart (as perceived by feeling the pulses through touch, by feeling a throbbing, excited heart in the chest, or sometimes by hearing one's own or someone else's heartbeat)
-The rhythm of breathing (regular and soft in a calm state, rapid or erratic in anxious or excited states, irregular in various particular ways as a person is crying or sobbing; or when a person is dying, e.g. Cheyne Stokes respiration)
-The chirping of crickets or the croaking of frogs (these rhythms being affected by human proximity)
-The rhythm of work tasks (e.g. preparing some kind of meal or building some kind of structure would involve repetitively pounding, picking, or working with a material, and if this was a monotonous, laborious task, a rhythm would naturally form to help the person "get into it")
-The rhythm of human footsteps (steady and strong when feeling confident and certain, rapid or timid when frightened, stomping when angry)
-The rhythms of the human voice. Before the development of languages over 50 000 years ago, probably a great deal of communicative content between humans would have been based on "non-verbal" vocalizations, which would have emphasized tonal quality but also rhythm. Today vocal rhythms are most obviously part of the expressive content in poetry and song.
-Part of rhythm includes silence. It is the "empty space" between sounds. There was a lot more silence in pre-modern cultures.

Upon the development of human culture, starting perhaps 50 000 years ago, rhythms would have been generated spontaneously as a part of creative expression, as celebration, or as ritual.

In modern culture, perhaps a lot of the ancient, prehistoric aspects of rhythmic perception have been "drowned out". In urban environments, we have a lot of cacophonic, industrial sounds, or multiple sources of sounds all coming at us at the same time. There may not be very much silence at all. I suspect that this cacophony is a contributing factor to life stress, and one of the variables increasing the rate of mental illness (there are certainly many studies showing increased prevalence of various mental illnesses in urban environments). As a corollary, I believe that spending time developing one's musical and rhythmic experiences is beneficial to mental health.

As a therapeutic modality, drumming could help people in various ways:
1) as a form of meditative focus
2) it involves physical action: it is a form of exercise as well as a form of tactile stimulation
3) it helps to focus attention: it is a form of mental exercise, as well as a means to distract mental energy away from anxiety or other negative emotions
4) it can be an endless source of intellectual stimulation, with hearing or producing increasingly complex rhythms and cross-rhythms. This can evolve to become a source of esthetic enjoyment, also leading to appreciating rhythm in other aspects of life and music more richly.
5) it can be a social activity, in which other members of the group can be guides or teachers: in drum circles, individuals need not be skilled in drumming or in generating complex rhythms--exposure to the group permits a social learning experience
6) similarly, a drum circle could be a good setting to deal with performance anxiety or social anxiety, in the comfort of an encouraging and accepting group
7) it can simply be a healthy, enjoyable form of stress management
8) drum circles can be a means to build community: the experience combines elements having to do with conformity (maintaining the same rhythm together) and with individuality (each person may have a separate or special rhythmic role or task) -- both such elements are required to have healthy community life

In Vancouver, I know of one regular drum circle group, which has been open to anyone interested. The leader of this group, Lyle Povah, has done interesting work with drum circles as part of an inpatient eating disorders treatment program. Here's his website:

There may be similar groups in other communities across the world, and I encourage people to research this, and to consider checking one out.

1 comment:

dcsimo said...

Hi Garth,

As I was reading your article I was reminded of a seminar I went to on Anger. The seminar was conducted by a Michael Currie a psychologist in Australia. He uses drumming as a means for working therapeutically with aggressive adolescent boys. Here's a link if you are interested.


Such an interesting way of using drumming circles.