Tech + Health

07.21.14

Drums Aren’t Just for Music: They’re Therapy, Too

A growing body of research shows that drumming has a positive effect on Alzheimer’s, Parkinson’s, depression, PTSD, and more.

YouTube user MrFasthands65 has posted more than 1,000 videos of himself drumming on top of popular songs. “Fun is learning something and doing it well in your own mind,” Lou, as he’s known on the Web, writes. “Perfection or striving for it is work and ruining your fun. As I aged I realized no one can be perfect, for there will always be some self-proclaimed critic to tell you you're not.” 

But Lou isn’t just drumming for psychological fulfillment. He plays the drums to help combat a very rare neurological condition known as chronic inflammatory demyelinating polyneuropathy, or CIDP. This autoimmune disorder, which affects about seven in 10,000 people, causes numbness and pain in the limbs and imbalance walking. Lou has found that drumming relieves him of these symptoms. And he’s not alone.

Though the field is small, the research behind drumming as an effective treatment for various symptoms is mounting. “Drumming increases T-cell count,” Robert Lawrence Friedman, a psychotherapist based in New York, told The Daily Beast from Switzerland, where he’s leading a drum-based youth leadership workshop. Friedman authored The Healing Power of the Drum, a 2000 book that was the first to explore the relationship between wellness and drumming.

“When people drum, something happens to their brain that only happens when people are drumming together or when people are in deep meditation,” he explained. “The brain usually operates with either the left or right side independently. People generally cycle in 20 minutes per side. But when drumming, we experience something called hemispheric synchronization, where both sides work at the same time. Scientists believe this is the basis of transcendent states of consciousness. People feel two opposite emotions simultaneously: energized and relaxed.”

“She went back to the drum circle the next month and found the same sequence of emotions she experienced the first time: anger, sadness, joy. After nine months she said that all of her anger and sadness had disappeared.”

In 2001, Dr. Barry B. Bittman co-authored a paper titled Composite Effects of Group Drumming Music Therapy on Modulation of Neuroendocrine-Immune Parameters in Normal Subjects. Bittman’s study showed that there was a significant boost in the activity of “cellular immune components responsible for seeking out and destroying cancer cells and viruses were noted in normal subjects who drummed.” In short, drumming can increase the presence of T-cells, the white blood cell that fights viruses.

Remo, the largest manufacturer of drumheads in the world, has a health-science department that corroborates the benefits of drumming outside of music: better of quality of life for at-risk youth, increased bonding and creativity in seniors, improved mood and reduced dropout rates in students, and stress reversal on the genomic level (yes, it appears that drumming can lead to better genes). That 2005 study was also co-authored by Bittman (independently of Remo), showing that recreational music making, particularly drumming, can reverse 19 genetic responses to stress.

Friedman expanded the case for drumming as therapy even further: “I’ve explored how drumming can be used with Alzheimer’s patients and autistic children, giving them an external stimuli. It helps with attention and focus. We’ve also explored therapy with Parkinson’s patients. When a patient listens to the beat, they are able to walk, helping them on a fundamental level.”

Above all, though, the benefits of drumming seem to mostly be psychological and emotional. The Wahlbangers Drum Circle Organization, a group based in Northern California, has been using drumming as an effective treatment for post-traumatic stress disorder in veterans. In 2008, Science Direct Journal published a study titled Drumming Through Trauma: Music Therapy With Post-Traumatic Soldiers. It showed that “a reduction in PTSD symptoms was observed following drumming, especially increased sense of openness, togetherness, belonging, sharing, closeness, connectedness and intimacy, as well as achieving a non-intimidating access to traumatic memories, facilitating an outlet for rage and regaining a sense of self-control.”

Friedman recounted one of his early therapy sessions with a woman who had recently lost a 19-year-old son. She was distraught and sad walking through a park on Long Island when she joined a drum circle on a whim. “After about 30 or 40 minutes she started to feel happy,” Friedman said. “She felt a lightness. She went back to the drum circle the next month and found the same sequence of emotions she experienced the first time: anger, sadness, joy. After nine months she said that all of her anger and sadness had disappeared.”

Most of the research is focused on group drumming. Perhaps this is why Lou, drumming alone in his studio, posts his videos to the Web—the solitude of the drum kit is not as fully beneficial as when drumming with others. In this age, even the tribe is online.