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African drumming: New rhythm in therapy

Drumming therapy can help to reduce anger and tension and increase a sense of wellbeing.


African drumming is one of those activities that I never thought would be meaningful for me. I have no sense of rhythm, I can’t hold a beat and the concept of banging on a piece of skin stretched over wood feels foreign.

Yet, when I started doing drumming circles with my final year undergraduate students as part of their group work training in early 2015, I realised how much more energised and less stressed I felt by the end of a session.

The drumming sessions I participated in typically include the rhythmic beating of a variety of different instruments, including drums. The lead drummer starts with a few basic rhythms to help everyone get used to the feel of the drum and the sounds it makes.

As everyone gets more comfortable, the speed, volume and complexity of the rhythms change, and participants interact more with each other by banging on a neighbour’s drum, shouting or singing, dancing, or doing a drum solo. The lead drummer might also change the instruments used – anything goes, including whistles, maracas, tambourines, rain sticks or a tin can filled with rice.

As the session draws to a close, most participants are laughing, interacting in the group, and banging their drums enthusiastically. The facilitator then ends off the session by speeding up to reach a crescendo, or slowing down for a quiet ending.

Reduce stress

As an occupational therapist, one of my core beliefs is finding things to do that give you meaning, purpose and the experience of success, which can improve your health and sense of wellbeing by reducing feelings of stress.

But it can be difficult to find meaningful activities when we are already feeling depressed or anxious. Instead, stress and worry take over every aspect of our daily lives.

I have included drumming in our occupational therapy curriculum since 2014. I’ve heard more and more from my colleagues about the effects drumming sessions have on the wellbeing of people with acute mental health problems who have been admitted to psychiatric facilities.

Emme du Toit and Juanita Badenhorst, occupational therapists at Sereno Clinic in Paarl who facilitate drumming sessions with inpatients twice a week, believe drumming is particularly effective at reducing anger and tension and increasing a sense of wellbeing among their clients.

Drumming therapy can help to reduce anger and tension and increase a sense of wellbeing. (David Harrison)

Stress buster

Bevil Spence, a drum circle facilitator based in Cape Town, has also seen the benefits of drumming for people. He has been leading drumming sessions with healthy adults, corporate groups doing team building, children with autism, older people living in residential homes and children in schools, for more than 15 years.

“Group drumming is a great stress buster,” he says. “It can be used as a tool to manage stress in a healthy, nondestructive way, which is especially relevant in South Africa at a time when stress levels are especially high.”

The positive effects of drumming that Du Toit, Badenhorst and Spence have mentioned are now being reported on in research.

Scientific research

A systematic review of the benefits of musical activities for people with acute mental health problems such as severe depression and anxiety, published in 2013 in the Public Library of Science, found that there is moderate evidence that actively participating in music activities such as drumming positively affects mental wellbeing.

Stellenbosch University researchers led by Professor Carine Smith in the department of physiological sciences investigated whether drumming had a positive effect on hypertension, stress and anxiety among 35 students and middle-aged adults.

The study, published in the Journal of Cardiovascular Medicine in 2014, found drumming to be a moderate intensity exercise that immediately reduces stress and anxiety for both students and middle-aged adults.

In the division of occupational therapy at Stellenbosch University, we followed this up with a small pilot study among adults with severe anxiety or depression at a private mental health clinic in the Western Cape.

Significantly reduce tension

In our study, due to be published this year, we found that participating in even one drumming session significantly reduced feelings of tension, anger, confusion, depression and fatigue.

In addition, it made no difference whether the participants had any previous exposure to drumming, or whether they were drumming for the first time. They also reported they enjoyed the drumming sessions.

The most encouraging finding was that the more severely depressed or anxious our participants were, the more they benefited from drumming. This finding is particularly important because the worse a person’s symptoms of anxiety or depression, the harder it is to find activities that they enjoy. This means drumming could also be an effective intervention for those not yet able to enjoy doing other therapeutic activities such as adult colouring-in, crafts or exercise.

Further research is now needed across a variety of mental health settings to confirm these preliminary findings.

Having done what I can do in a few drumming sessions, rather than worrying about what I can’t do, and having done some research of my own, I have come to the conclusion that African drumming has the potential to be a culturally relevant and highly adaptable activity to promote mental wellbeing – for those of us with acute mental health problems and for those of us feeling stressed at the beginning of the year.

Nicola Plastow is an Associate Professor, and Head of the Division of Occupational Therapy.