Science and Spirit Magazine: September • October, 2001

Drumming offers a sound addition to modern efforts to ease pain.
By April Thompson

Overwhelmed by depression, pain, and paralysis, Heather MacTavish found herself grudgingly giving up her bookkeeping business and San Francisco apartment. She’d just been diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease on her forty-sixth birthday. In desperation, she sought relief in everything from biofeedback to bodywork—and found the effects were often fleeting.

But her symptoms began to fade when she began beating a djembe, a thigh-high, goblet-shaped drum from West Africa.

“Initially I couldn’t move my arm, but I still tried to drum. Sometimes my brain would just disconnect, and I couldn’t speak or walk or talk for a couple of days. My face would freeze into a mask. Someone in my women’s group noticed it and suggested that they drum for me,” recalls the freckle-faced woman, now fifty-three. Sitting in that bowl of sound, MacTavish says she “was drummed” and the spell broken. Not only could she move, she could drum and dance.

Energized and inspired, MacTavish immediately wrote Tender Drums, The Awakening, a composition that now serves as the theme song for the New Rhythms Foundation in Tiburon, California, of which MacTavish is founding director. And although her symptoms haven’t disappeared, MacTavish notes that she hasn’t fallen since she began drumming, and she always walks out of a workshop with greater ease than she walked in.

MacTavish didn’t make a new discovery; rather she rediscovered something ancient—the healing power of the drumbeat.

Shamans and other healers used it for eons, and today health-care professionals are invoking the drum beat to relieve pain in cancer patients, recover speech in stroke victims, and focus the attention of people with Alzheimer’s.

The benefits of drumming aren’t just psychosocial, according to recent research. Drumming boosts the immune system and alters the body’s response to stress, according to a ground-breaking controlled study conducted in 2000 by researchers at the Mind-Body Wellness Center in Meadville, Pennsylvania, and the Loma Linda University School of Medicine in Loma Linda, California.

Just one session of communal drumming was associated with an increase in lymphokine-activated killer cells and natural killer cells that seek and destroy viruses and cancerous tumors.

“The study is the first of its kind to show a biological reversal of the stress response in healthy people using drums,” says neurologist Barry Bittman, the study’s lead investigator and director of the Mind-Body Wellness Center, where music is an integral part of holistic treatment plans for people fighting cancer, heart disease, diabetes, and other serious illnesses.

“Deep within each of us, there is a sound, a vibration, a rhythm that yearns to emerge,” says Bittman, who hosts the National Public Radio program Mind-Body Matters. “Drumming may be just a wonderful way to express and extend the music of our souls.”

Rhythmic cues can help retrain the brain after a stroke or other neurological impairment, says Michael Thaut, director of Colorado State University’s Center for Biomedical Research in Music in Fort Collins. For example, Parkinson’s patients often suffer from freezing, a condition in which the body stops obeying the brain’s commands to move.

Thaut found that listening to the repetitive sound of a metronome helped Parkinson’s patients synchronize their movements again. His 1994 study details Parkinson’s patients improved rhythm, speed, and length of their stride by an average of 25 percent within three weeks. Thaut’s research team has since conducted clinical and research studies with several hundred patients suffering from stroke, cerebral palsy, traumatic brain injury, and other neurological disorders, consistently finding that music and other rhythmic stimulation improved the speed and symmetry of their gait.

Drumming may also be able to help people with Alzheimer’s disease learn new skills. Barry Bernstein, a music therapist from Lenexa, Kansas, researchers from the University of Kansas, and the local Veterans Administration hospital determined that Alzheimer’s patients could master complex rhythmic patterns.

Bernstein worked with Alicia Clair, director of the music therapy department at the University of Kansas, in a study in which twenty-eight Alzheimer’s patients were led in twice-weekly, forty-minute drumming sessions. After eight weeks, the subjects had learned new drumming strokes, and those who could imitate rhythm patterns increased the complexity of those patterns, Bernstein says.

A practicing Sufi, Bernstein also is interested in how sound touches us spiritually. “We’ve become an increasingly isolated culture. People today are hungry for connection with other people, and the drum offers an immediate avenue for that,” says Bernstein who, with Grateful Dead drummer Mickey Hart and others, founded in 1992 Rhythm for Life, which supports the building use of rhythm for healing and community.

“In many spiritual traditions, sound is considered to be the top of the ladder connecting us with the higher spirit,” Bernstein says. “When people drum together, a door is opened.”

These days, an exuberant MacTavish can be seen driving her drum-mobile loaded with more than seventy percussion instruments to nursing homes, adult day-care programs, and centers for the developmentally disabled throughout Northern California. In her drum-song-story circles, MacTavish gives patients clues to tunes like You Are My Sunshine and encourages them to sing and drum along. The rhythms focus their attention while the melodies evoke emotions and memories, she says.

“Drumming takes people outside of themselves and their illnesses and puts them in a place of childish pleasure and freedom,” MacTavish says. “It provides a sense of community and connection.”