Peoples hand on drums in a Drum Circle

The ART of Drum Circles

Wisdom of the Ancients

Where and when did drum circles begin? Who invented this practice of drumming together in a circle? What was the ancient purpose of drum circles?

Although we can never definitively answer these questions, we can theorize, and many scholars have and do. One thing is for sure; most cultures have drummed for rituals, celebrations, and ceremonies. Drum circles seem to tap into the primal need to share and support one another through one of the simplest and most beautiful ways to connect without words; music.

Trend Alert

From Time magazine to USA Today and the New York Times, the mainstream media is enthusiastically calling the ancient wisdom of drum circles “a rapidly growing holistic health trend,” (My Generation Magazine, AARP, Nov/Dec, 2002). At one time considered a hippie grassroots thing on beaches and in parks, drum circles are now taking place at the likes of Toyota Corporate headquarters and the World Federation Banking Conference. From executives to spiritual seekers, young children to well elderly, this practice of group drumming is much more than a fad. Get ready for a real wave of music making that has the potential to change our culture and restore the power of community gatherings.

Recreational Drumming

The term recreational is actually derived from the Latin “recreatio,” which means “restoration to health,” (Merriam Webster). A research study by Barry Bittman, MD, sponsored by Remo, demonstrated the power of drumming for health purposes. The study found that one hour of group drumming with normal subjects who had never drummed before, following a specific protocol called group empowerment drumming ™ reversed the stress response by significantly increasing NK (Natural Killer) cells (Bittman et al. Alternative Therapies, January, 2002). This groundbreaking study launched a new credibility for drum circles and recreational drumming as a method of stress reduction and as a preventive health strategy. (For more information on the research and training programs, go to, and click on HealthRHYTHMS.)

Recreational drumming provides important musical skill development, including rhythmicity, improvisation, and ensemble playing. But it also reaches far beyond musical benefits. Including stress reduction, self-expression, and community connection, the emerging philosophy of recreational music making is not about becoming a technically proficient performer. It’s really about finding the music within everyone and giving drumming enthusiasts and hobbyists a way to keep making music in their lives.

Recreational Drumming Philosophy
Group drumming is not about inspiring successful drumming–
it’s about inspiring successful living.
Group drumming is not about exceptional performance–
it’s about exceptional support and personal expression.
Group drumming is not about teaching people to play–
it’s about giving people permission to play.
Group drumming’s best facilitators are not only talented musicians-
they are caring, compassionate and intuitive guides.
Group drumming is not about acquiring technique-
it’s about sharing for the sake of personal empowerment.

(Used by permission, Remo Inc. copyright, 2001, HealthRHYTHMS™ training manual, Bittman, Bruhn, and Stevens)

Drum Circle Principles

Combining an ancient practice with today’s cultural need for creative expression and human connection creates a powerful alchemy all rolled into one aesthetic experience called a drum circle. Drum circles can vary, but most follow similar principles.

There is no audience.
Everyone is part of the musical experience.

There is no rehearsal.
The music does not come from reading notes on a sheet of music written in the past. It is improvised in the moment.

There is no right or wrong.
The drum circle is a safe, permissive explorational environment.

There is no teacher.
Instead, the drum circle is lead by a facilitator who has a dual focus; to build the musicality of the group while also building the sense of community and connection.

It is inclusive.
Everyone is welcome; all ages and all levels of ability.

Spontaneity thrives.
There really is no plan except the importance of supporting the music and community connection.

It’s about much more than drumming.
In fact, a survey at the Remo Recreational Music Center found that the highest ranked reason people attended the Tuesday night drum circles was actually to reduce stress! (50 percent) Only thirty-five percent reported they were there to learn how to drum.

Drum Circle Duality

There is an incredible duality within the drum circle of creative freedom and the unity found in the common pulse. It is similar in terms of the human side of the drum circle where self-expression found through improvisation is balanced by the demand and structure of following the group rhythm. This duality is lost when the drum circle becomes a music class. This book addresses this paradigm specifically, without wavering into teaching rhythms, only demonstrating and cultivating that which is already in all people.

The Science of Entrainment

Entrainment is the law of synchronization that causes two separate rhythms to naturally line up when placed near one another. Technically speaking, it is a “phase locking” or “going with” one another, creating a natural flow. In drumming, entrainment happens when two people with separate rhythms can’t help but join together in a common beat. This principle was originally discovered through physics experiments in the late 1600s, where two pendulums placed next to one another, swinging at different tempos, eventually fell in sync. Because we are rhythmic in nature, the same thing happens to us. The key is letting go and not trying too hard. The only thing that can interfere with the natural property of entrainment is the mind.

Exercise: Bird Watching. Watch a flock of geese flying in formation up in the sky. They flap their wings in perfect synchronicity, a rhythm that actually carries them 70 percent more efficiently as they entrain to the leader’s dominant tempo.

Exercise: People Watching. Watch people crossing a street or walking down a sidewalk together. They unconsciously step in sync, entraining to one another’s rhythm. Keep an eye out for examples of entrainment where people move together, where rhythm commands congruency and unison.

The Art of Drum Circles is excerpted with permission from The Heart and Art of Drum Circles by Christine Stevens, published by Hal Leonard, 2003.

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Written by Christine Stevens MSW MT-BC

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