In the Beginning, There Was the Beat

Life is about rhythm. We vibrate, our hearts are pumping blood; we are a rhythm machine, that’s what we are.
—Mickey Hart, drummer for the Grateful Dead

When you came into this life, your first felt experience was the sensation of rhythm. Not the sound, but the sensation of rhythm. Before you could hear, see, or think, you were unadulterated physicality—pure instinctual and primal substance, a human animal in its infancy, animated by the spark of life that foretold of a human being. You sensed your being as only slightly distinct from your mother’s body, intimately connected to her physical and emotional rhythms, yet very gradually emerging into a sense of your own self.

Take yourself back to those first few weeks in her womb . . . Listen closely . . . Hear the “lub-dub—lub-dub—lub-dub”. . . . It’s your mother’s heartbeat, massaging what is to become you with its consistency and power, accompanied by the steady undulation of her breathing. If you were fortunate, most of the time the sensations generated by her heartbeat and breathing would lull and rock you.

So your initiation into life is first sensed in your fetal body completely through rhythm. It didn’t register consciously—at least not in the usual sense—or even through the usual senses. Instead, it registered as a non-localized physicality when you were just a tiny fetus, permeating every cell in your organismic self, responding not only to your mother’s rhythms but to the rhythms that were emerging in your evolving body, especially at the center of your physical self: your pulsating heart.

Throughout our lives, we continue to come in contact with innumerable internal and external rhythms. We are so intimately familiar with these physical sensations created by rhythm that whenever we’re exposed to any kind of percussion, these earliest, primal sensations are once again activated, particularly to the degree that our bodies are open to these sensations.

Our sense of rhythm can be thrown off kilter in the earliest stages of life. Some recent studies suggest that prenatal stress can affect the baby’s temperament and neurological functioning. Infants whose mothers experienced consistently high levels of stress during pregnancy, especially in the first trimester, showed signs of depression and irritability. While in the womb, fetuses were considerably more reactive and slower to tune out repeated stimuli, seemingly unable to readily habituate to those stimuli.[1]

One study has suggested that a mother’s stress can contribute to her child’s ADHD. A common symptom of ADHD is difficulty with rhythm perception, evidenced by difficulty in detecting a change in the duration of a rhythm sequence. In other words, difficulty in tracking a beat. Though requiring further study, researchers have speculated that: “rhythmic auditory stimulation may serve as a remediation strategy in ADHD.”[2]

In other words, drumming can help remediate ADHD. As you’ll see, not only does drumming have the potential to help those with ADHD, it can help with other conditions too.

Rhythm and Community
When we’re exposed to any rhythmic music or percussion, what typically happens—even if only temporarily—is that parts of the body that have remained frozen or dormant and whose life force has become diminished are stirred once again, filling up with renewed vitality.

Drumming and rattling in a group of any size can only enhance this experience. After all, when you’re in the midst of good percussion, who can resist moving at least some part of their body, even if it’s only tapping a finger or your toes?

When rhythmic play is brought into a group or community, such as in a drumming circle, a gathering of friends, or a tribal ceremony, this adds other layers of richness and texture to the healing quality of this kind of experience. Healing takes place at the physical, emotional, instinctual, and communal level, sometimes obviously, sometimes subtly, in ways that are beyond our meager human consciousness and understanding.

When the body experiences the sensations generated by rhythmic percussion, such as drumming, rattling, didgeridoo, or other rhythm instruments, especially in the context of community, the life force, or vitality, begins to blossom again, not only in our most basic physical selves, but in those areas of our hearts and minds that have been closed off and locked away.

Anyone who is involved in a shared percussion experience on a regular basis, such as a drumming circle, knows the healing power of rhythm—power that not only positively affects the participants, but often extends into the field of the larger community.

One such story relates to one of my drums. It’s a small Djembe, a drum that has a circular top about nine inches in diameter, tapering slightly to the bottom where there’s an opening. I found it when I was wandering around during a local musical festival, checking out the various vendors’ booths. I came upon a fellow who was selling African drums, as well as some other goods. He introduced himself as I was surveying the drums. He told me all of his drums and other articles were imported from Senegal, where a brother who lives there acquires the items that he then sells at his booth.

There was one drum that caught my eye. I noticed the carvings on either side, one side being the head of a jaguar, and the other being what looked like a tree. I started playing this one, and soon the owner of the booth picked up another drum and played along with me. Gradually three others joined us for a spontaneous drumming session that lasted several minutes.

When we finished, I knew that I wanted the drum I was playing. I asked the fellow who ran the booth about the carvings. He explained that the jaguar was an animal common to Senegal and that this particular drum was imbued with the spirit of Jaguar. Then he told me about the story of the carving of the tree that was on the drum.

“In the village in Senegal where this drum was made, every Saturday night just after sunset, the villagers gather around this very large, very special tree at the edge of the village. It is called the Peace Tree.

They bring with them their drums and rattles and sticks and, as they form a circle around the tree randomly playing their various instruments, the sound becomes very noisy and chaotic.

After a while, once everyone finds their place in the circle, a magical thing happens. The drums and rattles and sticks start to coordinate in a beautiful symphony of rhythm, where the various sounds of the instruments weave in and around one another. It’s quite amazing and goes on for a couple of hours.

Everyone holds the intention while drumming to generate peace through this process. It is hoped that by drumming in this way not only will there be continued peace in the village, but that this peace will spread throughout the entire world.

And so, my friend, the carving on your drum is the Peace Tree. May it bring you peace and happiness whenever you play it.”

Not only are there a number of anecdotal experiences that tell of the immense healing power of percussion, but there is also increasing scientific evidence that drumming, especially drumming in the context of community, actually reduces stress, boosts our immune system, and increases the Alpha rhythms of the brain. I’ll be exploring this in more detail in my next article.

[1] (
[2] .” (Serrallach, B. et al. Neural biomarkers for dyslexia, ADHD, and ADD in the auditory cortex of children. Front. Neurosci. 10, 324 (2016).)

share tweet