..The Intuitive Times


Meditative Drumming and the Prayerful Mind

by Chris Vessey

Back | Next | Contents | Home

Drumming has been a part of our culture for many thousands of years. Certainly, it predates recorded history by untold millennia. It seems that, almost as long as humans have gathered together in groups, drumming has been an integral part of their interactions.

When I began to explore this topic, I thought to myself, "this will be pretty easy . . . drums are a very straightforward instrument." In sharing that thought with you, I must admit to a little bit of misguided melodic instrument chauvinism. You see, I am a saxophonist, but I also play recorder, tin whistle, some guitar and mandolin, and a few other such instruments. I do a little bit of Irish drumming, on the bodhrán, but that's been the extent of my involvement with percussion since high school, where I took a module on drumming.

Now, it's a standing joke in concert bands, jazz bands, and especially rock bands that the drummer is the least intelligent member of the group - after all, they just sit there and hit things (ungh! ungh!) This, of course, is only a joke - but many of us wind and string musicians regard drums as simplistic. They don't play melodies, they just go "thunk," right?

Wow, was I ever wrong. The variety and types of drums available in this modern world is, well, astounding. Hand drums, finger drums, drums with beaters, drums with beads or ball bearings, as well as the more traditional marching band, concert band and orchestral varieties.

At its heart, a drum is simply a resonating chamber which has some form of semi-rigid surface that can be struck to produce a sound. The vibrating drumhead causes the air around it to vibrate, and the drum's frame amplifies the resulting sound. Modern drumming can include other percussion instruments, however - triangles, glockenspiels, wood blocks, and cowbells are just a few found in modern usage. Shakers and rattles of varying design are also very prevalent traditionally. Just a few of the drumming types I encountered in my search were: African, Afro-Cuban, Taiko (Japanese), Scottish Pipe and Drum, American Pipe and Drum, Klezmer (Jewish), Irish, Native North American/Shamanistic, East Indian, Chinese and Incan.

Of course, drums have been a part of military life for centuries - we are all familiar with military bands, and marching bands which are patterned after them. Drums have been used to signify war, both on the battlefield, and in the music of the great composers (they are, for example, often used to simulate cannon blasts in Tchaikovsky's 1812 Overture).

Today, the attention on drumming, outside of the performing arts, centres on the metaphysical and the spiritual. This links drumming to its ancestral roots in many religions around the world. As such, drumming has played a very important role in the varied spiritual experiences of the peoples of our planet.

In reading of the experiences of Ms. Traute Klein, we discover how her use of drumming, in the aftermath of a life-changing car accident, brought peace and rest that is simply not possible by the means we take for granted - lying down at night and falling asleep. She outlines how women in general can find peace and inner healing in the communal beat of a drum. She describes how, in her group, each woman has her own individual drum, but that in other groups they use a single, large community drum. Each mode has its own spiritual appeal - the individual drums would obviously allow for individual expression around a common beat, whereas the community drum would bring an intense sense of harmony with each participant providing comparatively little individual variation, but instead melding into the commonality of the experience.

Another reference, the "All One Tribe Foundation" website, describes methods of forming a drum circle. Interestingly, the motto of the site is "The drum's universal language of the heartbeat reminds us of our unity..." The site indicates that, from a scientific point of view, drumming increases alpha waves in the brain which are indicative of heightened relaxation.

The most basic form of their tribal drumming is for the group to form, with one person starting the "heartbeat" - the others can then join in when they feel in tune with the rhythm, but all that is done is a communal copy of the original heartbeat.

A second form starts in much the same way, but each person joining the group seeks to "harmonize" with the existing beat or beats, and to create something new, spontaneous and magical. This continues until participants feel satisfied, and the drumming comes to a natural close as people drop out of the work one by one.

The focus, in all things, is harmony and visualization. The drumming should, if engaged in fully, bring about a somewhat heightened state of consciousness and bring one closer to the harmonic reality of the world. As was observed by the author of this site, we all have a heartbeat - we seek the Unity of this reality.

This is not to say that solo drumming is not also spiritual in nature, or any less sacred. In her book "Drumming for the Gods – The Life and Times of Felipe García Villamil, santero, palero, and abakuá," Maria Teresa Velez writes of how drumming was an integral part of this man's life, through its many stages, and the spiritual grounding that it gave him. Although there is no real opportunity to read much of the book itself, what is said makes it obvious that Señor Villamil has made drumming a huge part of his personal life and a personal practice in spirituality - I see no reason why any individual cannot do likewise, and use the drum as an intensely personal religious experience.

It seems that these traditionally-oriented experiences utilize sound to produce altered states of consciousness. The "Shamanic Drumming" website features an article by Jade Wah'oo Grigori which states that the goal of such drumming is to facilitate the simultaneous experience of the mental states of silence, alpha and theta. The silence cancels out the normal daydreaming of the alpha state, leaving it empty, which becomes a space where our inner Spirit can express itself without inhibition, in images, symbols, songs and chant, tones, colours, sensations and heightened knowledge and awareness. Shamanically speaking, we then gain the ability to speak once again in the Language of Spirit, something that humankind lost æons before.

So, we've reviewed the very basics of ancient shamanic drumming, which forms the basis for all religious drumming and probably all drumming, right up to military. Can it then be any coincidence that the military has long used drums, if they enhance focus, concentration and awareness - all aspects desirable in a soldier?

Observing music in a continuum from the Renaissance baroque styles right up to modern music, we see an increasing use of drums in that music. In fact, modern dance music is heavily based on its drum beat, and so-called "raves" have a primary attraction in that participants say that the music contributes to an altered state of consciousness.

There's a lot to be learned from meditative drumming. I leave it for you to consider how prayer may fit into a shamanic-style drumming session, how the energy of individual drumming and synergy of group drumming may enhance your ability to turn thoughts into reality. I certainly find it most relaxing and enjoyable, and perhaps you will continue to find it so. Be ye therefore blessèd in that which ye doeth.


1. http://www.suite101.com/article.cfm/natural_health/80996 "The Healing Drum" – Traute Klein, 2001. One woman's experience with shamanistic drumming and its healing effects after a debilitating car accident, and her view as drumming as a healing outlet for women.

2. http://www.allonetribe.org/newmoon.html"All One Tribe Foundation – How To Form A Drum Circle" – A website dedicated to

3. http://www.temple.edu/tempress/titles/1412_reg_print.html "Drumming for the Gods" – Maria Teresa Velez, 2000. A companion website and review of a book about an Afro-Cuban spiritual drummer named Felipe García Villamil, who is considered a master of a number of different sacred drumming forms.

4. http://www.shamanic.net/articles/shamanicdrumming.html "Shamanic Drumming" – Jade Wah'oo Grigori. An interesting article on the theological origins of shamanic drumming, and the reported psychospiritual effects of such drumming.

5. http://www.nemeton.com "Nemeton – The Shamen's Web Site" – Official website of the new-age neotechnoshamanic group Shamen.

Back | Next | Contents | Home