Music – considered a medicine for thousands of years – is being reinvented as a therapy for the stress and ailments of the modern world. From overworked corporates to elderly people suffering from Alzheimer’s, the practice of listening to music, or being involved in a group drumming session, is showing significantly beneficial results. Robert Harris, director of Drum Therapy in Sydney, originally trained as a lawyer. He liked music and played the drums recreationally but dismissed the healing properties of music as “hippy nonsense”. That was until a close family member was diagnosed with dementia, and he saw first-hand the power of rhythm.
Rhythm therapy at its most basic level is the action of being involved in a drumming session or listening to music in a controlled manner. It has been shown to be at least as effective as meditation or yoga in reducing stress, but unlike yoga or other exercises, drumming doesn’t require participants to be fit, active or flexible. You neither need experience playing an instrument nor any knowledge about music.
Rhythm is primarily processed in the cerebellum, the ‘little brain’ that sits above the brain stem. This is only 10 per cent of brain volume but has more neurons than the rest of the brain put together. Harris said group drumming activates many parts of the brain including the cerebellum, stimulates motor-auditory-visual connections and is a naturally mindful activity.
In the paper Trends in Cognitive Sciences, researchers Mona Lisa Chanda and Daniel Levitin, from the department of psychology at McGill University in Montreal, suggest that recreational music-making could be a cost-effective means for improving mood and reducing stress among the elderly, healthcare professionals and corporate employees. “In contemporary society, music continues to be used to promote health and wellbeing in clinical settings, such as for pain management, relaxation and psychotherapy,” the authors said. “Many people use music to regulate mood and arousal, much as they use caffeine or alcohol.”
“It may not always be easy for people to verbalise what they are feeling but often people are able to express themselves on a drum,” said Harris. “In this way, the drum becomes a tool to both reduce stress and for self-expression.”