Percussion is frequently used in music therapy, as it is in other applications (performance, education, community tradition, recreation, other therapies, spirituality, etc.). The ways in which these instruments are used with clients (or students, or participants) may be very different. Even though the appearance (the ‘phenotype,’ if you will) might be similar, the inner-workings and function (the “genotype’) can be dramatically different. The ways that these different percussion-based interactions manifest is influenced by:

  1. the musical and social relationships that exist within the group.
  2. the type of service that is being provided.

Many of these approaches occur both within and outside of the field of music therapy (with the likely exception of clinical [music] improvisation, which is unique to the profession). Each of the following types of experiences may occur in combinations, just as it is possible for each of the four basic methods of music experiences (re-creating, improvising, composing, and listening) to occur in combination. In addition to sharing some features, different types of experiences are often used within a single session, or as part of a larger program that also includes non-musical experiences. In some cases, one type is used to prepare the client for the next or as a way to add scope and dimension to a session.



    • Drum Play is the use of percussion for pre-musical or non-musical experiences. In this type of experience, clients use instruments as play objects, often focusing on specific qualities such as the look, feel, or general timbre of the instrument. Common uses include using instruments to imitate other sounds (such as footsteps or rain), as sound forms (sound scapes), as art objects (for their physical qualities), as a replacement for other objects (using shakers for a rock-passing game), as fodder for story-telling (both fictional and non-fiction), and as props (a drum as a hat or two mallets as antennae). Drum Play experiences are common in pre-school and elementary education settings, as part of a recreational program, in corporate team building programs and within music therapy as pre-musical, non-musical, and extra-musical interventions. In general, drum play does not require drumming or general musical training, either of the leader or participants. Clients receive instruction and guidance from the leader and typically have extended periods of autonomy.
Examples of percussion instruments as art objects. “Drum Man”


  • Traditional Drumming, also sometimes called “Cultural,” “Ethnic,” and/or “Classical” drumming, is a re-creative experience that is based in a cultural tradition. In this type of experience, the therapist and/or clients learn and re-create specific techniques, rhythms, and musical arrangements (including instrumentation). Traditional Drumming may also be provided by the therapist as a means to support clients in one of the other experience types. Traditional drumming includes any codified musical system where drums and rhythms are used in ways that are consistent with cultural teachings. At a minimum, this form of drumming often includes the instruments, techniques, and rhythms of the music. As a whole, it may also include songs, dances, and other cultural elements. Traditional Drumming is common in professional, educational, and recreational music settings and somewhat less frequent in music therapy, although its use is gaining exposure and interest within the field, largely due to its unique capacity to connect percussion instruments to the vast and rich music of many cultures. Traditional drumming requires drumming and general musical skills and knowledge by the leader and is an educative and often skill- and confidence-building experience for the participants. Clients receive structure, guidance, and cues from the leader and typically have moments of autonomy, such as when invited to improvise a solo over a fixed accompaniment.


Traditional Drumming – Rumba Guguanco (Los Papines)


    • Drum Accompaniment is a re-creative experience where percussion is used to accompany popular, folk, or other musical styles not indigenous to the percussion instruments (or drumming-based music). In this experience, clients are invited to play along with music that is provided, usually by the therapist. Accompaniment may be directed by the therapist or left up to the client. Examples include rhythmic tapping on a conga drum or shaking a maraca while the therapist plays a medley of  songs. In these experiences, the playing of instruments is secondary to and supportive of the primary musical material. Drum Accompaniment is very common within and outside of music therapy. It requires some general musical skills, such as song-leading (therapist), and basic musical skills (participants). Clients receive instruction, guidance, and cues from the leader and have moments of autonomy. Drum accompaniment may or may not relate to traditional drumming.



    • Guided Interactive Drumming (GID)is a directive, highly structured musical and rhythmic experience. In GID, clients take instruction and cues from the therapist, often in the form of a game, or as an interactive process where the therapist consistently provides instructions, guidelines (play rules), cues (both visual and verbal), and redirections. Experiences might include playing the rhythm of a person’s name or transferring the rhythm of a chant to the instruments*. Other examples include various ‘rhythm games’ whereby clients follow ‘play rules’ that are given before the experience begins. This type of experience is often used with populations that need a high degree of musical support and guidance. It is therefore very common to use GID experiences in instances where structure, guidance, and unified group expression is appropriate and desirable. GID is sometimes used within music therapy and is most common in ‘corporate’ and ‘developmental’ settings where groups of people are guided through ‘interactions’ by an individual or team. GID requires drumming and musical skills of the leaders and some basic musicality on the part of the participants. Clients typically have little autonomy overall, but may take on leader roles at times, as appropriate within the play rules and structure of the experience. GID experiences often feature and relate to traditional musical genres and drumming techniques.

In this Guided Interactive Drumming example, Drum Cafe leaders provide accessible instruments (Boomwhackers tuned percussion tubes) to a large group of corporate clients. Observe how to the experience moves from directed & unified rhythms into client-led sections. As the clients play, leaders embellish the music by adding traditional drumming elements.

Guided Interactive Drumming


    • Musical Improvisation occurs whenindividuals extemporaneously create music with the intent of producing a musical product of aesthetic value.  In this experience, the focus in on creating music, without planning, notation, or a formal structure, although structures are often created through the improvisational process. The experience is largely non-directive and the clients are supported with guidance and resources as needed. Musical skills are generally required of both leaders and participants; however, skill levels may vary dramatically, depending on the population and goals of the session. Clients may receive general instructions and guidance from the leaders, but in general, will be given a high degree of autonomy and creative freedom.



    • A Drum Circle (also called a Drum Jam or Community Drumming) is a group interactive process where individuals use a variety of drums and percussion instruments with the intent of producing a musical product of recreational and community value. In this type of experience, the facilitator helps participants form, express, and share ideas and impulses that support the goals of the group. Focus is on community, bonding, and peer-support, rather than musical outcomes, although music making is the primary means of this approach. Drum Circles are most common in recreational music making settings. Because of the drum circle’s dynamics and unplanned nature, they are not used within the field of music therapy, although a music therapist might host a drum circle in another setting.  Drum circles are most often used as recreational experiences, and may be part of a larger program with additional goals, such as training and development. Leaders often have drumming and general music skills; however, many facilitators have backgrounds in recreation and service, rather than music. Participants may or may not receive guidance, instructions, and cues from the leader, as the main purpose is to provide participants with a high level of autonomy and creative freedom.

In this example of a community drum circle, people take on a range of roles, from listener to leader. Some people dance while others play. The overall effect is a shared community experience where the drum circle draws together people from different backgrounds and allows for freedom of expression within a safe and supportive environment.

Community Drum Circle


    • Clinical Improvisation occurs when a therapist and client(s) extemporaneously create music for the purpose of therapeutic assessment, treatment, and/or evaluation.  Client and therapist relate to each other through the music, and the improvisation results in a musical product that varies in aesthetic, expressive, intrapersonal, and interpersonal significance. (Bruscia, Improvisational Models of Music Therapy, 1987). The therapist uses varying levels of structure in order to maintain safety and to facilitate maximization of the client’s progress.  Clinical Improvisation occurs through various models (Creative Music Therapy, Analytic Music Therapy, etc.), and a therapist utilizes particular improvisational techniques (both musical and non-musical) in order to facilitate the clinical improvisation process. Although there are some surface similarities between clinical improvisation, a drum circle, and music improvisation, the underlying process and goals are quite different. Clinical Improvisation is unique to the field of music therapy and can occur using any instrumentation, but because of its accessibility, percussion is a popular choice.



  • Technique-Oriented Play (TOP) is the purposeful use of motor/coordination techniques on various instruments. It can take place on any instrument, but for our purposes, we will focus on the vast array of drums and percussion instruments that are common in music therapy. The specific techniques in this case are selected and used by the therapist to reach particular objectives, often times related to movement, coordination, and/or sensory processing. Examples may include reaching to play a suspended drum, turning a rainstick (reverse- transverse palmar grasp), maintaining hold on a mallet for strength and endurance, or playing a drum set rhythm that requires ambidextrous coordination. TOP may also manifest as a percussion lesson or adapted percussion lesson, where the technique focus is aligned with learning how to play music.  Some of the same motor/sensory/coordination benefits could occur as a by-product of any drumming experience, but this approach occurs when technique development plays a central role. For specific examples of technique-oriented play, see the book Tataku, The Use of Percussion in Music Therapy.

* NOTE: There is a difference between using verbal statements to teach traditional drumming rhythms and imitating speech patterns with instruments. In the former, the leader uses speech patterns that imitate established and traditional musical patterns (a strategy common in the Orff approach to music education). The speech patterns are informed by the music, which is often presented as the second step in the teaching/learning process. In the latter, speech patterns are used because they are already common and familiar to the participants (people’s names, common phrases, etc.). Because imitating familiar patterns requires less time and effort than unfamiliar material, this types of rhythmic speech is often used as the foundation for entry-level drumming. Music that is created through imitation of common speech would not fall under the heading of traditional drumming, unless those speech patterns are also part of a codified musical tradition, such as in the teaching and performance of South Indian Jati rhythms. The former method uses the formula “Traditional Music->Learned Spoken Phrases->Music,” while the latter uses “Familiar Spoken Phrases->Music.”

This post was written by Kalani, MT-BC and Bill Matney, MA., MT-BC