Percussion in Therapy: A History of Research

By bill

In our current world filled with media networking, blog posts, wiki-oriented information resources, and twenty-four hour newsupdates, we find some strength in immediate response and some “equal opportunity” to contribute.   Such a barrage can also make information searches like looking for a needle in a haystack.

If one was to google the words “drum” and “therapy,” or the words “percussion” and “therapy.”   One would find a slew of items that either have nothing to do with drumming (because of the prominence of the use of ‘percussing’ as a medical tool and technique), or they would find many approaches using drums and percussion for therapy that have little to no connection with established fields of Western therapy.   Now, I am not doling out judgment on these approaches, but rather noting the difficulty this provides a music therapist, or other professional therapists, that are looking to connect their work with the use of percussion.   If we were to add “research” to our previous keywords, we would likely locate what have commonly been referred to as the “HEALTHRhythms studies.”  The studies are located on many drum circle websites as validation for the therapeutic use of drumming.   The HEALTHRhythms studies offer a substantial platform with which to validate the use of percussion, through particular components, for stress reduction.  The measurement tools are often unique and advanced.  The components of the protocol were strategies that largely originated and developed within the music therapy field, and were chosen to suit the nature of the participants of the initial study.  The power and importance of these studies is duly recognized.  At the same time, we must also recognize that four of the four “stress reduction” studies occurred with non-clinical participants, and that the two studies looking at clinical populations measured efficacy through other means.  Again, my intention is not to judge, but rather to note the strengths and weaknesses of these materials as related to the needs of the music therapist who works in clinical settings.   If these six studies are the primary studies we can locate, what else might exist?

Within published literature, primarily peer-reviewed journals, there exist more than 250 mentions of the use of percussion in therapy.  By therapy, I am referring to the implementation of objective-oriented methods by a professional trained as a therapist.  Of these mentions, the vast majority exist with the literature of music therapy.  Within this literature,  one can locate a vast array of clinical populations, of instrumentation used, of goals and objectives addressed, of particular techniques employed.   The evolution towards “best practice” can be better understood through our own field and through other professional therapy fields that have contributed.

With this said, I would like to begin by offering what appears to be the first peer-reviewed journal article of the use of percussion in therapy.   Renowned child psychiatrist, Dr. Lauretta Bender collaborated with dance practitioner Franziska Boas at Bellevue hospital in New York to write the work Creative Dance in Therapy, which was published in 1941 by the American Journal of Orthopsychiatry.  The study included children who were residents of Bellevue.  Within this study, percussion play and dance/movement were facilitated.  The study was observational and descriptive in nature.  The study included the use of a drum, a gong,  and a cymbal.

I find a few items intriguing about this study. First, in 1941, both the fields of dance therapy and music therapy were taking shape!   The work of Bender and Boas are lauded within dance therapy theory as one of the points of origin for their field.  This was also occurring right at the time when music therapy was formalizing from a consortium of “hospital musicians” to a field of health care.   Second, the intrinsic link between percussion, dance/movement, and expression is celebrated in this study.

The history of percussion in therapy is rich and diverse.  I am honored to say that the field of music therapy has played a majority role in its development over the last sixty years.   In future posts, I will discuss studies and articles that I feel contribute to our never-ending development.

Bender, L., & Boas, F. (1941). Creative dance in therapy. American Journal of Orthopsychiatry, 11, 235-245.

Filed in: Research, Uncategorized • Sunday, November 7th, 2010

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Music Therapy Drumming is a world drumming and clinical therapy curriculum primarily for Board-Certified Music Therapists (MT-BC). It is designed and presented by MT-BC's who are also professional percussionists.