Group Drumming Bangs Away at Anxiety and Depression - Pacific Standard

Group Drumming Bangs Away at Anxiety and Depression

Researchers find mental-health benefits to participating in a drum circle.
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(Photo: Jesse Grant/Getty Images for NAMM)

(Photo: Jesse Grant/Getty Images for NAMM)

Researchers in London have found evidence of a surprisingly effective treatment for anxiety and depression, one that even alters the inflammatory immune responses that may underlie these disorders.

Prozac? Actually, percussion.

An "exploratory examination" found 10 weeks of group drumming provided significant benefits for a group of people who had sought help for mental-health issues. What's more, the improvements persisted for at least three months after the sessions concluded.

"This study demonstrates the psychological benefits of group drumming, and also suggests underlying biological effects, supporting its therapeutic potential for mental health," writes a research team led by Aaron Williamon and Daisy Fancourt of the Royal College of Music's Centre for Performance Science.

The study, published in the online journal PLoS One, featured 45 Londoners, 30 of whom participated in the drumming lessons and 15 who served as a control group. All were "adults accessing mental health services" from a psychologist, psychiatrist, or support group; they volunteered to participate.

A drum circle may be a true circle of life—and health.

Those in the experimental group took part in weekly 90-minute group drumming lessons, which were led by a professional drummer.

"The professional drummer taught the participants the basics of how to use the drum, led the participants in a series of 'call and response' exercises where they copied the leader, and taught the participants rhythmic patterns," the researchers explain. The complexity of the music they played gradually increased over the course of the program.

Those in the control group did not take any music lessons, but they did participate in other regular activities, including book clubs and quiz nights.

Each week, all participants filled out a set of questionnaires designed to measure their levels of anxiety, depression, and general well-being. In addition, those in the drumming group provided weekly saliva samples, which allowed scientists to measure the strength of pro- and anti-inflammatory markers.

"Significant improvements were found in the drumming group, but not the control group," the researchers report. For the drummers, "by week six there were decreases in depression, and increases in social resilience. By week 10, these had further improved, alongside significant improvements in anxiety and mental well-being."

At follow-up interviews three months later, "all significant changes were maintained," they add.

In addition, "Across the 10 weeks there was a shift away from a pro-inflammatory towards an anti-inflammatory immune profile," the researchers report. This suggests the improvements the participants reported have a biological basis.

This is a small study, of course, but it provides strong evidence of "the therapeutic potential of group drumming," as well as the more general notion that music can make a positive difference in people's lives. A drum circle may be a true circle of life—and health.

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Findings is a daily column by Pacific Standard staff writer Tom Jacobs, who scours the psychological-research journals to discover new insights into human behavior, ranging from the origins of our political beliefs to the cultivation of creativity.

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