There's a scientific reason why humans love drumming

Anthropology and evolutionary biology help demystify the groove

Kristen Vogt Veggeberg

Science Education

University of Illinois at Chicago

This is part of Stoned Science — science that makes you go “whoa.” Or is it woah? 

Primates, like humans, use noise to signify aggression. Macaques, known for their intelligence and wild emotions, will often use trees to beat out rhythm to intimidate others encroaching in their area. Primatologists have observed other highly intelligent primates, like chimpanzees, using crude drumming sounds to signify approach and aggression. Arguably, humans have a social history of using drums to determine a similar emotion of anger. Think about war drums, common in multiple societies across the world, or perhaps even your favorite heavy metal band, which is often accompanied by a strong drummer’s beat to heighten fast-paced, loud music. 

But what about heavy metal's gentle cousin — the drum circle? There’s a science behind it that may surprise you.

Moving in circles

Humans are a social species, and we love a good beat. Compared to other species, we love to gather in groups, whether for joyful or unhappy reasons. Scientists have determined that the sound of drums alerts our senses and triggers the need to move our bodies. This is a common reaction you may be familiar with if you’ve ever been to a concert or dance club where the bass is especially thick. 

And being able to signify rhythm and beats is part of our social make up. You've seen this if you've ever been to a wedding, dance, or even a drum circle. Scientists have been studying this behavior, in addition to anthropological and archaeological evidence, to discover the origin of drum circles. 

Music has been around as long as our ancestors have had the ability to communicate: ethnomusicologist and evolutionary musicologist Joseph Jordania argues that this stems from our need for social communication, including the need to recreate humming and gentle rhythms for comfort, such as a lullaby to soothe an infant. As a bass instrument, the drum plays this role, with a tone similar to a human heartbeat, fast and aggressive, or slow and gentle, depending on the musician.

girls in Indonesia playing drums and smiling

Photo by jauza aqilah on Unsplash  

The earliest drums found are from China and Vietnam, with many of these instruments being associated with religious rites, like those in Siberia, South Asia, and many parts of the African continent. One theory is that as humans continued to grow as a society, they needed a way to communicate with different spirits and gods through music. This is reflected in archaeological remains throughout the world, where drums, flutes and other instruments are found buried with their owners — many high ranking or religiously oriented, who had the time and dedication to learn the practice of the instrument. 

Drums and other instruments also represent joyful times, as seen in ancient Egyptian murals in tombs from the Middle Kingdom, where figures painted on the walls are engaged in making music through multiple instruments, including drums. 

It is a rare event in archaeology to find an artifact that has such a universal role in creating emotions drawing attention and rhythm to an important event. Drums are held in such reverence, above and beyond other instruments, that many cultures still require that they not be treated as mere objects, including many First Nations people in Canada.

Archaeologists have determined that the drum and the dancing it inspires served a common purpose of bringing people together. Historically, drum circles are a common site across human societies, ranging from group gatherings in post-plague, medieval Europe, to war dances in multiple cultures. 

However, forces of Western society, from the Catholic church to governments, dictated that this type of behavior was unacceptable. Images of ‘savages’ dancing with drums beating became a common trope in the Victorian era, seen in multiple places where Western culture became idealized, from the halls of the museum to the common university classroom. This began a trend of Indigenous people throughout the world being cruelly stereotyped, enabling Western colonizers to make excuses for colonial expansion throughout the world. This trend is illustrated by stories in popular magazines, a history of Westerners keeping human beings in zoos, and the truly heinous movement of forcing youth into boarding schools, the repercussions of which still being felt as of July 2021

Making music

Humans have created many types of drums. The oldest specimen found to date came from Neolithic China, over 7,000 years ago, and was made out of alligator skin stretched over a shell. Since then drums evolved to have different shapes, ranging from the petite snare drum to the huge kettle drum. They are set up to both keep time and rhythm, as well as to draw attention to the musicians playing them. The American high school drum line playing before a big football game is a classic example. 

Most drum circles use the djembe, a West African drum that creates three different types of sounds when struck by a musician, depending on how hard they are striking the drum with their hands: the bass, the tone, and the slap. The djembe has a long neck that allows acoustic sound to be projected louder than other drums. Its large frame is made from a single piece of wood, supported by cords, with the head stretched across the top usually made out of oiled goatskin. Unlike other drums, the djembe can easily be played by a solo drummer, making it good for a central source of music. They vary in size, but usually are roughly 12-15 inches wide, 11-25 inches tall, and weigh up to 20 lbs.

The djembe’s popularity in Western drum circles is easy to understand. It is easily transportable, making it easy for a musician to carry, a necessary feat as most drum circles tend to be fairly mobile. Its volume has led many musicians to say that a djembe can 'talk' to other djembes from a distance. Additionally, the drum can be produced relatively cheaply, with some mass produced models going for a little as $25 on Amazon (though a traditional djembe drum made in Mali, made out of lenke wood and desert goat skin, can cost hundreds of dollars!) making it an accessible instrument for the average musician. Finally, in order to play the djembe, a musician works within a core group of other drummers in order to establish beat and song. Although only three notes can be played with this drum, they are enough to inspire a circle of individuals playing together in different volumes and tempos with little background – a drum circle. 

Drum circles are arguably a core part of not only our human nature, but also our biology. Our primate relatives do it, our long-ago ancestors across the globe did it, and our fellow man does it. Whether you are at a drum circle on your college’s campus with other students, in a healing circle for medical professionals, or just shaking it at Burning Man, your participation in a drum circle may be joyous and carefree, but its rhythm is wired within your bones.