Individual Project Proposal



How can the ethnomusicological study of drumming in cultural contexts inform the use of drumming in music therapy?


Music therapy is the use of music as a tool to bring about mental, physical, emotional or social change and healing in the participant.  This is separate from “traditional music and healing” found in various cultures, which is considered an alternative to modern healthcare and is usually the primary healthcare system of a society.

Importance of Question:

Music therapy is a new and important field of therapy that has real and distinct effects within practical world of psychology.  It has been used for multiple types of patients, from pedophiles to soldiers with PTSD to children with autism. Therefore, the furthering of the study of this field is increasingly important in understanding and developing further and better tailored treatments.  At the same time, the study of music to non-Western cultures has uncovered many traditions of music that have social purposes and effects, many of which involve healing.  However, these two fields have rarely intersected.  By investigating what about these musical cultural traditions leads to the social effects, these de facto techniques can be applied to the study of music therapy and advance its reach and effectiveness.


This paper will most likely consist of a literature review, then drawing conclusions and connections that will form an interdisciplinary thesis. (It is possible that an experimental proposal will come out of this endeavor as well, but no promises.) The first half of the paper will consist of a literature review of music therapy techniques, mainly those that involve drumming to create a focal point. This research will first look at the behavioral experiments and findings that underlie the therapeutic decisions in music therapy, and then the music that is used, the format of the therapy and the findings of experiments on these music therapy techniques.

The next section of the paper will consist of case studies of drumming traditions in various cultures.  As of now, there are two main focuses in this section—the use of drumming as a tool to create a cultural community in an immigrant population (Japanese Taiko drumming in Canada and African drumming in Florida) and the use of drumming as a tool for negotiation and unity in a community (American Indian powwow and drumming in Burundi and South Africa.)

Lastly, these two foci will be connected through an application of cultural concepts to music therapy techniques.


Bensimon, M., Amir, D., & Wolf, Y. (2008). Drumming through trauma: Music therapy with post-traumatic soldiers. The Arts in Psychotherapy, 35(1), 34–48. Science Direct

ABSTRACT: Combat stress reaction is common among soldiers and can develop to a post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). This distressing condition embraces symptoms such as feelings of loneliness and isolation from society, intrusive memories, outbursts of anger and generalized feelings of helplessness. Drumming has been receiving considerable attention in music therapy. Only few references relate to such activity among those who suffer from PTSD, and even fewer relate to combat induced post-traumatic syndrome, none of them empirical. The current study presents music therapy group work with six soldiers diagnosed as suffering from combat or terror related PTSD. Data were collected from digital cameras which filmed the sessions, open-ended in-depth interviews, and a self-report of the therapist. Some reduction in PTSD symptoms was observed following drumming, especially increased sense of openness, togetherness, belonging, sharing, closeness, connectedness and intimacy, as well as achieving a non-intimidating access to traumatic memories, facilitating an outlet for rage and regaining a sense of self-control.

RELEVANCE: This paper shows the effectiveness of drumming as a music therapy technique in the treatment of patients with PTSD.  It provides references for a number of background research studies that will be helpful in my analysis of music therapy, as well as an example of the drumming technique itself and the thought process behind it.

Mattern, M. (1996). The powwow as a public arena for negotiating unity and diversity in American Indian life. American Indian Culture and Research Journal, 4, 183–201. Google Scholar

ABSTRACT: In this article I will argue that the powwow can best be understood in these dual, paradoxical terms: It plays a unifying role in Indian life while providing a public arena for negotiation of differences and disagreements. The unifying role played by powwows is especially significant in light of the diversity within and among tribes. Although others have argued that the powwow plays a unifying role in this context of diversity, much can nevertheless still be added to our understanding of the specific practices that foster this unifying role. In the first part of this article, I will examine specific powwow practices in light of their unifying role. I will interpret the powwow as a communicative arena in which common experiences help create and sustain a common ground of memory, experience, identity, and commit- ment out of disparate experiences and identities.

RELEVANCE: This paper studies an example of the therapeutic aspects of drumming found naturally in a cultural context.  By looking at the case study of the powwow in American Indian culture, I will be able to understand the practice of joint drumming and develop a theory of the characteristics of drumming as a community that can be applied to music therapy.

Moreno, J. (1995). Ethnomusic therapy: An interdisciplinary approach to music and healing. The Arts in Psychotherapy, 22(4). Science Direct

ABSTRACT: Music has historically been, and continues to be an essential component of the practices of traditional healers in most of the tribal and other indigenous cultures throughout the world that are not primarily oriented toward the Western medical model. This is certainly well supported in the ethnomusicological literature, for example, in Musics of Many Cultures (May, 1993), a wide-ranging survey of 19 world music traditions. In the chapters on the musics and cultures of Indonesia, the Australian Aborigines, several sub-Saharan African cultures, North American Indians, Eskimos, South American Indian cultures and others, there is an overwhelming emphasis on the role of music in healing in the traditions of shamanism and spirit possession rituals. A study of these traditions within their cultural contexts can provide the basis for a better understanding of the role of music as therapy in modem health care settings (Moreno, 1988).

RELEVANCE: Moreno is one of the few music therapists to bridge the gap between ethnomusicology and music therapy.  His research (more general than my focus on drumming) is an example of the endeavor I wish to partake in, and is therefore invaluable to my understanding of the field, the possibilities of an interdisciplinary connection and ways to go about forging that connection.

Individual Project Question

I would like to explore the concept of joint drumming and its social implications.  My original interest in this subject stems from music therapy research that uses drumming and improvisation in a group setting for therapeutic gains.  There has been research in this regard with respect to many subjects, including Autism Spectrum Disorder, PTSD, aggression and sexual offender rehabilitation.  I would like to examine the various examples of drumming in music therapy contexts along with evidence of its social effects in general, and perhaps ethnomusicological research into group drumming in various cultures, with the goal of understanding the breadth of drumming’s social effect and musical and rhythmic underpinnings of this effect.  With more preliminary research, this question will become more specific–once I am more aware of the field as a whole I can focus on a more defined aspect of it for my research.

Journal of Music Therapy

The Journal of Music Therapy focuses on publishing scholarly article that advance the field of music therapy through multiple different means. These articles have a variety of research approaches; they can be quantitative, historical or theoretical and can range from specific effects to professional fields to more general foundational topics. The most recent issue from the Summer of 2013 presents an article promoting mixed methods research in music therapy, as well as articles at focus on specific empirical studies, such as the effect of music therapy on emotional-approach coping.

Developmental and Cross-Cultural Issues

For this portion of next week’s discussion, please read the Hannon et al. (2012) “Effects of perceptual experience on children’s and adults’ perception of unfamiliar rhythms.”  If you have time, it would also be helpful to look at the other Hannon (2012) article “Familiarity over complexity,” as it has a different focus (more of the cross-cultural aspect than the developmental focus of the first article.)

After reading the article, think through some of these guiding questions and submit a short response (and feel free to bring up something that isn’t mentioned below).  It is more important to have at least given thought to the different perspectives on the paper than for each of these aspects to appear in the response.

–What questions do you have about the article and its methodology?  What, if any, doubts arose as you read the paper?
–What do you think of the concept of a “sensitive/critical period” in terms of rhythmic and cultural development and their relationship?  (Have you had any interaction with this concept before?)
–What are your experiences with nonisochronous music, either in everyday life or in your music theory study?  If you have had an academic interaction with this music, think about the intersection between these readings and those for the Expertise discussion, both with regards to differences in sensitivity depending on age and what the markers of this cultural sensitivity are (familiarity versus complexity.)