zaterdag 2 juli 2016

Music, rhythm, and health effects

Recently, I added subtitles to a documentary I made in 2015. That documentary was on the Didgeridoo musical instrument, and was kind of experimental. I have never really made a documentary before, but still I wanted to take it seriously, approach it as professionally as possible.

That documentary was thus on the Didgeridoo instrument, neither an instrument I play. This way, in making it – I reasoned – it was also educational for me. I am very interested in (World) Music and instruments, so it was still somewhat “up my alley”. Musical instruments I play are mostly percussion instruments, and occasionally mbira, harmonica, balafon, flute, MIDI keyboard, or guitar.

The documentary included - or should I use present tense? -, includes, an interview with a Didgeridoo player I met once (Nick Bastiaansen), having seen him perform with a didgeridoo a few times.

This post is not an indirect, “sneaky” way of self-promotion, as some might see it: quite simplistically and negatively of course. Okay, perhaps a bit, I admit. Yet, I don’t make money with this documentary. Furthermore, in my experience, the “ego trip” accusation is sometimes just, but often also used selectively for people you already don’t like for other reasons. For people one likes it suddenly becomes “justful pride in one’s effort/work (or skills)” or “self-expression”.

Let’s just say that I learned more than I knew before about the Didgeridoo, making this documentary, and I am satisfied with the results. People can judge for themselves, and I hope many people want to see it too (subtitles switched on with button, first on the right below).

This post is not about making a documentary. Neither is this post about the activity of “adding subtitles” or “translation”. I translate texts quite a lot, mostly between Dutch, English, and Spanish, both professionally and personally. Then, “subtitling” is a specific skill and activity that has its specific issues (timing with film/images, didactics) even beyond “translation” as such. To be honest, though, I think translation and subtitling are not themes I find interesting enough for my blog.

Instead, I choose to focus on a theme discussed in the said documentary, specifically in its last part, involving the didgeridoo player Nick Bastiaansen. Especially, at the very end of the documentary.

I end the documentary with a short “jam” of me (with the Ashiko drum) playing with Nick Bastiaansen on Didgeridoo. I interrupt/interchange this with final questions regarding any eventual “healing” or “medicinal” properties of the Didgeridoo. That is a theme Nick Bastiaansen knew something about, he mentioned before. It is found after 40 min. and 32 sec. into the documentary (direct link to that part:

Nick’s answers were interesting, though maybe a bit difficult to grasp at once. Translating/subtitling it made me grasp it more (again), I must say. He mentions the effect of the Didgeridoo sound and playing on health: physiological: on brain waves (having a calming effect), on blood vessels, better blood streaming, and other aspects..


This made me think. I sense there is definitely also a (positive) health effect of dancing to rhythms, when one allows oneself to come in a trance created by (poly)rhythms. When playing percussion myself, in songs/percussion instrumentals I made myself, but of course also in other music by others, even if primarily consisting of drums and percussion. This last is common (at least traditionally) in some cultures (parts of sub-Saharan Africa, for example).

Not everything needs to be, as an expression goes, “analyzed to death”, I realize this well. You just feel beter after you danced and got a time in a groove. You might even feel “renewed” or with a new perspective of life. Take it for what it is, one might argue: no need for complex, semi-academic, “textual” scrutiny.

On the other hand, I think a proper analysis would do it more justice. The danger of “over-analyzing” should besides not be exaggerated. After all, in my opinion there is a positive correlation between knowledge and enjoyment, not a negative one, as others state.. Perhaps, this is different for each person.

Some analysis I find appropriate, anyway. Just like Nick Bastiaansen analysed the effects of the Didgeridoo on human health, beyond just “fun” and “nice vibes” with the Didgeridoo.

One aspect in this is rhythm. Instruments I play are mostly rhythmic in essence, albeit with often secondary melodic or harmonic aspects. The Didgeridoo, however, is not really a rhythmic or percussive instrument as such. It is a single-tone/key “sound” instrument, that admittedly can be played in a percussive, rhythmic way on occasion. This made me wonder: are there health effects of “rhythmic music” or “drums” that are comparable, or in turn quite different but also positive for humans? On the brain and/or body? Psychologically and physiologally? I imagine there must be. I have read something about it in the past, seem to experience it as such, but decided to study it further for this specific post.

What I studied more up to now is the cultural function of percussive music and drums, especially in African music. That is a field of interest to me. I discussed it on this blog here and there already. The trance-like possibilities of polyrhythms in African or African-derived cultures and religions (Vodou, Santería, Kumina), as part of “spirit possession” in some way. Such rituals and practices relate to health aspects, even explaining their cultural existence. This seems to me self-evident. Drum music can have community and not just individual functions, but even “harmony in the community” has health or psychological aspect, of course. African world-views – especially traditional ones – tend to be more collectivistic than modern Western ones. This has valuable aspects as well. It might cloud, however, individual effects of percussive music, that are interesting to know about, I opine. Even in very collectivistic cultures, or extreme variants of “group” thinking, there are still individuals who cannot fully deny their own needs, thoughts, and feelings.

Moreover, in most sub-Saharan African cultures – more focussed on drum and polyrhythmic music, compared to other parts of the world – within the “collectivism” there still is a derived place for ïndividual tendencies and difference, part of the same culture, even if fitted in community senses. Like in other cultures, special, “different” indiviuals are imbued with a special, important “spiritual” roles, venerated and respected. Arguably, such individual difference is allowed relatively more in traditional African culture when compared to other “collectivistic” cultures, e.g. in parts of Asia, or even in parts of the Islamic or Western world.


In the modern, developed - and according to many “overly” individualistic and socially fragmented - Western world such individual health effects of music have been studied academically a lot. From the psychological, neurological, biological, or medical perspectives.

”Music therapy” is furthermore a quite developed field in several Western countries, often part of wider therapy contexts. Music therapy has been used succesfully in cases of autism, other brain disorders, motoric disorders, after strokes, cardiovascular conditions or disorders etcetera. Psychologically also in relation to “antisocial” behaviour, dealing with traumas, concentration and didactics etcetera.

Scientists have found in recent times “neurons” in the brain essentially there just to respond to music, rendering music an inherent phsiological or neurological (say: “biological”) effect, beyond psychological “inventions”, so to speak.


Also, as Nick mentioned in the documentary, the response of “brain waves” to music has been discovered, though the most common scientific terminology recognizes besides the Alpha, Beta, and Gamma wave types: Alpha waves (soothing, low frequency), Beta waves (activating, higher frequency), and Gamma waves (highest frequency), also Theta and Delta waves (even of lower frequency than the relaxed Alpha one, and not always relevant to adults).

In the following article “brain waves” and their characteristics and effects are explained clearly, I find.

Similar therapy applications of music – and distinctions - have been found, though, in Indian culture traditionally, in Yoga, notably in what is called ‘Nada Yoga’.

“Music” is broad, and includes of course melody, harmony, and rhythm, as well as different sounds (low, medium, high), frequencies, or speeds. I would find it interesting to know if “rhythm” (beats, cadence, “grooves”, metrums, steady beats etcetera) as such has different health effects than “tone” (e.g. the Didgeridoo), melody, or harmony. Drums in particular. Also, how about other percussive instruments like shakers, bells, scrapers, blocks, berimbau’s? Or semi-percussive xylophone/balafon-like or mbira/kalimba-like instruments, found in several parts of Africa traditionally as well?

Well, the studies I could find, seldom were that specific regarding instruments, especially not regarding “small percussion” instruments, as they are known. In a broader sense, though, rhythm, percussion, and drums or drumming have been studied also academically quite a lot. As I mentioned, it also has been put to use in therapy (including e.g. “drum circles”) in the US, Europe and elsewhere. Still, not yet in most “mainstream” therapy, must be pointed out. It is accepted more and more in Western therapy, both medical and psychological, that much is true.

All this – the present state of music therapy, in short - can be deduced from scrolling through the recent contents of the (authorative) academic journal Journal of Music Therapy (Oxford journals), specifically looking for rhythm, drumming and/or percussion.

This journal represents, however broad and academic, still a mainly Western perspective, notable in the relatively limited number of articles on percussion, and even less on “polyrhythms”, being a common base of traditional sub-Saharan African music, feeding of course into “Black” music genres created by African descendants in the West. Elsewhere, this one (for example) could be found about that: (

This causes that biased perspectives arise, such as the popularized notion that Classical Music heard by an unborn child is good for its mental development. Read: Western Classical music. Polyrhythmic or other music might have the same positive effects, but are simply studied less. Moreover, what is “positive” is subjectively, and culturally determined. The same applies to intelligence or IQ tests. Contrary to what some might think, IQ (like education) is largely a culturally specific construct, aimed at specific cultural goals (to function in an industrialized Western labour market context, notably).

The above “summarizing” article, argues that what makes music beneficial is “order” (math), going on to give (predictably), as representative of this, examples from “high-brow” Western classical music.

Well, I argue that “forest” African polyrhythmic, (“clave-based”) music also has inherent “order”, as does African, “swinging around the beat” Griot music. African polyrhythmic music influenced as well as Griot music influenced Afro-American “popular music” genres as Blues, Jazz, Reggae, Calypso, Son, Rumba, Salsa, Merengue, Samba a.o. in different ways. For the untrained ear, Didgeridoo music might not have that apparent order: yet is proven to be beneficial and soothing. It’s thus all relative.


When in studies, also the academic ones, the health effects of rhythm are discussed, it is often pointed out that rhythm is everywhere in our lives as humans, and in nature: our heart beat (One-Two), breathing, pulsating of blood, day to night, seasons changing, singing of birds, ways of animals, plants etcetera. The heart beat is what we first hear when conceived and in our mother’s womb: the heart beat of our mother. This makes rhythm so essential and original, that by definition we need rhythm to be complete, balanced. Returning thus to a focus on rhythm, if needed to improve our well-being and health. That is why it is said that, among other things, drumming boosts our immune system.

Nice that scholars confirm this, but it can be considered also as just “common sense” that we can imagine for ourselves: rhythm is nature, we start and live with rhythm (heart beat), so it must be beneficial.

All the more surprising is thus, I find, that in modern Western societies, “rhythm” is actually oppressed and devalued, obfuscated in the life of people. This can be explained by industrialization, for a large part. The increased distance of “nature” in modern Western life: the seasons, plants, animals, natural regeneration.. in short, the balance with nature has been lost. A cliché, but a true one. In its stead came unnatural rhythms making you work productively for the economy – a control measure, basically -, or commercialized “rhythm” for monetary gain, such as commercial music forms, though here it is a bit more egalitarian and with at least partly artistic/entertaining aspects.

Still, some music forms sound more like “corruptions” of rhythm than actually real rhythm and yet became popular, partly by media manipulation. This last aspect disturbs the ideally egalitarian, democratic idea of enjoying art and culture and creates injustices: it’s easier to make money with it (House, Disco, Techno), than with complex music (with polyrhytms, jazz, other Black music). Of course, genres like Reggae or Funk have quite some fans, and at times enter the mainstream (though not structurally), yet are relatively much less popular, and thus less profitable.

On a personal level, the "loss" of rhythm - or perhaps better: the detachment of it - is noticeable among individuals who usually do not dance to music, not even to particularly rhythmic music. Many do not even "feel" or "sense" the basic beat or rhythm yet move ("dance") to the music, but not the rhythmic parts. This is often noted - or joked about - by Black people about White people. Similarly, White people do in many cases - at least at first - not "get" polyrhythmic music, finding it just chaotic. This is of course not a crime against humanity: tastes and cultural preferences differ. One is entitled to enjoy music in one's own way, even if at times it seems a lack of respect. I wonder though: do they really enjoy it as best as possible? Do they get out of it all that there is to get, notably the health effects inherent in rhythm?

One crucial lesson one learns in a.o. the Nada Yoga tradition, is that positive health effects of music can really only be achieved if one truly enjoys the respective music for its own sake, not just the derived social power (negative identity, sense of belonging) or atmospheric issues associated with it. Then they would be just "pretending", for some reason. Again, this is their choice and no crime against humanity (at most confusing or annoying), but culturally "fitting" clothes, hair or stated enthusiasm is not enough for it to be "real". This even applies sometimes to people in looks or genetically from the "same culture", yet with no real interest or love for certain music. All this is comparable to good food or beverage: just smelling it - or even tasting it - is not the same as actually fully digesting it within your body. The European tradition that developed made listening to music something of only the "ears", so to speak, and dancing circumscribed and marginalized. In the African tradition on the other hand, one "listens with the whole body": ear and brain for sure, but also the rest of the body, as music is meant to dance to.

That's, in my opinion, the real test of musical affiliation: if one can enjoy it according to its own terms and intentions. For the same reason that a love relationship with a person whose thoughts or opinions you do not care about is not "real".

Anyhow, returning to experiencing real, natural rhythms - and willingness to do so! - can be healthy and beneficial in response to absence of rhythm (in society and/or persons), or in response to the unnatural or disturbed, corrupted “rhythm” use.


The following article I also found interesting, especially the part on “synchronizing brain activity” and the link made between drumming and meditation. The last aspect I already imagined from own experience (a bit related to “Trance” as is a known effect of repetitive rhythmic music). The “synchronizing brain halves” part was new and insightful to me. Also, it goes beyond the arguments promoting “music that helps to relax, thus to concentrate and be more healthy”, that is not totally untrue, but a bit too obvious or better said: simplistic. Music therapists point out, that for some people in fact “activation” (like of the Beta brain waves), rather than "relaxation", is more helpful to their well-being and sense of health improvement. It differs per person and need. "Depression", often sadly triggering suicides, stems from too much of the "low frequency" brain waves (Alpha or lower).

Certainly worthy of mention in this regard is Cornell Coley, a drummer specialized in health and education drumming, basing himself also on the mentioned scientific evidence on health effects of drumming, such as the boosting of the immune system (including by creating cancer-fighting blood cells!), in dealing with disorders, with traumas (by focussing on the present), the also mentioned synchronicity between logical and creative brain halves, and other aspects.

In the lecture underneath (from min. 7:50) he summarizes these health benefits, and also his website is interesting to check out ( ). He uses the significant term "preverbal connectedness" (with nature and universe a.o.) as one of the benefits of drumming.

Dancing to relatively fast-paced, rhythmic music can thus be beneficial too, inducing trance in a positive way, such as in rituals of Afro-American belief systems like Vodou or Santería: typically polyrhythmic songs (chants and drums with specific percussive patterns) meant to “heal” or “resolve” community or personal problems (often via possession by a specific spirit or “forefathers”, as added cultural aspects). Such rhythms can, to some ears, be too “busy” (even if relatively mid-tempo or slow), chaotic, or “boring”. The rituals are in many cases, however, meant to and accepted as “healing” or “resolving”.

Generally, African-(based) polyrhytms combine not only different independent rhythms, but also different tonalities and pitches (high or low, deep or dull, round or sharp etcetera), and different tempos.

Ritual, Nyabinghi drumming music by many adherents of Rastafari (an Africa-focussed movement arising among Afro-Jamaicans in the 1930s) has, in a restructured way, these same aspects, in that while the emphasis is on drumming a kind of (natural) One-Two “heart beat”, this is varied with “cross-rhythms” in the African tradition. This was originally influenced by surviving polyrhythmic African music traditions in Jamaica (Burru, Kumina). The drums used in Nyabinghi derive largely from Kete-type drums from the Ghana region (used before in Burru music in central Jamaica), whereas the played rhythmic patterns of Nyabinghi are influenced by Kumina patterns, originating in the Congo/Central African region. Rastafari is further Christian- and Bible-influenced (albeit from an own African perspective), which is combined with these African musical aspects.

Anyway, Nyabinghi certainly is used not only for beneficial community functions, but according to many also for personal (mental) health improvement, improving focus and concentration, and for “meditation”, similar to how Yoga functions for some. Rastas use the interesting term "grounding" or "groundation" for the positive effect of this joined "heart beat" drumming of Nyabinghi.


In Ethiopian Orthodox Christian church services there is also drum music (unlike in mainstream European Christianity or Islam): basic, “deep”, repeated beats aimed at inducing a spiritual mode or “mild trance”. Only the Suffi, more spiritual variant of Islam (influential in Islamic parts of West Africa as well) tends to use rhythm and drumming somehow in its spiritual/religious practices, though as part of other (melodic, harmonic) music. Drums and rhythms are used in Islamic countries outside of Africa or Suffi influence, but not as part of Islamic practice as such (i.e. in secular, folk culture). Early folk Christianity (Orthodox, Catholic) in some parts of Europe had a bit more attention to drums and percussion, before later the Vatican’s or Protestant rigidity took over. Remnants can be found in rural traditions in part of Eastern Europe (e.g. Ucraine), and parts of France and Spain.

In Ucrainian traditional culture, they tend to have (for European standards) relatively many percussion-like instruments (like rattles, sticks, drums) that were partly also used in Orthodox Church activities. This also because bells (now used a lot by churches, of course) were not used by Christian churches before the 10th century.

Likewise, the Basque, wood-based Txalaparta percussion instrument ( has according to historians been used in early Catholic churches in that part of North Spain and SW France, maintained perhaps because of the territory being not really conquered fully by the Islamic Moors in the 8th c., unlike for a period much of more Central and South Spain.

The Castanets ( are further a well-known percussion instrument, commonly used in most of Spain, including in some Flamenco genres of South Spain, as in (Central Spanish) Jota genres. The Castanets, according to historians, predate however most probably both Islam (it was in Spain before the Moors) and Christianity, probably dating even back to pre-Roman, Mediterranean or North African influences in Spain, by Phoenicians, from Ancient Egypt, by Carthaginians. Interesting to learn..

Industrialization (or “Capitalism” if you want) as well as organized religion, thus, worked against rhythm and nature in our lives in profound ways. Making us even forget what “life” is essentially about. This causes disorders, illnesses, unbalance in humans that “rhythm therapy” might solve or heal. Also the “didgeridoo” I made a documentary about, is probaly “healing” because it is a relatively very “natural” instrument: wooden, and originally not fabricated but rather “found” in woods by Aboriginals, as (eucalyptus) tree branches, hollowed out by termites (insects that only live in more tropical areas of this world). Even the way of playing (with a certain way of using mouth and breathing) seems to fit well, and be in balance with human biology. See the documentary for more information on that (more “self-promotion”, haha).


Some studies have by now been done in the "developed world" on the health effects of rhythm, psychologically and physiologically. This led to some interesting insights: on brain activity responses, relations of health to rhythm-induced "trance", or social effects. Although the studies are relatively limited in number, it led to the use of "rhythm" and "drumming" in therapy, sometimes as part of even formal health care. Partly still experimental, but hey..

I would welcome more scientific studies on the psychological, physiological, or neorological effects on human health of specifically African percussive music. Especially polyrhythmic music. This can lead to even more insight. This because even though, as I mentioned above, rhythm and percussion are used traditionally also in Europe, the Middle East, the Americas, and Asia, this use was and is rarely polyrhythmic: that’s a specific (sub-Saharan) African approach to rhythmic music. Health effects of it could be researched more in modern universities in the Western world.

On the other hand, ancient cultural and spiritual traditions in Africa and the African Diaspora have in practice already revealed and demonstrated that knowledge or wisdom about the beneficial health effects. This lacks only the Western urge toward categorization, fixation, written text, or terminology.