The Effect of Drum Play on the Brain

RAT-A-TAT-TAT AND A RUM, TUM, TUM, Listen to the children playing on the drum!

During the time of early childhood, new neural connections are forming more rapidly than at any other time of our lives. From the age of about five years the brain starts to prune these connections, keeping only the most important and frequently used ones. This is why engaging interactive musical play is so important for young children.

Everyone responds to the rhythmic patterning and steady beat of drum play. Music is organised sound. The organisation of patterns on the drum usually involves elements of the unexpected. Children can become highly engaged through the playful interactive experiences on a drum. We can bring suspense, humour through use of pauses, faster or slower patterns, use of story or song.  Without the stimulus of interesting rhythmic patterns, an ongoing steady beat becomes like a beating clock or metronome causing our brains to “tune out”. Human brains are amazingly sensitive to timing information. Our ability to make sense of music depends on our experience. The brain undergoes a period of rapid neural development after birth. Loving playful musical interactions with your child through dancing, singing, chanting or playing, help neural connections to be formed.

The more musical experiences babies and young children have though musical play, the more they respond and interact. The continuity and repetitive nature of rhythm interests the brain which finds information paced by steady beat and pattern non-threatening. As we play the drums together there is a strong sense of structure, form and community. The brain attends to the repetitive nature of pulse interacting with rhythmic patterns. Rhythmic repetition seems to bring the brain and system to attention and incredible focus.


Matching the speed of a child’s play is very important. Listen and match the speed and dynamics (loud/soft) that a child is playing. This brings about strong emotional connections. When we mirror precisely what the child is doing moment by moment, it helps develop a sense of pride and affirms what the child is doing. All children respond to the changing tempo of drum play, becoming calm with slow, steady beat and pattern which might be a single word, or word patterns chanted over and over, or interesting rhythmic patterns generated by the child.

Children respond emotionally to the use of changing tempo: slow steady drum play, then fast more arousing play and back to slow. A very slow speed might cause the brain to tune out. However this speed might be precisely where a child is emotionally and by matching this slow speed, the child becomes calm and settled. Conversely, a child might be playing very quickly. This speed can be matched by playing quickly and playfully with the child and gradually slowing down. This gradual slowing down brings the child from a place of high arousal to a state of calm.


In every culture the presence of pattern is very evident. Rhythmic pattern is one of the most important elements of pacing the learning of spoken language. When we break down words into rhythmically patterned syllables, with clapped or drummed syllables, the non-verbal child, or the child who is learning English as a second language becomes very attentive and motivated to imitate and learn word sounds. Today an eight months old baby sang an approximation of “Oh Yeah” at the end of one of our blues babble song we sang as we listened and drummed together.


I use gathering drums of different sizes in my music classes for babies and older children. This drum play provides powerful sensory feed- back and learning. The babies respond to the hand drumming showing intense interest as they put their hands on the drum surface. They feel the vibrations of the drum and explore the drum surface, making rubbing, patting and scratching sounds. Often they begin to vocalise and sing as we sing and play together. Whatever sound the baby gives is imitated. Often the babies bounce in time to a steady drum beat using whole body movement. Developing a strong sense of timing and steady beat is crucial for all learning.

Children enjoy making up rhythmic patterns and do so frequently in their own play.  They enjoy dancing to the rhythmic patterns of a drum, learning to stop on cue when play and stop games are played on a drum. They respond to playing the syllables of their names, making up nonsense word patterns, imitating patterns from nursery rhymes, guessing the song from the rhythmic word patterns:  “Humpty Dumpty”, “Hickory Dickory Dock”.

Following the young child with turn taking play on the drum develops listening, musicality, anticipation, playful interactions, a strong sense of self, cognitive, humour and social skills. Music and language acquisition can go hand in hand. As we sing, play and drum together with the children, their brains are learning a kind of musical grammar that is specific to the music of their culture, just as they are learning to master and speak the language of their culture.

Tuesday 19th August 2014
– Julie Wylie