Beating Stress -- on the Drums

Feb. 9, 2001 -- Five years ago neurologist Barry Bittman didn't even know what a 'drum circle' was. He was attending a conference and had just given a presentation on laughter and immunity when a music therapist pulled him aside and asked him if he wanted to go to a drum circle. Bittman recalled giving her a kind of 'What are you talking about?' response -- but then followed her into a room where 600 health professionals were keeping rhythm. "I could literally feel the energy of the sound," he says. "[The vibrations] felt like an ancient ultrasound."

It took a few more years before Bittman, now CEO and medical director of the Meadville Medical Center's Mind-Body Wellness Center in Pennsylvania, actually studied the biological effects of drumming. But what he has found might make a sudden health fad out of floor drums. Simply put, group drumming seems to have a de-stressing effect on the immune system.

"This is the first building block looking at group music-making," Bittman says. "We're not saying this is a cure for cancer. We're not a bunch of quacks." In fact, Bittman made it very clear to WebMD that he is a medical doctor and that rigorous science was applied to this study

"I'm not one of these alternative medicine people who say, you take this herb, this supplement, and it's going to make a difference," he explains. What he's saying, instead, is that blood measurements on more than 50 subjects before and after group drumming showed a significant increase in chemicals related to immunity and to decreasing stress.

The full implications of the research, which was funded by a drum-making company, are unknown. But Bittman says immune-system response aside, those who drum with others report a feeling of community and closeness -- and that is beneficial in and of itself. "The beauty of this form of music making is there's an inner drummer in each of us," he says. "The learning curve is so small."

But, he says, there might be a different 'stress' response if the purpose of the drumming changed, for example, from playing for fun to practicing for a profession. "If we look at music-making in our society, most of it is done in school. Only 5% ever continue to make music, despite the fact that listening to music is America's favorite pastime. And those who do it, do it from a performance standpoint ... just like another job."

Music therapist Barry Bernstein says he isn't surprised by the research, but no less delighted. "I'm not a doctor. But when this research came out I was thrilled. I do a lot of programs -- sometimes four a day, taking down and setting up. It's quite arduous, and my body pays a toll. Sometimes I go into a program not feeling well and every time I start drumming that goes away."

Bernstein, who founded Healthy Sounds in Overland Park, Kan. to spread the percussion-health message, has a theory why drumming might work. "There's something about the vibration. It's tricky, because I don't speak from a highly scientific background on this. But the vibration organizes the water in our bodies. Part of it is, I think, the water in our bodies is getting organized at the cellular level."

The Bittman study appears in the latest issue of Alternative Therapies, along with another piece of research dealing with the therapeutic effect of sound. This one, conducted with 15 subjects at the Clinique Psyche in Montreal, sought to find whether binaural beat tapes could ease mild anxiety. These tapes produce two sounds at a time -- one in each ear -- which are similar. Some research suggests these binaural beats induce changes in brain electrical activity which correspond with relaxation.

The conclusion of the researchers -- based on information that was self-reported by patients who listened to the tapes at home for four weeks (and not always as instructed) -- is that the tapes do seem to have a therapeutic effect.