In the Beginning, There Was the Beat

When you came into this life, your first felt experience was the sensation of rhythm. Not the sound, but the sensation of rhythm. Before you could hear, see, or think, you were unadulterated physicality-pure instinctual and primal substance, animated by the spark of life that foretold of a human being. You sensed your being as only slightly distinct from your mother’s body, intimately connected to her physical and emotional rhythms, yet very gradually emerging into a sense of your own self.

Take yourself back to those first few weeks in her womb . . . Listen closely . . . Hear the “lub-dub-lub-dub-lub-dub”. . . . It’s your mother’s heartbeat, massaging what is to become you with its consistency and power, accompanied by the steady undulation of her breathing. If you were fortunate, most of the time the sensations generated by her heartbeat and breathing would lull and rock you.

So your initiation into life is first sensed completely through rhythm. It didn’t register consciously-at least not in the usual sense-or even through the usual senses. Instead it registered as an overall bodily sensation when you were a tiny developing fetus, permeating every cell in your organismic self, dancing with your soul, coordinating with the natural rhythms that were developing in your developing body, especially at the center of your physical self, your pulsating heart.

Throughout our lives we continue to come in contact with innumerable internal and external rhythms. We are so intimately familiar with these physical sensations created by rhythm that whenever we’re exposed to any kind of percussion, these earliest, primal sensations are once again activated, particularly to the degree that our bodies are open to these sensations.

When we’re exposed to any rhythmic music or percussion, what typically happens – even if only temporarily – is that parts of the body that have remained frozen or dormant and whose life force has become greatly diminished are stirred once again, filling up with renewed vitality. Drumming and rattling in a group of any size can only enhance this experience. After all, when you’re in the midst of good percussion, who can resist moving at least some part of their body, even if it’s only tapping your finger or your toes?

When rhythmic play is brought into a group or community, such as in a drumming circle, a gathering of friends, or a tribal ceremony, this adds other layers of richness and texture to the healing quality of this kind of experience. Healing takes place at the physical, emotional, instinctual, and communal level, sometimes obviously, sometimes subtly, in ways that are beyond our meager human consciousness and understanding.

When the body itself, or the parts that have been frozen or denied, experiences the sensations generated by rhythmic percussion, such as drumming, rattling, didgeridoo, or other rhythm instruments, especially in the context of community, the healing life force, or vitality, begins to blossom again, not only in our most basic physical selves, but in those areas of our hearts and minds that have been closed off and locked away. Anyone who is involved in a shared percussion experience on a regular basis, such as a drumming circle, knows the healing power of rhythm, power that not only positively affects the participants, but often extends into the field of the larger community.

One such story is related to one of my drums. It’s a small Djembe, a drum that has a circular top about nine inches diameter, tapering slightly to the bottom where there is an opening. I found it when I was wandering around during a local musical festival, checking out the various vendors’ booths. I came upon a fellow who was selling African drums, as well as some other goods. He introduced himself as I was surveying the drums. He told me all of his drums and other articles were imported from Senegal, where a brother who lives there acquires the items that he then sells at his booth.

There was one drum that caught my eye. I notice the carvings on either side, one side being the head of a jaguar, and the other being what looked like a tree. I started playing this one, and soon the owner of the booth picked up another drum and played along with me. Gradually three others joined us for a spontaneous drumming session that lasted several minutes.

When we finished, I knew that I wanted the drum I was playing. I asked the fellow who ran the booth about the carvings. He explained that the jaguar was an animal common to Senegal and that this particular drum was imbued with the spirit of Jaguar. Then he told me about the carving of the tree.

“In the village in Senegal where this drum was made, every Saturday night just after sunset, the villagers gather around this very large, very special tree at the edge of the village. It is called the Peace Tree. They bring with them their drums and rattles and sticks, and as they form a circle around the tree, randomly playing their various instruments, the sound becomes very noisy and chaotic.

“After awhile, once everyone finds their place in the circle, a magical thing happens. The drums and rattles and sticks start to coordinate in a beautiful symphony of rhythm, where the various sounds of the instruments weave in and around one another. It’s quite amazing. This goes on for a couple of hours. Everyone holds the intention while drumming to generate peace through this process. It is hoped that by drumming in this way not only will there be continued peace in the village, but that this peace will spread throughout the entire world.

“And so, my friend, the carving on your drum is the Peace Tree. May it bring you peace and happiness whenever you play it.”


ScoTT Senate
ScoTT S4 years ago

I'm going to challenge something in this article. According to Layne Redmond, it is not the mother's heartbeat we hear in utero, but the pulsing of her blood. But other than that, I agree completely.

In certain tribes the drummer holds the power over the tribe. Every member of the tribe gets to be the drummer at some point. When the drummer slows down, all tribal work also slows down. When the drummer speeds up, so does all the work. The drummer also sets the circumference of the tribe's safe zone by choosing the loudness or softness. If you can't hear the drum, you are outside the safety zone.

Camilla Vaga
Camilla Vaga4 years ago


Jen D.
Jen D4 years ago

And now I want to get a decent set of drums and join this drumming circle I know meets every so often where I live.

Spirit Spider
Spirit Spider4 years ago

A beautiful journey :-) thank you

Dot A.
Dot A4 years ago

Enjoyed your additional info, Robyn R., and wanted to say a Happy Belated Birthday, as well~

Apparently, sound is also our strongest 'sense' [vibrationally speaking] and that we lose this last. My thought is that this 'vibrational' energy is the leap we take to beyond. While science keeps investigating reality, and we get glimmers of information suggesting energies in a new way, it also inspires our thoughts to what may lie ahead - as this is what I thought of when I sat by my Sister's side as she left this world. Life is a mystery, -and a wonderful, beautiful, melodious mystery at that!

Studying our origins, as far back as we have yet gone,... may suggest our future, for those of us who enjoy this process. No need to argue something that is only speculative,... (our answers begin with questions)

Violet Sunderland

A friend and I were chatting while attending a weekly jam and I expressed my belief that I was already acquainted with my dad's saxophone playing by the time I was born. My friend's daughter, an accomplished accordianist, is one of the musicians at the jam and when her own daughter was expecting twins, the family was intrigued when the unborn babies started swaying in unison to the song their grandma was playing. I wonder if they have the same conviction about pre-birth awareness as I do, now that they are teenagers.

Mac C.
mac C4 years ago

I loved your article! Drums are my favorite... in a town where I once lived, the local drumming circle would sometimes play on the street during the monthly art show. I so enjoyed it. Thank you!

Robyn F.
Robyn O'Neill4 years ago

There is more to music than rhythm. Melody is of equal or more importance. And then there's harmony. Today's music is mostly rhythm so I shouldn't be surprised at the comments.
There are many cultures where melody is developed to express emotion and create peace. It may even be better than just pitchless chanting and percussion.

Mary L.
Mary L4 years ago

Lovely. Before I gained a ton of weight my heart beat was slower than the normal 4/4 time and I had low blood pressure.

Kerryn A.
Kerryn Ayton4 years ago

Wonderful article Dr Steven. Music is truly the universal language of love