Let’s All Play Our Drum

By Seika Bishton, MusicWorx Intern

When you read the word “drum” what comes to your mind? Most likely something different from me and anyone else reading this blog. 

What did you see?

Music therapists often say phrases such as, “Let’s all play our drum” or “Everyone, grab a drum.” Saying the word drum is quick, short, simple and everyone understands what you are saying. Drums exist all over the world and I challenge us all to go beyond the word ‘drum’ and learn:

  • What is the culturally appropriate name of this drum?
  • What is the history of this drum?
  • How do I properly play this drum?

I believe learning more about drums is a great first step to becoming aware of the musical diversity this world has to offer. Drums are a huge family of instruments, but are all so beautifully different from each other. Celebrating and recognizing such qualities is important.

Why do Music Therapists Use Drums and Percussion Instruments in Clinical Settings?

  • To engage clients in active music making
  • To work on specific motor skills
  • To communicate non-verbally
  • To create a sense of community
  • To allow for musical and creative expression 

As a veteran percussionist and current music therapy intern, I am passionate to advocate for the proper use and technique of percussion instruments in music therapy settings. Join me in taking the first step to learn more about various drums and other percussion instruments.

Categorizing Percussion

First, let’s establish the different categories of percussion instruments. The two basic categories of percussion instruments are pitched and unpitched. Examples of pitched percussion include Orff instruments, boomwhackers and tone chimes. Orff instruments are small xylophones, marimbas and glockenspiels.

Orff Instruments

orff instruments


Tone Chimes

Unpitched percussion can be broken down further into drums and hand percussion. Common drums used in music therapy include, but are not limited to: timbaus, buffalo drums, djembes, tubanos, talking drums, congas, frame drums and darbukas. Below are some popular drums used in music therapy sessions, including the drum’s name, place of origin, and what it was used for.

Buffalo Drum

Origin: North America/ Native American

Intended Use: Spiritual ceremonies


Origin: Afro-Cuban

Intended Use: Latin-American Dance Band


Origin: Afro-Cuban

Intended Use: Rumba and Carnival Music

Darbuka (Doumbek)

Origin: Arab Nations and Ancient Egypt

Intended Use: Belly-dancer Accompaniment


Origin: Mandinka people (what is now Mali and Guinea in West Africa)

Intended Use: Cultural ceremonies such as marriages and harvests

Frame Drum

Origin: Middle Eastern, India, and Rome

Intended Use: Religious purposes and entertainment

Talking Drum

Origin: West Africa

Intended Use: To translate verbal language into a drum language and connects to spirituality


Origin: Brazil

Intended Use: Samba

Now, let’s take a look at hand percussion, or auxiliary percussion. These percussion instruments are smaller and fit nicely in our hands. Common hand percussion instruments used in music therapy are cabasas, maracas, egg shakers, and tambourines. 


Origin: African origins. Inventor of the metal cabasa: Martin Cohen, founder of Latin Percussion

Intended Use: Latin jazz and bossa nova music

Egg Shaker

Origin: Latin American

Intended Use: Supportive instrument in samba groups and mariachi bands


Origin: Native American cultures, Cuba and Argentina

Intended Use: Small ones were given to infants to calm them. Larger ones were used for specific rituals.


Origin: Middle East and North Africa

Intended Use: Combination of the frame drum and sistrum, which has small metal disks as seen on the tambourine.

Uncommon hand percussion instruments used in music therapy include triangle, finger cymbal, vibraslap, ratchet, flexatone, guirro, and shekeres.


Origin: Turkey and the Middle East

Intended Use: Religious purposes

Finger Cymbal

Origin: Middle East

Intended Use: Used by belly dancers


Origin: Central America

Intended Use: Originated from a quijada which was the jawbone of a mule and when struck, the teeth rattle


Origin: Europe and Asia

Intended Use: Rituals, work and war


Origin: England

Intended Use: Sound effects


Origin: Caribbean

Intended Use: Salsa music


Origin: Caribbean and African Diaspora

Intended Use: Salsa music

For more detailed information about how to play some of the instruments above, I highly recommend this video series on YouTube by Kalani Das:

Drums in Music Therapy

Drums and hand percussion are popularly used in group settings for group drumming. Sitting in a circle allows participants to see one another and the facilitating music therapist adapts the experience based on the specific needs of the group and can structure the session so everyone is successful. 

What Group Drumming Can Look Like in Music Therapy:

  1. Explain what each drum is called and how to play it. 
  2. Have everyone introduce themselves to create a familiar, friendly environment. 
    1. In the event a participant does not want to speak, allow them to introduce themselves by playing their drum. 
  3. Teach the group how to stop playing. 
    1. Ideally, there is continuous playing throughout the session, but in the event where music needs to cease, the group knows how.
  4. Teach the group different playing cues
    1. When to start, and loud versus soft
  5. Ease the group into a steady beat at a moderate tempo and gradually let the beat become an organic groove as the participants begin to play their own rhythms.
  6. Redirect the focus of the group by playing a steady rhythm of one strike per beat and wait until everyone is entrained. 
  7. Lead a few call and response exercises. 
    1. These call and response rhythms should start simple and gradually become more complex.
  8. End the session with a new, steady beat at a slightly slower tempo.
    1. Allow the volume and tempo of the group to gradually decay and come to a natural ending


A component of percussion that is easily forgotten but is important to our client’s success is technique. 

Music therapists and music educators often enforce good posture and discuss proper vocal technique before singing. So, why not talk about proper percussion technique? Clients can injure themselves over a period of time by incorrectly playing drums and we want to avoid that at all costs.

Step 1: Review proper wrist health

Incorporating wrist stretches and exercises before drumming can help protect clients from developing a wrist hyperextension injury. 

Here is a neat infographic called “Make Time to Stretch”’ created by Kaitlin Bruder that shows a perfect, basic wrist stretching sequence.

Step 2: Review how to strike a drum

Music therapists should encourage clients to strike the drum with a comfortable amount of force and be careful not to use too much force. Striking a drum forcefully over time can lead to a sore hand, wrist and arm. In addition, make sure the drums are at an appropriate height for each client to avoid overextending the wrist and to prevent poor posture while playing.

Step 3:Taking it one step further

I encourage teaching the 3 basic tones you can produce from hand drums such as djembes, congas and timbaus. The 3 tones are bass, open and slap. A bass tone is made with a flat hand, played in the center of the drum. An open tone is played with a flat hand, off-center and creates a resonant “open” tone. A slap tone is actually difficult to play and should be played with caution. A slap tone is produced by striking the outer edge of the drum head using just your fingers. This tone is dry and higher in pitch. If it is your first time playing slap tones, it will take some time to find the “sweet spot” but with time and practice, it will come.

For more information on how to produce these tones and what they sound like, visit this video created by Kalani Das and World Drum Club:

If you’re looking to add something new and exciting to your life, I invite you to explore Remo HealthRHYTHMS Group Empowerment Drumming. This program promotes wellness for all by using drumming to reach social, emotional and communication goals. Of course, right now we are currently in a global pandemic and attending these groups are not safe yet. However, when we can start attending groups like this, it’s a great way to experience group drumming. To address safety concerns during this pandemic, Remo has developed Green and Clean Drums Designed for Music Therapy. These drums are designed to tolerate constantly being disinfected throughout the day by music therapists, music educators and musicians.

I hope you were able to take away one new piece of information on percussion instruments and drums. The next time you walk by a music store, challenge yourself to identify a couple of differences between two drums. When our world returns to a new normal, maybe look for a community drumming ensemble and go to a meeting or jam session. The best way to learn is through experience. Try out some of the techniques, ask questions about the instruments and don’t forget to stretch before! If you are not interested in percussion, I understand. There are many unique instruments out there that may spark interest for you and I encourage you to explore that joy and curiosity.


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