Are drum circles music therapy?

Recently drum circles have become increasingly popular. They might even be more widely-known than music therapy (don’t quote me on that). Which begs the question, are drum circles music therapy? My opinion as someone who is not yet a music therapist but who knows enough about it is that drum circles are NOT music therapy. Here are the reasons why.


In my opinion, the main reason why drum circles are not music therapy is that for something to be music therapy it must be led by a certified music therapist. While technically a drum circle could be led by a music therapist it doesn’t have to be. Anyone can lead a drum circle. In other words, there is a difference of definition between music therapy and drum circles. Music therapy has specific goals and objectives and it uses music interventions to accomplish those goals. People go to drum circles, on the other hand, for recreation and to “have fun.” A drum circle is a “collaboratively, self-organized and musical event created ‘in the moment’ by all the people who participate.”

Kalani’s thoughts on the topic

Music therapist Kalani explains 8 other reasons why drum circles are not music therapy, which I summarize here:


  1. Differences in definition explained above.
  2. There is a “stigma” associated with the term “drum circle.” It was a term popularized in the 1960’s by the hippie movement and it is still something that is often associated with the term.
  3. The term “drum circle” has been misused.  Drum companies have used it. People also often call “drum circles” drumming experiences like African rituals that are NOT drum circles.
  4. “Drum circle” is not a term in music therapy literature. Educators and pioneers in music therapy have rarely if at all, used the term “drum circle” for any of their work. If drum circles and music therapy were closely linked, surely the top music therapists would talk about drum circles, right?
  5. Music therapy is enough. Music therapists have the tools to facilitate drumming experiences. A drum circle is something anybody can lead and therefore there is not much use of it in actual music therapy.
  6. Music therapy and drum circles are NOT interchangeable. Often people might think that music therapy and drum circle are the same thing and therefore, they can be interchangeable. This is NOT the case. Music therapy and drum circles have different objectives.
  7. Music therapy is MORE than FUN. Related to the previous point, drum circles are basically about recreation and fun. But music therapy is about much more than that! That must be clear. The music therapy profession is working hard gain the respect of other healthcare professions. This includes knowing that music therapy is more than having fun with music.
  8. Music therapists have always had what they need. A music therapist can create a broad range of drumming experiences with the training they receive. Drum circles do not really add much of value to music therapy practice.
  9. Help reduce confusion. Again, people are already confused about music therapy. If we then start calling drum circles music therapy and if we are not clear about our terms, people will get more confused!


Watch the full video here:


Kalani also offers in another article five options that he considers better than a drum circle: traditional drumming ensembles, drumming games, mixed media improvisation, drum play, and guided interactive drumming. His main point is that not because a musical experience is completely free will it necessarily be more enjoyable. The options he gives involve a clearer and more restrained structure that actually allows participants or patients to be more confident in what they do and play.


My opinion

I agree with Kalani that drum circles are not music therapy. But as he implies, this is not to say that drumming is not highly therapeutic and powerful. The rhythm in drumming experiences has effects that affect our physical, mental, and spiritual health. In centuries-old traditions, people have used drumming in healing rituals. Today’s research backs up these claims, as experienced in Alzheimer’s patients, autistic children, emotionally disturbed teens, recovering addicts, trauma patients, and prison and homeless populations.


Csaba Szabó pointed out that listening to monotonous drumming can have effects on subjective experience, for example. In fact, “participants who were listening to the drumming experienced the same strong alteration of their subjective experiences as subjects who were in hypnosis.” This could lead to great therapeutic outcomes. This study was mainly aimed at people listening to drumming, but there are similar effects for people engaging in drumming.


Music therapists could also work with drum facilitators to provide extra insights into the psychology of music in healing. Perhaps drum circle facilitators could add just a little bit of structure to allow everybody participating to feel comfortable. Sometimes people want more structure instead of less! Music and community building is not a bad thing at all. Drum circles can be fun and a great experience. The trick is to know when to call a music therapist instead. So, what do you think? Are drum circles music therapy or not? Let us know in the comments!

L. Samuel Gracida

L. Samuel Gracida

Samuel is Sam's Fans Operating Director and our primary blogger!

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