Drums: The Rhythm of Life

Everything from the human body to the limits of outer space beats to the same rhythm of life.


| July 2014



Drumming the rhythm of life.

Drums are the most essential and widespread instrument in the history of human culture; its beating is the rhythm of life.

Photo by Fotolia/EasyBalance

Religion scholar S. Brent Plate explores how everyday objects are intricately connected to spirituality in A History of Religion in 5 1/2 Objects (Beacon Press, 2014). Plate analyzes the deep-rooted similarities in how these objects, connected to the five senses, have been used among different religions, and across history. The following excerpt focuses on sound by taking a close look at drums and the rhythm they create in life.

Drums: The Rhythm of Life

The drums were still beating, persistent and
unchanging. Their sound was no longer a separate
thing from the living village. It was like the pulsation of
its heart. It throbbed in the air, in the sunshine, and even
in the trees and filled the village with excitement.
— from Chinua Achebe, Things Fall Apart

The heart is a drum. Its beating is the rhythm of life. Its pulsing provides memories stretching back to our embryonic state: sounds that shaped and soothed us before seeing or speaking. In the womb we are woven into a sensual soundscape that persists deep within matured bodies, surfacing on occasion to connect us to other beings, to the world around, to the flow of life’s cosmic dances. Constant, steady tempos indicate a good life; erratic, rushing rhythms a cause for concern. No pulse indicates an end. To be is to beat.

Charles Darwin surmised that the beats, tones, and cadences of music preceded language on an evolutionary scale and brought beings together: “The suspicion does not appear improbable that the progenitors of man, either the males or females, or both sexes, before they had acquired the power of expressing their mutual love in articulate language, endeavored to charm each other with musical notes and rhythm.” Birds do it. Bees do it. Fact is, Homo sapiens does it too; prancing and preening, and dancing and singing, we supply rhythms and melodies and harmonies that bring us closer. We make music for attraction, to draw others to us, which paradoxically gets us beyond ourselves, losing ourselves in the process, if only to find something of our true selves remade. The “profound meaning of music and its essential aim,” composer and music theorist Igor Stravinsky says, “is to promote a communion, a union of man with his fellow man and with the Supreme Being.”  By all means, “It don’t mean a thing if you ain’t got that swing,” as the song goes.

Even on a vast cosmic scale—which we tend to think about in primarily visual terms, seen through telescopes—the universe itself beats. Astrophysicist Janna Levin has been working on documenting the sounds of space, particularly black holes. As she puts it, outer space wobbles and rings out; black holes, those scientific wonders of curved space and sucked-up light, pound and pulse. And that primary mythical metaphor of the beginnings of it all, the big bang, is nothing if not percussive. We are part of a vibrating, rumbling galaxy that we cannot always consciously hear, but that undergirds our comings and goings nonetheless. 

Perhaps this is why the drum is one of the most essential and widespread musical instruments in the history of human cultures. Drumbeats knit us into the cosmic fabric of the universe, into the social fabric of families and lovers, and into the rich textures of religious traditions. The sound of the drum reaches our eardrums, sonic percussions that draw people together in space just as it pulsates in time, cocreating melody, harmony, rhythm, and tone. The drum measures time, providing a sonic backbone for the jazz trumpeter and sutra-reciting monk alike. But it is not merely a metronome, some constant presence relegated to the background to help us keep on the path. Across religious traditions, drums invoke the gods, protect people, create rain, unite communities, and bring us to the point of ecstasy. They also conjure division and destruction, stir wrath, and start war. Drums can be living beings themselves, with or without their sound, and so one persistent question is whether it is the object itself (the drum) or the object that is produced (the sound) that is most central.