Did Our Drumming Contribute to Beating the Neanderthals?

Groups that drum together bond and can better perform tasks together even later on, Bar-Ilan musicologists and psychologists demonstrate

Ruth Schuster
Ruth Schuster
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Drumming in synch causes heartbeat rate to synchronize, which promotes social bonding
Drumming in synch causes heartbeat rate to synchronize, which promotes social bondingCredit: Moti Kimche
Ruth Schuster
Ruth Schuster

Music elevates the soul; its sheer beauty can make us cry, whether our taste runs more to Beethoven, the Boomtown Rats or Sid Vicious. But what sends our hearts pulsing and sets the dance floor afire is the drumbeat. Now a groundbreaking study from Bar-Ilan University reveals that group drumming stimulates not only psychological frenzy but physiological synchronization: when given the task to drum in tandem, the group drummers’ heartbeat rates became synchronized.

Moreover, the synchronized drummers experienced heightened bonding, Dr. Ilanit Gordon of the Department of Psychology with Prof. Avi Gilboa and Dr. Shai Cohen of the Department of Music reported Thursday in Scientific Reports.

Possibly we humans have sensed that ecstasy and heightened bonding without recognizing the underlying physiology. Drumming – including group drumming – goes back very far; some believe even the great apes and early humans were drumming, in some fashion. (Though no that isn’t a real gorilla drumming in the decidedly bizarre blockbuster Cadbury chocolate ad from 2016 but the sheer conceptualization is based on how much drumming moves us).

A gorilla drums and Cadbury's chocolateCredit: A gorilla drums and Cadbury's chocolate

It does beg to be added that no evidence has been found, to date at least, of musical prowess among Neanderthals or other archaic humans; there is also much argument over what seem to be prehistoric flutes made of bones found in Europe that date back as much as 40,000 years ago and were associated with Homo sapiens. Some think they have to be flutes — made of vulture or mammoth bones and so on, and can be used to make music. Others argue the holes were made by hyena teeth and the like.

There is a theory that giant basalt mortars dating to around 11,000 years ago found at Natufian burial sites in the Galilee weren’t used to crush grain (and/or to soften tough meat) but as a drum to summon the tribe.

One reason to suspect their usage as drums is that huge mortars built into the bedrock don’t seem particularly useful as kitchenware. You can’t just pick it up to shake out the flour. Another is their discovery in funeral contexts, leading to the thought that the tribe was indeed being summoned, but to a funeral.

Moving over to prehistoric Germany and eastern Europe, archaeologists investigating the “funnel beaker” culture (named for a particular pottery type) found numerous vessels that look like drums dating to 6,000 years ago.

Some even postulate that musical ability was key to the advantage Homo sapiens had over Neanderthals, noting its value as a form of communication, and that humans of all extant cultures sing and play music of some kind. Flutes may go back more than 40,000 years, though not all agree those bones with holes were musical instruments as opposed to the remains of a hyena's dinner. Also, we cannot possibly know if Neanderthals or other hominins trilled too; maybe they did.

No drummers were harmed in this experiment

In any case the flute can delight but the drum can send us into frenzies, and back at Bar-Ilan University in the year 2020, the team discovered actual synchronization of the heartbeat when drummers do it in tandem.

Their next goal was to show that physiological synchronization bolsters bonding, Gordon explains to Haaretz, and no, it isn’t obvious and hadn’t been demonstrated before. There are reams of literature on groups and bonding but none demonstrating the physiological contribution to the behavior, she says.

This synchronization of heartbeat rates was observed during drumming tasks developed for the study, in a multidisciplinary collaboration between social-neuroscientists and scholars from the Music Department at Bar-Ilan.

Natufian mortar found at Raqefet Cave
Natufian mortar found at Raqefet Cave: Could it have been a prehistoric drum?Credit: Dr. Danny Nadel

The study tested 51 groups of three drummers each, whose heartbeats were monitored by ECG. They used individual drumming pads in a shared electronic drum set.

Each test lasted four minutes. The base task was to match a tempo they could hear over speakers.

Half the drummer groups were played a tempo that was steady and predictable. The intent was for the drummers to produce synchronous sound.

The other half were played a tempo that kept changing, so their drumming couldn’t match it and synchronize.

Then, following the structured drumming task, the participants were asked to jam – to improvise drumming freely together.

Yes, the group that could match the steady drumbeat had greater heart-rate synchronization. But: heart-rate synchronization increased under both task conditions, Gordon says. “It isn’t the pace of drumming that causes the synchronization. It’s being together and doing a cooperative task and having fun together and drumming together is in charge of the physiological synchronization,” she explains.

Also, the groups with high physiological synchrony in the structured task showed more coordination in drumming in the improv session.

They looked into cause and effect and managed to rule out the possibility that it was the drumming at a specific rate causing the synchronized heartbeat rate. If it were otherwise they would get the same correlation between people who drum a given tempo simultaneously but not together, and people who drum together.

Clearly the correlation they received in the experiment was due to the actual interaction between the group members. Their physiological synchronization was beyond what could be expected randomly. 

And no, Gordon says, the people unable to synchronize their drumming because of the uneven tempo they were hearing didn’t deliver a cacophony. Nor did they suffer. No drummers were harmed in the making of this experiment.

“We were careful [to ensure] that the experience would be pleasant and easy, Gordon reassures. It was challenging but not too frustrating.

Bottom line: the family that drums together can get their act together better, or as Bar-Ilan puts it: Analysis of the data demonstrated that the drumming task elicited an emergence of physiological synchronization in groups beyond what could be expected randomly.  The behavioral synchronization and physiological synchronization was predictive of group cohesion – including when performing a task later on.  

“We believe that joint music making constitutes a promising experimental platform for implementing ecological and fully interactive scenarios that capture the richness and complexity of human social interaction,” says Prof. Gilboa, of the Department of Music, who co-authored the study. “These results are particularly significant due to the crucial importance of groups to action, identity and social change in our world.”

Perhaps the discovery of how powerfully drumming can affect us will improve the social standing of the drummer, commonly perceived as the weakest point in a band’s creative palette, leaving Phil Collins aside. As in the joke, what were the drummer’s last words? “Hey, let’s try my song.”