This is an excerpt from a chapter in my book, Different Drummer, exploring the use of drumming to help with self-stimulatory behaviors.
You can find other excerpts in the list to the right.
Kylie watched as I set up my gear, her face blank while she repetitively zipped and unzipped her sweater.
“She stims like this a lot,” explained her mother. “I can’t get her to focus when she does this. She just stares off into space and plays with her zipper or button. She can do this for hours and when I try to stop her she has a meltdown. She’ll pull away and scream.”
I nodded as I began to play. Simple, quiet rhythms at first. Just testing the waters.
The slightest smile appeared on Kylie’s face. It was gone as quickly as it came.
I settled into a groove with syncopated muted tones, creating a pulsing patter to try to engage Kylie. For about one minute she looked down toward the floor while zipping and unzipping her sweater.
I stopped for a couple of seconds, looking for a response. Kylie looked up at me. I started playing again, figuring that she was listening. She opened her eyes wide a few times as though she was trying to wake herself up.
I kept my syncopated patter going, interjecting a couple of rhythms I had found useful for stopping self-stimming. At about two-and-a-half minutes into this session, Kylie looked at her mom, who was sitting next to her on the couch. Over the next minute or so, Kylie looked at her mom and then away several times.
I switched to a 9-beat pattern and Kylie moved over to her mom and leaned into her and closed her eyes. The stimming stopped.
I played for another minute and noticed that Kylie was asleep. I stopped and left the room.
Kylie had autism. She engaged in a fairly typical behavior of self-regulation through repetitive motor movements. For Kylie, zipping and unzipping her sweater was soothing. Hers was a relatively subtle, innocuous behavior, one that didn’t seem to coincide with any outward stimulus or event.
This behavior was upsetting to her mother because when Kylie was stimming she was unreachable, having retreated into her own world. This is common among people with autism, though the stimming isn’t always present, because being unresponsive is a defining characteristic of the condition.
From my perspective, repetitive and self-stimulatory behaviors like this take two forms. They are either internally driven, possibly as a desire to retreat from the world, or they are in response to a disagreeable external stimulus. The stimming is a way to tune-out or modulate the stimulus.
This is an excerpt from a chapter in my book, Different Drummer, exploring the use of drumming to help with sensory processing.
You can find other excerpts in the list to the right.
“Brandon can hear the Fed Ex truck coming from miles away,” his mother, Jenny, told me. “He has super hearing. On the flip side, he is easily overstimulated by the noise. It’s good that we live in the country, otherwise he’d probably be screaming all the time. Is this something you can help with?”
“A lot of my clients have sound sensitivities. So, I think I can help,” I said. Brandon’s sound sensitivities remind me of Steven, a child from my study at a public elementary school. Theresa, one of the teachers helping with the study, had warned me that if I played my drum in the small room where I had successfully played for every other kid, Steven would run out of the room screaming. He didn’t. In fact, he was less bothered by sounds after listening to a recording of me playing for two months. So I was confident that I could help Brandon. This is why I was willing to drive forty miles to his home in a tiny town on the St. Croix River in Wisconsin.
I arrived and Brandon was standing on the porch, dancing excitedly on his toes.
“Hi Brandon. Do you like drums?” I asked.
I handed him a case and had him follow me into the house.
We went into the living room and I started to set up my equipment when a plane flew overhead. Brandon’s hands flew up to his ears and he started rocking and groaning. Jenny grabbed him and held him, soothingly. I sat by my drum and watched as Brandon reacted to the sound of the airplane. It was flying low and it took a while for it to get far enough away for Brandon to calm down.
“Does the airplane scare you, Brandon?” I asked.
He looked at me and didn’t say a word, though I thought I detected a slight nod.
“The planes don’t come very often,” Jenny told me. “There is a small light aircraft terminal a few miles from here and sometimes a plane will land or take off over us. When it happens Brandon gets anxious.”
“Do any other sounds bother him?” I asked.
“Anything sudden or unexpected will do it. He also hates the vacuum, lawn mower, and hair dryer.”
“How about loud noises? Are they a problem in general or is it only unexpected or droning noises?”
Not all loud noises bother him. He can handle loud music. He actually prefers his music loud. I think it’s mostly sounds that carry on.”
I turned to Brandon. “Do you mind if I play the drum?” I asked.
“Brandon, why don’t you sit down next to Mr. Jeff,” said Jenny.
Brandon came over to me and sat as I started to play. As you might expect, I started slowly and quietly, using mostly muted tones with some soft open tones and bass punches thrown in as I built the volume. I wanted to see how loud I could play before he began getting uncomfortable.
For about five minutes I increased the volume and added slap tones, which are the loudest most piercing sounds this drum can make. By the end of these five minutes, I was playing as loudly and intensely as I ever had. Brandon sat next to me watching my hands hit the drum. He was not bothered in the slightest.
This has been my experience with the live drumming for people who are extremely sound sensitive. In every case, they could tolerate what I was playing and none showed any signs that they were uncomfortable. No covering of their ears, no screaming or crying, no recoiling or shying away.
This is often not the case with a recording of the drumming. If the volume is too loud for someone with a sound sensitivity, he will cover his ears, complain or leave the room. But with the live drumming, this has never happened.
So, knowing that my drumming wouldn’t bother him, I settled down a bit and focused on playing rhythms that I have used for other kids who had similar sound sensitivities. I played a series of rhythms with more subtle differences between the lower and higher notes, creating more of a droning patter. Brandon shifted in his seat. I increase the repetitive nature of the rhythm and Brandon shift again, this time leaning away from me.
More repetition and Brandon stood up and left the room. I increased the volume and, as Brandon brought his hands to his ears, I dropped the volume and played a five beat rhythm heavy on bass tones. These rhythms and textures were in large contrast to what I had been playing. Brandon dropped his hands from his ears.
Next, I switched to a 73-beat rhythm that I played once before when a young girl was covering her ears as a plane flew overhead. This rhythm settled her down. And now, I wanted to see if it would relax Brandon as well. Testing a rhythm this way is what allowed me to develop the databases of rhythms related to symptoms.
After a minute or so with this rhythm, Brandon was next to me again. I eased off on the volume a bit and added a few more muted tones to the pattern. Brandon sat down. I added some more bass tones and played for several minutes before Brandon put his hands on the side of the drum.
It is common for kids to place their hands on the drum when I play a combination of bass and muted tones. The bass is deep and resonant. And it’s inviting. The physical sensations of the drum are palpable. You feel it in your chest.
Brandon held onto the drum as I played for several more minutes. Then I stopped. He continued holding the drum. I tapped out a simple bass pulse and asked if he wanted to join me. His hand slowly moved from the side of the drum to its head. He held his hand on the head as I kept pounding the bass pulse.
Soon he tapped in time with me. I kept the bass pulse going with the right hand and with my left added simple syncopations encouraging him to keep playing with me. We played together for a while before I stopped again. His hand remained on the drum for a minute or so. Then he lifted his hand, got up, and walked out of the room.
Satisfied with the session, I packed up and left. I made a tape for him and sent it to his mother the next day. I also asked her to specifically note how often and how severely he reacted to sounds in his environment.
I checked in with her after four weeks.
“Brandon is much calmer than he used to be. He is less bothered by the lawn mower and vacuum cleaner. The other day I forgot he was in his room when I turned on the vacuum and went down the hall with it. When I had done this in the past he would come screaming out of his room with his hands over his ears and run outside. This time he stayed in his room and kept playing.
“I was surprised because after I finished vacuuming I went into his room to get his dirty laundry and there he was, playing on the floor. I asked if he heard the vacuum and he said he did. I asked, ‘didn’t it bother you?’ and he said, ‘yeah’. I asked why he didn’t leave the room and he said he was busy playing. I was shocked because any other time and he would have been crying and screaming. This is just one example of how he seems much less bothered by the noises that used to drive him crazy.”
Due to the positive response I received from my last excerpt exploring a specific symptom (you can read that post here), I’m posting another symptom-based excerpt. This one is on mood issues and depression.
I hope you enjoy it.
“Logan came home the other day from school, ran straight into his room, and turned on his CD. I asked him what he was doing and he said that listening was his reward for getting an A on his math test,” described Kim, his mother.
“That’s great. It’s always a good thing when teens take the initiative to play their REI music on their own,” I said. “That’s a big change from last month when he wouldn’t listen at all.”
“Absolutely. He has taken ownership of the process. I can see his mood lifting. He cares about his schoolwork now and he’s getting involved again in activities at school. Before he started listening to the drumming, he just wanted to come home and stare at the screen.”
Logan was having difficulty in school, socially more than academically, when he began the REI Custom Program. He was slightly shy, though he had a couple of friends. Having recently turned fifteen, he had become moody and withdrawn.
Teenagers can be hard to reach. Whenever I run into a clients’ resistance to listening to the drums, it’s usually with teens. Logan was initially resistant, saying that he didn’t want “anyone messing with his head”.
Because Logan was not interested in the drumming – he often told his mother how weird he thought it was that she attended my drumming classes – we decided that I wouldn’t play for him live. Instead, she and I would talk about Logan’s issues and her goals for him. From that, I would make a recording that Logan would listen to before going to bed.
“He doesn’t want to do anything. He used to be so bubbly and energetic, but now he is so lethargic and down. Getting him up in the morning is impossible and he just drags himself through the day. His grades have slipped and he is distancing himself from his friends,” explained Kim during Logan’s intake interview. “Do you think the drumming can help?”
“I don’t know,” I answered. This was fairly early in the process of developing the REI therapy and I hadn’t yet worked with any teens with mood issues. I knew I could help with anxiety or attention and I told her that, but the mood would be something we’d have to evaluate as we went along.
“If you’re okay with feeling our way through this, I’d love to give it a try,” I said.
“I usually feel so good after the drumming class that I can’t imagine it wouldn’t help Logan,” she replied. Kim had been coming to my drumming classes for a few months. This was the reason she approached me about working with her son, even though he didn’t have autism or ADHD, the conditions I would often talk about during class.
This wasn’t an unusual request. Even from my earliest days of exploring how the drumming may work outside of its cultural context, people approached me and asked if what I was doing could help them or their children. This led me to work at Pathways, a center for people with chronic illnesses where I worked with clients with a large variety of chronic conditions, from pain to HIV, CFS (chronic fatigue syndrome) to depression.
One client, Jamie, was recently diagnosed HIV-positive and was feeling pretty hopeless about his life. He was 28 years old, generally healthy and not symptomatic, but he felt that he really had no future. I was worried when I first played for him because the entire time I drummed he sprawled on the couch and cried. These were not quiet tears, rather they were plaintive wails with full-body convulsions.
“Are you okay? Would you like me to stop playing?” I asked, as I stopped, concerned that I was making things worse.
“No, I’m fine. Please keep playing,” he answered between sobs. “This is the best I’ve felt in a long time.”
I looked at him, not sure what to say or whether to believe him. Jamie, I would learn was a dramatic guy. He did everything in a big way and crying was no exception.
“Really,” he sniffled, “I feel this deep well of grief and sadness purging from my body. Please keep playing.”
“Okay, but tell me if you need me to stop.”
I began playing again, searching for the most uplifting rhythms I could think of, careful not to deepen his mood. I understood catharsis and knew he had a great support system in place so I wasn’t concerned about him in general, but I was a little uncomfortable with such a dramatic show of emotion.
I kept playing until our session time was up. Jamie blew his nose, wiped the streaks from his face, gave me a hug, and left with a smile and a bounce in his step.
I met with him once a week for most of the summer, each session mirroring the others, with Jamie sobbing while I played and then leaving uplifted.
In mid-September he arrived at his last session and handed me an envelope. “This is my new address,” he said. “I’m following my dream and moving to San Francisco. I’m not going to let this disease stop me from living my life. Wish me luck.”
“Good luck,” I said as he bounced out of the room. I never saw him again. I don’t know what impact our drumming sessions had on his overall perspective and life choices, but I learned a lot about how to play for someone who was grieving and how to stay with someone as they moved through their emotions.
“Are you talking about spirits here?” A woman asked incredulously from the back of the room.
I was in New Orleans giving a talk at the Autism Society of Louisiana’s annual conference. My session was standing room only. Several hundred people were waiting for me to answer this challenging question.
“Historically, yes,” I said, pausing to let my audience take this in. “But the language used then was very different than what we use now. We know so much more about human behavior and today we have an entire lexicon of terms for these conditions. We have no need to view aberrant behavior as having a spiritual cause.”
Here I was in the heart of the bible belt, in the largest American city where vestiges of the African religious diaspora mingle with the conservative values and deep religiosity of the south. To top it off, New Orleans is a music town, lying at the crossroads of spiritual and secular music.
Blues, gospel and jazz, music that New Orleans is know for, each developed out of African spiritual traditions that blended with Catholicism to form musical styles that would eventually change the way we experience music in the West. Rock, pop, soul, R&B, hip-hop, rap, all owe a debt to the spirituals sung by the slaves as they toiled on the fields of a new America.
The Africans that were brought to the new world had long and deep spiritual traditions that consisted of an intricate musical landscape. Like with many cultures around the world, music was tied closely with spiritual and religious practices. Most every religion and spiritual practice around the world has employed music to express and deepen one’s faith.
For example, early Christian carvings, sculptures and paintings regularly show angels playing harps or drums, hymns are sung at nearly every service, and music has become an important addition to a church’s identity. Even my Midwestern, conservative Lutheran church had a band that played contemporary Christian music to praise and honor God. Other Christian faiths such as Baptist and Evangelical, often put more emphasis on praise with music than my highly conservative Lutheran upbringing. In fact, today the super-churches often spend enormous sums of money on their musical stages, equipment, and musicians.
Music touches us deeply and allows us to express ourselves, so it makes sense that it would be part of our connection with the sacred. However, many of us in the West are suspicious of music that feels too tribal. And nothing sounds as tribal as a beating drum. And it’s this association with tribalism and drumming that this woman spoke to. Her visceral response was that of fear.
Given the Hollywood images of tribal drumming associated with voodoo and the prevalence of voodoo in the consciousness of most New Orleanians, it made perfect sense. And because of this I came prepared to answer her question.
I should say that this woman’s question also spoke directly to my own concerns when I studied the traditions and developed my techniques. And it wasn’t the first time I was confronted with others’ suspicions of the drumming, especially when it was also connected to the sacred and spirits.
Several years before, when I was first exploring using drumming for calm, I worked with a 4-year-old girl with a condition called, agenesis of the corpus callosum (ACC). This rare condition, occurring in roughly one out of thousand people, is where the bridge between the left and right hemispheres of the brain doesn’t develop.
This child, Lily, had developmental delays, anxiety, and sleep problems, not unlike other kids that I played for on the autism spectrum. Due to my success with Stacey, I was asked if I could help Lily. She was a very anxious child, tantrumming often, especially when asked to transition from one environment or activity to another. She also had a very difficult time getting to sleep and woke often at night. I had seen that I could help calm and also suspected that, by extension, may be able to help with her sleep.
I played live for Lily in the same manner I had with Stacey and, like with Stacey, observed Lily calm down as I played. Her parents and I were encouraged so I made a tape of rhythms that they could play when she was anxious and when she went to bed. Lily fell asleep while the drumming tape played the first night and by the end of the second week she was sleeping through the night most nights.
But then I ran into a glitch.
Chapter 2, Part 1
“What do you think about doing a study on this?” asked Karl.
Karl was attending my African and Latin group drumming classes where I’d been telling the group about my experiences drumming for Stacey and other kids with developmental disabilities. Everyone was intrigued by the idea of using drumming for children with developmental disabilities, especially given the children were not asked to play the drum and only listened as I played. Karl, as it turned out, was the staff psychologist in a school district that contained what was considered one of the most progressive autism programs in the state.
“I think you have something here”, he said, “Maybe we could do the study at my school. It has a great autism program and the director is progressive. I’ll help you write a proposal and submit it. If we’re lucky we can do it this year yet.”
“That sounds exciting, but I don’t know how do write this type of proposal”, I confessed. “What does it need to look like?”
Up until this point, I had written articles about therapeutic rhythm-making, but nothing along the lines of what I would need for a study proposal. Karl went on to describe the key points of a research proposal and I went to work on a first draft.
As I was writing the proposal we hit a snag.
“You need a name,” Karl said.
“A what?” I asked.
“A name. For your therapy” he replied.
“What do you mean? This isn’t really a therapy yet. It’s an idea. An experiment.”
“I know, but the school board will want to it be more concrete. You can’t just call it drum therapy. How about something more clinical?”
“Okay, let’s see… AIT stands for Auditory Integration Training. That’s a mouthful,” I said, thinking out loud. ” And it sounds clinical and serious.”
AIT was an auditory therapy that was popular for autism in the early 1990’s. I was aware of it mainly because my client Stacy had gone through AIT several times. Her mother was well-versed in the process and had explained it in detail to me. Stacy’s mother was also a friend of the researcher conducting what would end up being the largest study done on an auditory intervention for autism.
It was the knowledge of AIT, along with my experiences with my drumming teacher Lloyd, that got me thinking that maybe I could be able to help with the condition.
So with AIT’s name as kind of model, Karl and I brainstormed.
“What is the drumming doing?” asked Karl.
“Well, I think it’s entraining the brain to a calm state,” I answered.
“Entrainment is a fancy word for synchronizing”, I explained. “There has been speculation that repetitive drumming can make the brain pulse in synch with the tempo.” I was referring to a study I had just heard about that documented what researchers had been speculating for a couple of decades. In this study, repetitive drumming at four-beats-per-second induced a corresponding four-beat-per-second theta wave in the listener’s brain. This discovery also fit with a series of studies done where rhythmic pulsations, in the form of binaural beats, were shown to induce a similar effect. This effect is often referred to as brainwave entrainment.
“Okay, you use rhythm to entrain”, surmised Karl. “How about calling it rhythm entrainment therapy? He paused and thought. “Not therapy. Intervention. Yeah, intervention. That’s better.”
“Rhythm Entrainment Intervention,” I pondered. “I like it. But I think it should be Rhythmic Entrainment Intervention, because the other entrainment approaches use beat frequencies. This sounds more precise.”
“Rhythmic Entrainment Intervention… REI. I like it”, Karl said thoughtfully.
So, we had a name. We had a study design and a protocol. Now what we needed was approval to do this in Karl’s school.
Schools are notoriously non-receptive to experimental programs, especially where kids were concerned. First we needed tentative approval from the program director and buy-in from the teachers. Then we would need consent from all the parents. From there, I was told, it would be on to the school board for approval. I was skeptical that we could do it.
“I’ll take this to the director and I let you know what else we need”, Karl said as he took the proposal.
The idea of a study intrigued me. I had been working with a lot of kids like Stacey over the previous year or so and had documented everything: The rhythms, responses and effects of various recordings. This study would be another step into trying to understand whether drumming had a place and whether specific rhythmic structures were useful for autism.
My teacher Lloyd had played for kids with issues similar to the kids I was playing for with autism. And I had watched Lloyd produce some pretty dramatic effects, especially with calming. I, too, had facilitated some great changes in anxiety along with improvements in other symptom areas; so I felt that this study may help me better understand the effects of the drumming, especially by collaborating with other people who had much more experience with this condition than I had.
Documenting case experiences and playing one-on-one were very satisfying for me for my own curiosity, but I really didn’t have much sense of what I should do with my music beyond this. However, I made a conscious effort to follow whatever path formed in front of me. This study could be an interesting one, I thought. One in which, I was sure, I would learn a lot. And I was all about learning more without any real expectation of where it would lead me (a trait that has been my guiding principle throughout my entire career).
After only a week Karl called and said, “We got it.”
“Got what?” I asked.
“Approval. Carrie, the program director, looked over the study proposal and felt it was worth doing. We presented it to the teachers and they’re all behind it. We’re now waiting for the last of the parental consent forms to come back. I figure you can start playing for the kids on Monday.”
“Wow,” I said. I really wasn’t expecting this to happen, and so quickly. “Okay I’ll see you first thing Monday morning.”
Now I was nervous. I had played for quite a few people up to this point, but a study? In a school? I was a drummer, not a researcher, at least not this kind of research. Up until this point research was something I did by myself for my own interest. Now I had a school involved in my weird idea.
I mean, drumming. To help kids with autism. How strange is that?
A quiet suburb outside of St. Paul, Minnesota. 7:30am Monday March 7, 1994.
It was unseasonably warm, which was a good thing because the top on my convertible was leaking and the heat in my old Volkswagen was never very good. Still, after a forty-minute drive I arrived chilled, my hands stiff. This won’t do, I thought. I have to be limber to be able to play for these kids.
This was my first day of a pivotal study that would forever change my life and the nature of my work. I was at the elementary school where we were going to track the calming effects of drumming on 16 children with autism ages 6-12. This school housed one of the most progressive autism programs in the state, and perhaps the country.
“We received 16 parental consent forms back for the kids,” described Karl when I met with him and the autism program director, Carrie. “That’s about half of the kids in the four classrooms. The kids range in age from 6 to 12, though most are between 8 and 11.”
He handed me the forms and gave me a brief overview of each kid’s issues.
“They are all so different,” I said, showing my lack of knowledge of the many manifestations of symptoms, abilities, and behaviors of children on the autism spectrum. “Some can talk, some can’t. Some are anxious, some are withdrawn. Some have seizures, some don’t.” I said, beginning to feel overwhelmed.
Could I actually do this? I wondered. Could my drumming have a noticeable positive impact on the kids? Sure, I had great success with Stacey and some other kids with similar issues, but the range of issues presented in these kids was astounding. I was feeling out of my depth. Who was I to think that my playing on a drum would help with a condition that professionals have been struggling with for decades and that even the multi-billion-dollar-a-year pharmaceutical industry was having limited results in being able to help?
Karl could tell I was freaking out. So he tried to calm me by putting the study back in perspective.
“Just focus on the calming,” advised Karl. “Try not to worry about having any dramatic effects. Just do what you did with Stacey and let whatever happen, happen. I’ll be in the room with you the entire time.”
I took a few breaths and we went to meet the teachers and aids. The introduction to the staff went well. Everyone was interested in seeing if the kids could be calmed. Anxiety and anxiety-based behaviors were the most significant and disruptive events during the day. So much of the teachers’ and aids’ time and energy went to managing these behaviors that very little learning actually happened. Anything that could have a calming effect on their students, I was told, was a welcome addition to their classrooms.
The vast resources that went into managing anxiety and anxiety-based behaviors is the reason that the most accepted therapy for autism centers on managing behaviors. ABA (Applied Behavioral Analysis) and other behavior-related approaches focus on re-directing behaviors through repetition, rote responses to stimulus, and an often arcane system of rewards and (sometimes) punishments. Behavioral therapies are time-consuming and labor-intensive – therefore expensive – and offer limited results unless implemented perfectly. A good behavioral therapist, working one-on-one with a client for 40+ hours a week, has to have the patience of a saint and the stamina of a marathon runner.
If this study could offer any observable improvement in calm, it could make the kids more at ease and receptive, potentially opening a door for learning and internalizing well-implemented behavioral approaches. Of course, thinking this way made me anxious again. It’s a good thing that at this point I was asked to perform a little of the type of drumming I would be doing. The staff wanted to get a sense of what my drumming was about. Up until now, no one but Karl had actually heard me play.
This is always the fun part for me. In instances like this I prefer to jump right into rhythms at my typical eight-beats-per-second pace rather than slowly speed up. This is partly for effect and partly because the sooner I can get the group to shift, the deeper I can take them in the few minutes I’m usually allotted for my demonstration.
Listeners always go through four distinct stages when they first experience me banging my drum. The first stage of listening to my REI drumming is disbelief, especially if listeners are expecting calm. Eight beats per second is fast. And the drum I play is fairly loud (I can make it painfully loud if I want to, though I don’t this day), so uninitiated listeners tend to get a little tense at first. This day was no exception. I actually saw some eyes go wide as I started playing. Several teachers looked over at Carrie, the program director, clearly wondering what this was about. Carrie, in turn, looked toward Karl, who just smiled and nodded in time to my playing.
After an initial shocker rhythm (yes, I can be provocative when I play – it makes people remember their experience), I settled into a calming groove based on the African afuche rhythm. This is a simple two-beat pattern that has a forward-driving feel similar in effect to a Mambo beat. Two-beats, by the way, are a two-quarter-note pulse, with me playing sixteenth notes. This means that there are 8 individual drumbeats in this pattern.
This simple groove brought up the second stage of listening to live REI drumming: Amusement. Some teachers smiled, some began to sway to the rhythm. I kept the two-beat pulse going until I saw most of the staff begin to relax and engage with me. Some of the same teachers who looked at the program director with concern now looked at her with what could be best described as, well, amusement. They were having fun but didn’t see how this was going to be calming for their students (or even themselves).
I began to morph my rhythm, turning this simple two-beat pattern into a complex arrangement of odd-meter variations that had no discernible beginning or end. Instead it appeared to be a stream-of-consciousness improvisation with no real goal. There was a goal, however. And that was to usher in the third stage of dealing with my REI drumming: Bemusement.
Now, nearly five minutes into my performance, I watched the gears in people’s minds clog and jam as they tried to understand what I was playing. This was especially the case with those trained in music. What I was playing could not be understood intellectually in the moment – it was too unpredictable and went by too fast to analyze – so confusion fell across people’s faces. At this point, I saw Carrie look at Karl, questioning her decision to let me be there. Karl nodded reassuringly at her.
I took this as my cue to help drive my bewildered listeners to the final stage of the REI drumming indoctrination: Surrender. Once the analytical mind surrenders and people stop “listening” and allow the drumming to waft over them, they let me take control of their brain. I’m just kidding (sorta). I’m not taking control in classic sense of leaving my listeners without a choice. I’m taking control in the sense they are open to allowing their brains shift.
REI drumming does require the listener’s brain to attempt to decipher the patterns I play. But REI also requires that the listener’s brain entrains (synchronizes) to the pulsations of the underlying patter of my rhythms. This can’t happen when people are trying to intellectually process what I’m playing. Many people will stop listening for understanding pretty quickly because they enjoy the feel of the music. Others, mostly people with musical training, will hold out until the constantly changing nature of my playing goes on long enough that they get tired of trying to count it out and make sense of what I’m doing.
Auditory driving research has shown that it can take a few minutes before the initiated brain synchronizes to the stimulus. This time can be shortened if I am able to break homeostasis. The brain wants to remain in its current state, but novelty and anticipation make the brain easier to influence. This is why I always start off with loud fast drumming – it shakes the listener and allows me to break homeostasis. Then I take my listeners on a journey from simple rhythms to progressively more complex rhythms until I have their brains engaged. This can happen in less than ten minutes.
I saw this shift take place as eyes drifted off of me and started to close or the swaying and tapping to the music stopped. This is my favorite part of my performances, because my listeners are with me, fully engaged with my drumming. And this is where I begin to see the calm. No longer were the staff looking over at Carrie or Karl with concern. Most weren’t really looking anywhere. They were just experiencing the drumming. I kept playing for a few minutes as I watched everyone settle more. Then I slowly faded out and stopped.
I sat quietly and didn’t say anything for a while. Partly because I wanted everyone to be with their experiences for a minute and partly because I was speechless (this often happens to me when I play). I was calm. I sat with a big smile on my face. I tried not to, but I couldn’t suppress it. I felt a deep sense of peace inside. I was finally ready to begin this study.
I went through the usual gauntlet of people thanking me for my playing and telling me their observations of their experiences, but I cut this short because I wanted to get to the testing room as quickly as I could in the hopes that I could remain in my own peaceful state.
I rushed to my room and set up my equipment while the kids arrived at school. Karl began the process of lining up which student will come at which time over the next two days. I would play for eight kids each day, recording the sessions and making notes, after each student leaves, of any thoughts and feelings I had as I played for them. Karl would keep the kids in the room and re-direct any behavior he saw as being disruptive to the process. He would also alert me to any potential problems he may see coming or that I may have unwittingly initiated. He would also take notes of his observations of each child’s reactions to my playing. From these recordings and our collective notes I would go back to my studio and make a custom drumming tape for each kid.
“Steven won’t be able to tolerate the drumming,” his teacher said to me as she brought him to the room. “He is much too sensitive to sounds to be in this tiny room when you play that loud drum,” she added, looking at Karl hoping, I think, for him to agree with her and let her take Steven away. Karl took Steven’s hand without a word and guided him to a chair across the room from me.
“I’ll play quietly and Karl will remove him if he is bothered,” I replied.
She nodded but looked at me and Karl with doubt and concern. Reluctantly, she left, but stood by the door. Karl gave her a reassuring look as he gently closed the door and settled in a chair next to Steven.
Our testing room was small, about eight feet square, with cinder block walls, a suspended acoustical tile ceiling and a linoleum floor. Typical mid-century industrial drab construction. The reflective walls and floor created a booming sound with the bass of the drum and the tiny space made volume a real issue if I wasn’t careful.
I was careful.
“Would you like me to play the drum for you, Steven?” I asked.
No response. He stood, left side facing me while looking at the wall and running his finger along the mortar line.
A scream erupted from outside of the room. Steven grabbed his ears and began to rock. His teacher, seeing this through the window of the door, started to enter but Karl waved her off and signaled me to start playing.
I tapped a slow bass tone, pushing my right palm into the center of the drum at a tempo in time to his rocking. He kept rocking and after a minutes dropped his hands from his ears. I continued this pattern for another minute or so and then added a quiet syncopation with my left hand in time to the bass tone. Simple at first, slowly growing in tempo and complexity. Steven turned my way.
I changed my rhythm to a faster triplet-based feel, one that often excited the children. I was looking to get him engaged with the rhythm, so I added some bass and slap tones and played a odd meter variation on a Brazilian naningo rhythm. This rhythm has a smooth half time triplet feel.
Steven made his way along the wall and toward me and, more importantly, my drum. Next, I added some bouncy fills to vary the rhythm. It took him a few minutes of moving along the wall, but soon he was standing right next to me when he stealthily moved his hand to the drum. He lightly touched the edge of the rim with his palm and let his fingers drape onto the head. He held it there as I kept playing this triple feel rhythm. He had a flat affect, showing no sign on his face of liking or disliking my playing as he stood touching the drum and it’s head.
He stood unmoving for several minutes, so I switched to a calmer rhythm, one that many children have sat or laid down to, in an effort to illicit a response.
Nothing. He continued to stand facing the wall with his hand on the drum. I switched to a bass-heavy rhythm, knowing that he would feel a strong sensation in his fingers.
He smiled and moved his hand further onto the drumhead. With his hands in the way it was getting difficult to play and Karl, noticing this, tried to distract Steven and pull his attention and hand away.
Steven pulled back from Karl, keeping his hand on the drum. He began rocking again. I moved my hands to the edge of the drum and played a light soft rhythm, partly to get my hands away from his so I could keep playing and partly because I wanted to keep him from getting anxious or reacting negatively to Karl’s redirection.
Karl was eventually able to redirect Steven and have him sit quietly next to him as I continued playing. Once Steven was sitting I increased the intensity and volume of my playing. Steven sat and listened. I kept building volume and rhythm speed. Steven sat quietly. Again, I raised the volume. Steven sat. With a volume that was high for the room and despite what I was told he could handle, Steven didn’t seem bothered. I dropped the drumming to a whisper. Steven looked my way.
Encouraged by his response, I lightly tapped the edge of the head at a barely audible volume. Steven watched my hand intently as I fingered some double tempo patterns.
With Steven watching my hands, I stopped and placed my hands on the drumhead. He watched my hands for a minute and then got up and came over to the drum. He put his hands on mine and stood in front of me, looking off into the distance at the wall. We stayed that way for a few minutes until Karl came over and gently guided Steven back to his classroom.
I was feeling pretty peaceful about now and enjoying the silence of the room when a tornado came in. Her name was Nina. She was a highly verbal, highly anxious 9 year-old with Asperger’s syndrome.
Asperger’s syndrome is a subset on the autism spectrum and is the form of autism that Stacey (Chapter 1) had. Nina was a lot like Stacey. She had a large vocabulary that she felt free to use, though most of what she said was not appropriate or sensical. With Karl on her heels, she burst in my room and walked directly to me.
I introduced myself to her, showed her my drum, and asked if she minded if I played for her. She said that she didn’t and then began vigorously beating the drum. So vigorously, in fact, that it was impossible for me to play at the same time. While I held the drum, I let her play for a few minutes until she seemed to settle a bit. She didn’t stop on her own, however, and required Karl to redirect her before I could play.
As I discovered, this experience was a good introduction to Nina’s overall personality and behavior. She, the school staff described, was an intense, uninhibited child. She was verbal and tended to perseverate on whatever came to mind. She talked almost constantly about anything and everything, much of it running together and making little sense. She was also highly anxious and sometimes aggressive to others. Her teachers noted that she was disruptive to the other students and they found it difficult to get her attention and keep her on task. It wasn’t uncommon to need to separate her from the other children and to work with her one-on-one to get her to attend to her schoolwork.
When I began playing, Karl was playing a hand game with her while she continued to talk. She paid no attention to my playing initially, but after a few minutes she focused her attention on me when I began playing a rhythm that I often found helpful for people who were anxious or engaging in self-stimulatory behaviors. This rhythm, one that I had just successfully played for Steven, was based on a Brazilian Naningo. This pattern starts in a 12/8 time signature with accents on the first (bass tone), third (bass tone), sixth (open tone), seventh (slap tone), tenth (open tone) and twelfth (open tone) beats and evolves into a 23/16 rhythm by dropping the last beat of the second measure. This rhythm then drops another 2 beats to repeat a 21/16 time signature pattern.
After settling into this 21/16 portion, Nina sat down in a chair next to Karl and watched me play. I continued this rhythm and some variations on it for several minutes during which time Nina became quiet and attentive to what I was doing. I played for another 6 minutes using a variety of similar rhythms while she stayed quiet and sat in her chair, watching me play.
When I ended, she remained quiet while Karl led her back to her classroom. Her teacher later reported that she was calm the rest of the morning, until lunchtime when she became agitated by the change from the quiet of the classroom to the commotion of the lunchroom. The rest of her day was similar to other days, with her teachers struggling to keep her from acting out and becoming disruptive to the other students.
Nina was followed by her opposite: Marcus. Marcus was a small, quiet 8 year-old. Where Nina was high activity, high anxiety, Marcus was non-verbal, and largely non-responsive. Karl led him in the room and he sat, or more accurately, melted into the chair.
Like with all the kids, I started by playing very quietly for Marcus. He sat motionless for the longest time until, when I was playing a bouncy rhythm in a 19/8 time signature, he got up and walked over to the drum. He put his hands on the side of the drum as I played. I then switched to a simple samba-like pattern consisting of two bass tones followed by two quiet open tones. This rhythm bounced along until I dropped a beat here and there to create a more syncopated samba type feel. With the heavy bass tone pattern, Marcus laid down and crawled under the drum. He positioned his stomach directly under the bottom of the drum.
I dropped the volume a little so as not to hurt Marcus’ ears but kept playing an abundance of bass tones. Marcus stayed on the floor for the rest of the time I played.
When I stopped Karl, picked Marcus up and took him back to his room. He came back with nine-year-old Sammy. She came into the room and didn’t say a word to me as I introduced myself. Karl had her sit next him and nodded at me to begin.
She sat quietly as I started playing the drum. After just a few times through a basic calming rhythm, Sammy looked at me and smiled. Over the next ten minutes, I played a large variety of rhythms, from simple, calming rhythms to complex, intensely focused rhythms. Sammy never stopped smiling. She did seem to prefer open tones on the drum and rhythms with triplet feel (these types of rhythms tend to have an uplifting quality to them).
After I stopped playing and Sammy was taken back to her class, the teacher described that Sammy rarely talked, though she was able to express her needs and desires when prompted. She was also very socially withdrawn and difficult to engage, had poor eye contact, and poor motor control.
Next came Lucas, another eight-year-old. Lucas was similar in some ways to Nina in that he talked a lot, often not making much sense, and he could be aggressive to other children if he got over-stimulated. He differed from Nina in that he rarely initiated contact with other children in his class, preferring interact with his teacher and aid.
Lucas was told I would be playing a drum for him, so when he arrived he immediately approached me and asked me what kind of drum I was holding. I told him as I tapped it, then asked him if he’d like to play it a bit.
He touched the head as he tapped it with his fingers and talked and asked me a series of questions. The questions came fast as he tapped, with no space for me to answer. But he didn’t seem to want any answers. This pace continued for several minutes until Karl redirected him away from the drum. At that point Lucas shifted his one-way conversation to Karl and I started playing.
I played quietly at first with the hope that he’d stop talking and focus his attention on the drum. I began with a simple calming rhythm that is a variation on a 2-beat long Brazilian mambo beat.
As a side note, short rhythms such as the mambo, need to be varied for people on the developmental disability spectrum, otherwise they become annoying to the listener and defeat the purpose of calming.
In this instance, the variation I used created a rhythm in a time signature of 31/16 (the typical rhythm is in 2/4). Lucas shifted his attention to me, but continued talking as I played. After about ten minutes of playing various rhythms, I settled into to a more complex rhythm and Lucas stopped talking almost immediately. I played this rhythm and some variations for a couple of minutes before Lucas came up to me and asked me how long I was going to play. I took this as a cue to stop.
Next came Tom. Tom, like Steven, was extremely sound-sensitive. He was very anxious and often aggressive. He was also non-verbal, which tends to contribute to anxiety and aggressive behavior for many children due to their inability to express their needs. Unfortunately, Tom often hit others without provocation. This was a problem and his teacher was hopeful that the drumming would help calm him down. She was concerned, however, because of his extreme sensitivity to sound, that he wouldn’t do well with the rhythms. After my experience with Steven, I wasn’t so worried.
With Tom’s sound sensitivities in mind, I began by playing very quietly. Tom grabbed my hands and stopped me on several occasions, sometimes tapping the drum himself seemingly to get comfortable with it and its sound. After about 4 minutes, he sat down next to Karl and watched me as I played.
I played a large variety of rhythms over the next 12 minutes and observed that he seemed to prefer rhythms that had a flowing regularity to them. The more complex, chaotic rhythms appeared to make him tense up a bit, though at no point did he cover his ears or indicate in any way that we was bothered by the drumming, even though there where a few times where I played very loudly.
By the time I stopped playing, Tom was sitting next to Karl and vocalizing along with the drumming. I couldn’t hear him as I played, but Karl reported that Tom began vocalizing about 2 minutes before I stopped. In reviewing the session recording, I noticed that at that point in the session I had been playing a rhythm with repeating groupings of 5. Tom stopped vocalizing after a minute or so of when I stopped playing.
He was the last person I played for that day. I left the school feeling pretty satisfied with the childrens’ responses, hopeful that I could have a positive impact with this study. The next day I played for the rest of the children in the study and was again encouraged by their responses to the rhythms.
All the children were calmed and sometimes engaged by my drumming, which was a good start. But our goal was to see if listening to a recording of the drumming would elicit the same calm as my live playing. I spent the next week making each child their own cassette tape by playing rhythms I had mapped out from the live recordings and notes. Each tape would be twenty minutes long. The following Monday I brought everyone their tapes. It was like Christmas, at least for me, to hand out each tape.
Karl and I asked the teachers to play each child’s recording once a day, preferably turning it on at a time when the child was anxious, then track their response. We would do this for four weeks at which time I would come back and see how everyone was doing.
After nearly a year of development we finally have a full-function BSR Player for Android mobile devices.
This app is built on the same platform as our new V.2 web player
I love this new player for many reasons but the main one is that it the interface is intuitive and uncluttered. Here are some screen shots:
Brain Shift Radio offers a free 30 trial. If you haven’t tried it yet, I highly recommend it.
This is the first excerpt of my upcoming book, Different Drummer. You can read about my reasons for posting this here
Chapter 1, Part 1
Stacey took my case from me as I walked into the house. She was excited and talked non-stop as we went into the living room. She and I unpacked my gear and she talked on and on about nothing in particular. Did I see the latest Disney movie? What was that cord I was plugging in? What type of drum was I going to play?
At this point I was beginning to wonder why I was there. This child seemed so typical. She was curious, communicative, excited to meet someone new. She helped when I asked her to uncurl the mic cable and watched intently as I tuned the drum.
Then the phone rang. Stacey’s mother left the room to answer it and Stacey panicked. She dropped my mic and ran screaming after her mother. She hugged her mother pleading, “don’t leave me, don’t leave me”.
Her mother ignored the phone and tried to calm her, to no avail because Stacey was inconsolable. She screamed and squeezed. Squeezed and screamed.
This was the behavior I was told to expect.
So, I did what I came to do. I played my drum. Quietly and slowly at first, then with more urgency, gradually building in tempo and volume until Stacey turned to look. Her mother guided her over to the couch near where I was playing and encouraged Stacey to watch me play. Stacey was uninterested at first but as I played on she began to calm and occasionally glanced over at me as I drummed away.
I played for almost twenty minutes, the last half during which Stacey sat quietly on the floor next to her sister, who was thumbing through a book. Stacey spun a toy in her hands in rhythm to my drumming. She was calm and seemingly content. At one point, about fifteen minutes into my playing, the phone rang again and her mother left the room to answer it. Stacey didn’t flinch. She continued spinning her toy while I played.
I was engaged in a tradition with a long history. In many places around the world drummers were employed to moderate behavior, to calm or excite, to soothe or provoke. They were the therapists, the psychologists, the psychiatrists. Drummers were the bridge to the unconscious and the unknown where the root of behavior resides.
I was called to play for Stacey because she was experiencing extreme anxiety that wasn’t responding to more typical treatments. She also had autism. Hers was a mild case that is also referred to as Asperger’s Syndrome. In this form of autism, language is present but communication is lacking, social interactions are one-sided and awkward, eye contact is fleeting or even non-existent. There are also other common attributes such as anxiety and ritualistic behaviors, both of which Stacey had in spades.
I met Stacey ten years into my search to understand the role of drumming techniques in therapeutic practice. I had begun exploring the traditional use of therapeutic drumming around the world while attending the Musician’s Institute (MI) in Los Angeles. Interestingly, I didn’t discover these ancient techniques at MI. Rather it was through a chance encounter with a hand-drumming teacher I met in a park not far from my apartment in Hollywood that led me down the path that I would spend the next thirty years walking, oftentimes blindly.
The Musician’s Institute was a new school when I attended it. My class in the percussion program consisted of 16 graduating students. The program was arduous and demanding, but because of its intimate size, each student was encouraged to follow his passions. In class I focused on progressive jazz, Brazilian and Afro-Cuban styles. Outside of class I explored hand-drumming originating from West Africa.
Both my school and my apartment were in Hollywood. This was a great place to live while attending a music-based school. In the early 1980’s this part of town was a bit rough. There were lots of underground clubs and many artsy people hanging around. There were also quite a few homeless people and vagrants. Oh, and few tourists on the main drag.
My apartment was just a few blocks from school but the most straightforward, not to mention safest, route was past the Chinese theater. The Chinese theater, if you’re not aware, was built during the height of the glamor years of Hollywood and contained the handprints of some of Hollywood’s most enduring stars. In the courtyard you’ll find the likes of Marilyn Monroe, Clint Eastwood, Steven Spielberg (not at that time, though), and many others. This site was the most popular tourist stop in Hollywood and drew hundreds, if not thousands, of visitors each day. And it was in my path to and from school. Needless to say, I quickly got tired of wrestling the crowd. So, it didn’t take me long to find another, more interesting route.
My trail-blazing took me off Hollywood Blvd and onto Franklin Avenue, one block to the north. It was still a busy street for traffic, but few people walked (few people walked anywhere in LA in the 80’s, probably don’t today either). This way only added a block or so to my commute and became my route of choice.
I should probably back up and describe why I chose MI as opposed to other much more established percussion programs. I could have gone to Berklee College of Music in Boston, a very good music school for traditional jazz, or perhaps the University of Miami for big band. I chose MI because my goal was to be a studio drummer and MI’s curriculum was geared toward this goal.
I aspired to by like my heroes, Steve Gadd, Vinnie Calioutta, and my personal favorite Jeff Porcaro. Well, as it turned out Jeff’s dad, Joe Porcaro, was one of the founders and directors of the percussion program at the Musician’s Institute, called the Percussion Institute of Technology (PIT). Aside from being able to study with him I was also looking forward to their focus on Brazilian and Afro-cuban drumming, collectively referred to as Latin drumming. These represent the roots of all popular music, especially the progressive jazz and rock that I loved. Unfortunately, I quickly found out upon beginning my classes at MI that, though the Latin drumming existed, it was only on the drumset. I wouldn’t be learning to play hand drums.
Initially it wasn’t a big deal because I had my hands full, so to speak, with the drumset work I was doing, but I longed to expand my horizons and learn these other instruments. It wasn’t because of any sense of history or tradition, however. My reasons for learning hand drums were entirely practical: I felt that the more instruments I could master, the better chance I had of being able to make a living playing music.
As fate would have it, my route to and from school took me past a small park where a drummer often sat and played his congas (these are barrel-shaped hand drums that originate from Cuba based on drums played for centuries in West Africa). Many days I idled by and listened as he played, intrigued by the variety of sounds and rhythms he was playing. I could sometimes pick up bits and pieces of rhythms similar to what I was learning on the drumset but many times what he played went way over my head.
After a month or so of hearing him play, I approached him and asked if he’d teach me. He said no, he wasn’t interesting teaching anyone, especially a drumset player, saying that I would corrupt the drumming and wouldn’t appreciate its roots. I assured him that I would be respectful, but he demurred.
Undeterred, I kept showing up and pestering him. I often resorted to hiding behind a nearby tree in the hopes that I could pick up some of his cool rhythms and techniques.
Finally, after a few weeks of this he got sick of me stalking him so he relented and agreed to teach me. On the condition that I would take seriously the foundations he would share with me and follow his rules for how I was to use the information he would pass on.
I agreed, but I didn’t really know what he meant by any of this. By this point, though, I wanted to learn to play hand drums like him so badly that I would have agreed to almost anything.
So, we set a schedule and I met with him a couple of times a week before my first classes of the morning. This began an intense period of study that involved me playing the drums or attending classes nearly every waking moment. I was so absorbed by my studies that I often forgot to eat. Over the course of about eight months I unintentionally lost close to 50 pounds. I wasn’t big to begin with and I ended up barely over 130 pounds (at 5’9″, I was thin). This, however, was the early eighties so my emaciated state was pretty on par for the young people hanging around Hollywood. I fit right in.
I have to say that the instruction at the Musician’s Institute was top-notch. My teachers were first-tier drummers. Joe Porcaro could be heard on countless TV and movie soundtracks and almost all the live awards shows, including the Academy Awards. Ralph Humphrey, the other percussion program director, and his band, Free Flight, often played with the Los Angeles Philharmonic, and he had played with the likes of Frank Zappa and on TV show soundtracks too numerous to count. My Latin drumming teachers (teaching drumset) were Alex Acuna and Efrain Toro, two of the most in-demand players in the genre, ironically both of whom played hand drums for their gigs.
But none of them held a candle to the understanding of rhythm and it’s effects that I gained from this unknown drummer I met in a dirty city park. My teacher, Lloyd, came from a long line of drummers in his native Trinidad (and before that, West Africa). His was a tradition that dove deep into the roots of society, carrying with it much power. Where I studied reading and rudiments at school, I was learning history and responsibility from Lloyd.
He spent as much time schooling me on traditions as he did with techniques. I was learning the origins of my chosen instrument. I discovered that the drumset that I had spent the previous decade trying to master was a new invention, less than 100 years old.
This instrument that I revered was a cobbled together grouping of mismatched instruments used when there were too few people to play the drums individually. I was learning that the rhythms I was playing on my drumset were originally played by 3 or more drummers on separate drums, bells, gourds, rattles, or shakers. I was learning that the rhythms were an abbreviation of their original forms to accommodate the limitation inherent in using only one limb for each instrument or group of instruments.
Each of the traditional rhythm parts were much more complex than those that ended up on the drumset. For example, the kick (bass) drum part for the Brazilian Samba on the drumset utilized only the accented notes played by the big bass drum, called a surdo. The surdo’s rhythms involve loud and soft notes and rim shots played with a mallet in one hand along with hand mutes and slaps to embellish, alter the pitch and sustain with the other. The overall feel of a surdo’s groove was much more driving and dynamic than anything that can be played with the kick of a foot pedal.
By learning the subtleties of the surdo’s rhythms, I became a better drumset player and developed my own interpretations of the Samba that drumset players explored. So, from a musical perspective studying the hand drums enhanced my abilities. But from a personal perspective my hand drumming studies with Lloyd open an entirely new world for me, one in which I got to see the power of drumming and music to have profound effects on those listening.
I’m just finishing my new book, which was supposed to be my first book. The one I talk about here. This book is about my research and work with drumming and the brain, the stuff that informs my music and day job. This book could have been written earlier, but each year that goes by adds to the story. So, it’s okay that it isn’t finished yet.
However, now is the perfect time for me to finish it. The impetus for doing it now are two-fold:
First, I have time. The programs and CDs for my day job are automated, Brain Shift Radio is fully stocked with great music, and the BSR mobile App for Android is live.
Second, I agreed to start teaching drumming again. And this time it’s going to be therapeutic drumming or drum-healing, whatever you want to call it. I’ll be putting up video lessons for the basics soon and am in the process of creating a full certification program. Because my path is a key to the way I’m building the training program, it makes sense for me to finish this book in the process.
So, the time is now, and given the role of technology on my work in general, I thought I’d start posting bits and pieces of it here before it’s all rolled into one manuscript (and fully edited – read the excerpts at your own risk).
This book, titled Different Drummer: One Man’s Music and Its Impact on ADD and Autism, Anxiety and Attention, will be published in February 2015.
In my last blog post I talked about my goal of gathering a large amount of objective data showing that certain types of music (mine, in this case) can have a beneficial effect on attention.
Well, we’re roughly a month into our ongoing Continuous Performance Tests and so far the results are good.
When we built our attention tests, we were focused on trying to make the most accurate, objective test possible. We hoped that we’d see some good results, but lurking in the shadows during the build was the concern that we didn’t really know what the data would present.
I can’t tell you how nervous I was as the first hundred or so tests were taken. I looked at each person’s results and nearly panicked in the few times when someone’s music-stimulated results weren’t as good as their silence score. Thankfully, only a minority of test-takers had this experience, so at least I’m able to sleep at night (as well as I do anyway).
Following is a breakdown of what we’ve seen in the first 24 days of the test. So far, the number of tests taken is greater than the number of subjects in any other study exploring the effects of music on attention or cognition. This alone is a milestone.
65.8% of the BSR attention test-takers have taken our Symbols test. Because this is our largest sample, I thought this would be a good test to examine first. Here are the details of the results for the period 9/3/13-9/27/13:
Detection errors: The silence (control) condition error rate was 13.15. The BSR music (stimulated) condition showed an error rate of 9.48. This is a 3.67 or 29.7% reduction of errors.
Commission errors: The silence (control) condition error rate was .71. The BSR music (stimulated) condition showed an error rate of .48. This is a .23 or 32.3% reduction of errors.
Omission errors: The silence (control) condition error rate was 6.96. The BSR music (stimulated) condition showed an error rate of 4.77. This is a 2.19 or 31.5% reduction of errors.
Fastest click: For the silence (control) condition the fastest click speed was 334 ms. The BSR music (stimulated) condition showed an average click speed of 351 ms (milliseconds). This is a 17 ms or 5.1% slower click-time.
Slowest click: For the silence (control) condition the slowest click speed was 964 ms. The BSR music (stimulated) condition showed an average click speed of 929 ms. This is a 35ms or 3.6% faster click-time.
Average click: Of the three click speeds the average offers us the best data. For the silence (control) condition the average click speed was 599 ms. The BSR music (stimulated) condition showed an average click speed of 582 ms. This is a 17 ms or 2.8% faster click-time.
Across the board, we saw reductions in error rates with the BSR music (stimulated) condition compared to the silence (control) condition. The average error-rate reduction was 31.17% with improvements falling fairly consistently across the three error types. This is a significant change and suggests that BSR music provides increased focusing/attention abilities when played quietly in the background while working.
We’ll keep collecting data. And we’ll continue to increase our samples by telling as many people as we can about both the test and the results (please share it with everyone you know).
I’ll keep tweaking the music. As part of my goal to keep the music customized, we choose what you hear in the music-stimulated portion of the test based your silence test result and intake form. This means that there are dozens of different tracks used for the test. Our internal A/B test method tracks what works and what doesn’t work as well for you. This will allow us to see patterns in the music’s effectiveness. Making sense of this data requires a large number of tests, so you need to take the test so that we can up the ante on BSR’s customization.
We’ll keep improving your BSR music experience. We tied the test into the music selection algorithms, so your results help determine the type of Focus and Brain Boost tracks you receive when you let us choose the music (in Auto-Select Mode). This satisfies my emphasis on real-world effects rather than pure research. I want you to get the best possible effects from my music. Immediately integrating your test results with the music selection makes this happen. It also provides an incentive for you to take the test.
At some point we plan to test other types of music, including classical and contemporary selections. It will be interesting to compare BSR to the types of music other studies have examined, including that used in the much-publicized Mozart Effect.
We need a lot more data to do all this. So if you haven’t yet taken the test (or taken it today), please jump in.
Not only will you help us learn more about the impact of BSR on focusing ability, you’ll also be able to see for yourself if Brain Shift Radio’s music can help you focus better.
These are two questions I’ve been exploring for the last three decades. Initially because I had a hard time staying focused and ultimately because I saw such huge changes in my (and others’) focusing abilities listening to certain types of music.
How do you validate it, though?
This became the persistent question I confronted these last few years, especially after accumulating tons of data and thousands of positive user experiences.
After the launch of my streaming music site, Brain Shift Radio where we noticed that almost half of the listening done was for focus, I began exploring quantitative measures that we could use to see unequivocally whether music can contribute to enhanced focusing abilities.
As it turns, out two independent studies recently conducted in the Netherlands on REI (the core technique behind my music) used Continuous Performance Tests (CPTs) to test attention. Both studies showed significant improvements while listening to my music versus either a placebo recording or silence.
So we looked closely at CPTs and they seemed like a good option. I was drawn to these types of tests for several reasons:
Continuous Performance Tests come in a few varieties. You have auditory and visual, and you have different types of triggers. The auditory tests were off the table since we would be examining the effect of music on attention and the music would compete with the auditory trigger. This left us with choosing different visual trigger options.
Like all our software, we built the framework first, leaving ourselves open when it came to choosing trigger options. We tested a ton of different triggers and decided to offer two types: symbols or numbers. Both use the same timing, variability, and duration. Where they differ is in how quickly people are able to process the stimulus. Symbols – in our case various colored squares – are easier/quicker to process, whereas a series of six numbers takes more cognitive resources.
This makes the symbol test a little easier and also makes it a good place to start. The numeric test will result in higher error rates than the symbol test but, as we’re seeing after a few hundred tests, the relative changes between the silence and music portions of the tests are virtually the same.
Here’s a quick breakdown of our two tests types:
Symbol test (left, top image): This test displays a series of 6 randomly colored squares. When a white square appears in the group, tap the left button or the left arrow key on a keyboard. When a black square appears in the group, tap the right button or arrow key. If neither white nor black appear (pictured) you do nothing.
Numeric test (left, bottom image): This test presents a series of 6 numbers. If a 0 appears in the group (pictured), you tap the left button or left arrow key on a keyboard. If a 1 appears, you tap the right button or arrow key. If neither a 0 or a 1 appear, you do nothing.
Pretty simple. The trick is that speed is important. You need to act quickly because the stimulus only shows for a short time.
Our attention tests are divided in four sections: An intake questionnaire, a test with silence, an intermission, and a test with music. Here is a breakdown of each of these sections:
Once you’re finished with the entire test, we tally your scores. You will find two graphs, each presenting different data sets.
Raw Scores (left). The first are your raw scores. Here you will see each error type – detection, commission, and omission – and your response times – fastest, slowest, and average. Here’s what each error type means:
This data can give you insights into your performance and whether you trend toward being inattentive or impulsive.
Weighted Scores (below). The second score is your weighted score. This balances your various errors against one another and factors in your response times.
Weighted Scores show you how you focus with and without BSR music. Lower numbers mean better focus.
The difference between these scores shows your performance, or more accurately, the music’s ability to help you perform.
In most cases, you should see a lower score for the music portion of the test, showing fewer errors and faster response times (as shown at right).
We’re finding that there are instances when a test-taker has not heard the BSR music before that his scores are not better on the music portion of the test. Past research has suggested that it can take up to 17 minutes for people with no experience with REI to see benefits.
To test this theory we are asking people who scored as well or better in the silence condition their first time that they either take the test again or listen to Brain Sift Radio for a couple of days before taking the test a second time.
Based on people’s responses to these two approaches so far, we’re seeing that the second test usually falls inline with the results we see from people who do respond positively to their first test.
We worked very hard to make the tests accurate by addressing the deficits and limitations that many attention tests have. Here is a look at the major areas we had to address:
Because of the databases and framework we have set up, we have the ability to parse the data in a variety of ways and hopefully see some patterns that we may not even consider at this time.
We have also built this test with the ability to rotate different music, even (gasp!) someone else’s.
The Brain Shift Radio CPTs are for more than just showing you how our music can help you focus. We are also using the data to help us understand how you focus so we can better choose great mixes for you. This data can be stored in your profile if you wish and we will draw from it whenever you choose the Focus or Brain Boost categories in Auto Select mode.
If you log into your account (trial or subscription) when you take the test, we’ll keep track of all your results and you can periodically take the test again to track your progress and make sure you’re getting all you can from BSR.
The Brain Shift Radio attention tests are compatible with both web and mobile devices.