Infants arriving at King’s College Chamartín on a sunny autumn morning in Madrid found themselves transported instead to the jungles of Africa. Met by the call of the wild from the Swinging Safari’s Wimoweh, it didn’t take them long to get into character, dressing up as alligators and lions and hammering out a number of funky rhythms on their African drums.Ranging from three to six, the children formed a circle and introduced themselves. Each shy introduction was answered with an enthusiastic jungle-style greeting from drumming specialist Ruth Harneis, prompting a certain amount of grinning and squirming at the unusual acknowledgement.“The activity builds confidence and a sense of self-recognition because hopefully the children feel valued,” says Ruth, who runs Fun Drum in the UK.
As the session unfolded, old favourites such as Five little speckled frogs were given a jungle twist and Incy wincy spider was brought to life with a puppet that raced around the circle to tickle its victims. It was a high-energy music session, pumped by the use of drums and props that turned each ‘children’s favourite’ into a musical in itself, with the little ones sitting astride their drums, which they were encouraged to beat in simple rhythms as the action intensified or relaxed, and hopping on and off to row their boats or snake across the floor. All good fun and a great way to start the week! But there’s more to it than that. While music is generally considered a complementary subject, it does in fact have an extremely important core value.
“If a child is making music with other kids, they’re linking all the senses – looking for visual cues, listening and feeling it,” Ruth explains. “It’s the only subject that links all the neurological pathways in the brain. When music is given an important role in the classroom, each child’s ability to grasp all other subjects rockets. It affects them physically and uses motor skills as well as encouraging them to use their imaginations.”There’s nothing sedentary about this class. Even scales are done with the children stretching their bodies up and down according to the notes. And when the children get to beat their drums, there is a notable release of physical energy, not to mention emotion.This makes sense. Researchers at Oxford University found that drumming in groups produces a collective high. The conclusion? That drumming circles may have provided the foundation of communities and society.
Music is also recognised as a tool for honing language skills, both for foreign learners and young native speakers. In King’s College Murcia, music teacher Louise Rumistrzewicz places a lot of emphasis on singing with her Year 1 and Year 2 pupils, generally linking the songs to topics being studied which can help to make the new vocabulary more accessible. Clapping and rhythm are also key elements of Louise’s class, with call and response patterns that not only improve cognitive skills, but according to a 2010 study at Ben-Gurion University in Israel, help with social integration. Clapping or drumming out rhythms engages strongly with the left side of the brain where maths and logic problems are crunched. In fact, though we think of music as an art, it has a strong mathematical element, particularly when it comes to drumming.
A study in 2015 by the news and analytics site Polymic found that drummers in bands, while often overlooked, were usually the smartest member of the group in this respect. Meanwhile, researchers at Stockholm’s Karolinska Institutet found that drummers with the best rhythm also scored better on an intelligence test. The conclusion was that using all the various parts of a drum kit to maintain a rhythm is an expression of an intrinsic problem-solving ability. Other studies, such as one carried out at Washington University, showed students attaining higher scores after undergoing rhythmic light and sound therapy. Certainly, when it comes to introducing children to rhythms, whether using their hands to clap it out, a simple drum or an entire drum kit, it simultaneously introduces them to the science of sound and the fact that all sound occurs through vibration. While more sophisticated instruments such as the piano may be easier for the parent to bear, more rudimentary instruments are clearly as beneficial, given that they all involve the mathematics of frequency, intervals and harmonics.
But drumming doesn’t just engage the left side of the brain. It works both left and right as the drummer listens to the music around them in order to instruct their bodies to move and create and also understand a rhythm or create their own. Hence, while analytical skills are developed on the left, creativity is boosted on the right and the neurological pathways mentioned by Ruth Harneis between the left and the right form thick fibres that connect the spheres. Providing the soundtrack to our lives, it looks as though music, in all its many expressions, is not only the food of love, but also of the mind.