Afro-Cuban Folkloric Drumming as a Source for

Further Research on Rhythm Perception and Cognition

Charles Silverman


Ethnomusicologists have long been fascinated with African drumming (Locke, 1982). Locke’s interesting studies with the Eve dance drumming styles have brought to light interesting thoughts about off beat timing and cross rhythms. Literature searches have not found the same amount of literature investigating, ethnomusicologically or systematically, Afro-Cuban dance and trance drumming. This writer believes this important area of musicological research needs to be researched more fully. The musicological concepts of beat, pulse, and meter may be expanded by a study of Afro-Cuban folkloric drumming styles, of which there are dozens. The folkloric drumming in Cuba has many outcomes, one of which is that of creating trance states. This area is a worthy area of research. How is rhythm, especially those rhythms found in tradition Afro-Cuban drumming, processed in the brain? And how does this process then assist, if in fact it does at all, the trance state experienced by many involved in the drumming?

As a wider area of investigation for the current paper, we will examine some of the rhythm literature and attempt to find pertinent information regarding folkloric drumming styles, the neurophysiological and neuropsychological processing of rhythm information, and other important data. There is most definitely research on the neuropsychology of rhythm. Is there a large body of research available for the musicologists interested in these styles and why, where, and how they work in the brain? We shall begin with a brief history of the batá drums of Santeria.

A Brief History Of Batá

Many, if not all of the religious ceremonies which were continued in the New World, as a part of the expropriation of Africans by the Spanish and Portuguese involved, as a great part of the ritual, drums and drumming. The power derived from the interleaved rhythms, combined with the dance, vocalizations, and social interactions, made for a very intense experience.

The drumming of Santeria incorporates three drums, the Iyá, the Okónkolo, and the Itótele. The manufacture of the drums and the drums themselves are sacred based on batá sets which were made hundreds of years ago. The manufacture of the drums is based on definite "plans" and measurements with certain sounds and tunings having great importance to the overall sound of the three drums together. They are a family. Each drum has two heads, tuned to specific pitches. The pitches for the Iyá are F and the octave, plus a slap tone, for the Itotelé, F or F sharp and C or C sharp, for the Okónkolo, F and D. These tunings can and do change, due to changes in temperature, humidity, or dryness of the air.

There exists a sextet of membranophones, each head with its own sonority. The drums are actually bimembranaphones, made of wood, of a closed nature, with a permanent tension created by ropes made of skin. The drums are cylindrically shaped. (Ortiz, ) Each head of each drums has its own specific vibration which influences the other head creating the specific sound of each of the batá drums. It is a widely help belief that inside each drum is a "secréto mágico". a magic secret, one which the drummkaers will not reveal. These drums are indigenous to Cuba, distinctly different in structure to drums found in Africa.

The rhythmic and melodic interplay of the six heads of the batá family, in different time signatures and different tempos, creates an undeniable effect. There is a tremendous inter- and overleaving of rhythmic and melodic effects. What is this effect? Why does this effect occur? Where does it occur, neurophysiologically? Can it be measured using modern brain scanning procedures and/or electroencephelographic techniques? Can useful and practical knowledge of the effects of this drumming be parsed out of the research? What are the complex cognitive processes which underlie the mechanisms of rhythm?


Rhythmic information has been found to be more fundamental to music cognition then pitch information. (Dowling and Harwood, 1986). The study of rhythm has been relatively disregarded until relatively recently. Rhythm and melody are intertwined and without rhythm there is little chance for what we may consider to be melodious. But is there melody in rhythm alone? Gabrielsson thinks not (Gabrielsson, cited in Dowling and Harwood, 1986). In fact, he states in a forthright way that there can be no melody where there is only drumming of a rhythm. Does Gabrielsson take into account the melodic content of drumset performance? If this is the case, this author begs to differ . Perhaps this is an area for further study.

There has been much research on the Gestalt principles of rhythm organization. Research on grouping of rhythmic information has shown that human subjects tend to group in chunks. An investigation of some current research finds the concept of the psychological present, that time when subjects can recall 7+2 events. (Miller, cited in Dowling and Harwood, 1986). The psychological present is a short span of time in which these events ("chunks") can be recalled. The psychological present is equivalent to short term memory. Polyrhythms, so characteristic of African and African-derived rhythms are not that easily placed under the Gestaltists umbrella (Fraisse, 1987). Two patterns occurring simultaneously cause conflicts within perception of the whole.

Perhaps typical Afro-Cuban folkloric patterns can be utilized as investigative tools for research into a Gestalt of rhythm perception. Balzano and Pressing (cited in Carterette and Kenall, 1999) have investigated cognitive isomorphisms and repeated isorhythms such as the (Ionian) pattern 2212221. This is a most typical pattern found in Lucumí and Eve drumming styles. There are transformations of these rhythms, worthy of investigation. In the Afro-Cuban of Abakwa, there are counter rhythms to this Ionian pattern, which occur simultaneously. There is also a very common and important repeated isorhythm, 23223 (6/8 clave). The overleaving of these patterns may provide interesting investigative inspiration. For example, when listening to both rhythms simultaneously, does the listener perceive both simultaneously, or is one rhythm more predominant? When there is a solo instrument in the "mix", how does the listener perceive the solo? Carterette and Kendall (cited in Deutsch, 1999) recommend that there are bases for comparison between African and Afro-Latin musics. This author suggests a deeper comparison, between African rhythms from the Lucumí of Nigeria and those from the Afro-Cubans whose lineage is from the Lucumí tribe of Nigeria. Further research into the tactus of Afro-Cuban rhythms may shed light on how this music is perceived (felt) by listeners, dancers, and musicians.

Tracking individual rhythms, and responding to these rhythms, would be an extension of experiements done by Dowling, Lung, and Herrbold (1987) which looked at the perception of interleaved melodies. Interleaving of rhythms, so indicative of Afro- Cuban music and drumming, is a subject most probably not investigated at all. Since Dowling et al make a claim for rhythmic control of attention, might this same concept be at work with interleaved rhythms. Are there specific rhythms which we are drawn to, in various styles of music? How do we perceive these rhythms when they are presented in a rhythm rich envirnoment? Similar experiments to the Dowling et al (1987), perhaps even a replication, may prove not only interesting but important in delving into the ways that rhythms are perceived.

This author has always felt that the Cuban musician and general population perceives (and cognitizes) music in a different way then North Americans. I have conceptualized a difference in cultures as the main reasoning behind this idea. Perhaps there are differences in the psychophysiological makeup of the two disparate cultures. If a hypothesis is stated that the Nigerian roots of rhythm which have been extended to Cuba effect the perception and cognition of rhythm and music in Cuba (so inextricably intertwined), can comparative rhythm perception experiments be devised to generate differences between groups of Afro-Cubans and North Americans? This might follow the thrust of research by Igaga and Versey (cited in Carterette and Kendall, Deutsch, 1999) which sought to compare rhythmic perception of Ugandan and English schoolchildren.

Fraisse (cited in Deutsch, 1999) writes on phrase lengths as having a bearing on the psychological present. Can the phrase lengths found in certain styles of drumming influence the psychological state of the listeners? The psychological present extends from a normal 2-5 seconds and stretches to 10- 12 seconds. How can drumming either extend this state or push the listener into another state?

The scientific study of drum music, with rhythm as its fundamental base, has also been overlooked. (There is most definitely melody found within this music. This is another interesting and potentially fruitful area of research.) Most research having to do with drumming has been on Ghanaian drumming, or drumming of Western Africa. This writer seeks to quantify and legitimate the effects of Cuban ceremonial drumming and bring these data to a wider group of interested parties. The question is, how can this be done. Of course, due to the length of this limited presentation, any quantification will have to await further methodological studies in this area.

The beat or pulse is a very important characteristic of rhythm. This is a basic concept of regularity, found also in the repetition of chunked groups. The pulse is basic to rhythm. The music of African influenced drumming can have several simultaneous pulses, perhaps felt differently by different subjects. The rhythms of certain African based drumming styles can be felt in different meters, usually, but not only, multiples of two (duple) or three (triple) meters. There are many instances where there are simultaneous performances of duple and triple meter. And, in other instances, the music steps outside the metrically "correct" beat, exploring other areas of time. How would subjects react to these various simultaneous "time signatures"? Where would the predominant choice of time feel lay? Since beat and pulse are so important to rhythm research, this seems to be a very interesting experimental objective. The expressive content of much Afro-Cuban music is to be found not in the metrically "perfect" expression of beats and phrases but in the complexities derived from the ability to move in, out, and around duple and triple meter. This type of musical phrasing is utilized not only be percussion instruments, but by many solo instruments and vocalists. The experience of the music is important, perhaps more so than the analysis of it. Very few listeners bother with analysis of playing styles and are more interested in the pure experience and enjoyment of music. So, the study of the expressive aspects of music is of the utmost import. As Gabrielsson points out (Tighe and Harwood, 1993), there is a dearth of research dealing with expressive aspects in comparison with structural aspects. Perhaps this is where the neurophysiological aspects of rhythm perception can be utilized to further the research. Fraisse (1987) mentions, how in recent years there is research looking into the role of the two hemispheres in rhythm perception. It is conceptualized that the left hemishphere, perhaps responsible for language perception and cognition, is were the processing of rhythm takes place.

Utilizing multivariate techniques, one could devise an experiment which investigate the multidimensionality of African-influenced rhythms. The polyphonous nature of African music has been explored and written about in numerous reports (i.e., Carterette and Kendall, 1999, Locke, 1982). The concept of pulsation, over and against that of the hierarchical idea of measure, is a most interesting concept to consider when contemplating a study of Afro-Cuban music. The repeated isorhythm (L=16) 33424, which can be considered the Afro-Cuban son clave pattern, has not been extensively studied (It may have never have been studied, methodologically, in neuropsychological or neurophysiological studies.) And, most probably, neither has the Afro-Cuban rumba clave pattern, whose isorhythmic pattern is (L=16) 34324. There are many patterns in the Afro-Cuban tradition which are derivatives of these basic pulses.

Can these basic rhythms affect the physiological rate? There may be a preferred physiological rate, argued by Fraisse (Deutsch, 1999). This moderate rate does not correspond with the heart rate as this rate is too slow, averaging in the neighborhood of 70 bpm. Dowling and Harwood, in their writing about psychological events influencing physiological processes, seem to be either neglecting neurophysiological bases or leaving it for later research.

An interesting field of study is that of ontological and virtual time. The ability to enter into the virtual time domain may be one of the keys in research regarding trance rhythms. Dowling and Harwood’s comments about music with continuing and varying note patterns and this relationship to virtual time correspond with the cascade of notes characteristic of Afro-Cuban folkloric drumming. Further experiments in this important area are more than warranted.

An interesting furtherance in the research would be to create, through drumming, situations which would create ontological and virtual time. Drumming which establishes a very strong pulse can tend to entrain players and listeners. This is a very important role with regards to music therapy. The phenomenon of "entrainment" has been well-noted in drumming groups. This may be identified as the moment at which a group finds the pulse around and with which it intends to play and maintains it. This state is known to jazz and contemporary musicians as "the groove". (Manning, 1997) This writer believes it is not only interesting but important that we begin to understand how, why, and where this entrainment occurs. The idea that human beings can entrain their biological rhythms, often written about in the literature, has rarely been researched investigating its neurophysiological elements. The entrainment principle follows the concept of ontological time.

Within the entrainment principle found with drumming groups there is also the possibility of attaining the virtual time which seems to be necessary to stimulate trance states. Simultaneously, ontological and virtual time exist within the group, for single members and for smaller groups within groups. Certain styles of Batá drumming and other types of Afro-Cuban folkloric drumming bring together strong contrasts of pace, rhythm, and emotion which help in the creation of virtual time. What of the concept of mixing the two principles together, that of virtual and ontological time? Dowling and Harwood (1986) present an interesting overview of Javanese gamelan music. Psychological factors are discussed relating to subjective duration and objective time. This experiment can be replicated, possibly, and carried further using Cuban drumming. As stated by Monahan (in Tighe and Dowling, 1993) "the need for cross-cultural studies of temporal pattern perception and temporal pattern learning experiments is obvious".

The concept of virtual time lends itself directly to the concept of trance rhythms and trance states. A cursory examination of research available on the World Wide Web shows a dearth of methodological and/or scientific information about drumming and trance although shows great promise.

Dennis R. Wier, director of The Trance Institute, Inc. in Zurich Switzerland cites research by Orne, which concludes that objective correlates to the hypnotic condition were not to be found in available physiological measurements. Verbal reports of the subjective states of the subjects were the only data gathered in the Orne study. This leads this writer to further put forth the idea of other measures which can be studied objectively. How do the body and brain react to rhythms which can create, or assist in the creation of, trance states? The states are regular occurences with Afro-Cuban folkloric drumming. In fact, they are the raison d’etre of the music and rhythm. Some rhythmic patterns repeat, setting up a deep, potent groove, while other patterns transcend the groove, weaving in and out around it.

Trances may occur by repetitive phrases or rhythms. Some research has found that phrases must be repeated a certain number of times in order to induce trance states. Structural changes may have the effect of deepening a trance, and they may also disrupt the state. (Wier, 1998, in email correspondence) Some trance states are by interruptions to the repeated patterns. This is a fertile field of research and further research is indicated.

Regarding trance states and drumming, I have experienced many events where these two actions converged. What are the bases for the trance states? Social relationships may have an effect on trance inducement (personal communication with R. Kendall, 1998). Rhythm and the emotional/motional elements may also play a role. Neurological processes may also provide a clue to the attainment of trance states.

Regarding Piagetan concepts, of which Fraisse has utilized in some of his research (Clarke, pps. 473-474, in Deutsch, 1999), research regarding human development and rhythmic development within this paper’s parameters may prove fruitful. Since rhythmic perception is tied in with motor functioning and drumming is so intrinsically linked with dance, this seems to be an interesting extension of the research. In other words, by examining the reactions of subjects listening and reacting to a drumming event, can observations and calculations be made that would shed light on developmental issue regarding age, sex, and other factors? Clarke (Deutsh, 1999) writes about expressive timing and how this feature relates to replication of recorded performances. Creating images of the performance, verbal blueprints, and corporeal rehearsal are some of the strategies used by the subjects.

The research and citings regarding music and movement (Deutsch, 1999, Fraisse, 1987) are most interesting. Gabrielsson, in Deutsch, writes of the "movement character". When asked to make similarity judgments between rhythms, listeners chose this aspect primarily. Imagining movements to the music was one of the characteristics which allowed listeners to characterize the music. A major characteristic of afro-Cuban folklore is the movements involved in the initiates and listeners. The timing of the rhythms provides the impetus for the movements. The rich and varied rhythmic profile, variously in triple or duple meter, can drive the movement further than if the rhythms were only two dimensional. There exists a connection between motion and emotion whose dimensions can be studied using various techniques. Gabrielsson discusses the sentograph (Gabrielsson, in Tighe and Harwood, 1993) by which a subject can register the emotional content of a piece of music by applying pressure to the instrument. This writer finds such studies important when gauging the emotional and motional effects of drumming. "The experience motion character, as manifested by the pressure pattern, has an emotional counterpart: a feeling of power and force...and of softness...(Gabrielsson, in Tighe and Harwood, 1993) These emotional and motional features deserve to be investigated more thoroughly.

Movement, created by the rhythmic patterning, are primary in establishing rhythmic perception. Auditory and visual perception follows rhythmic perception. (Fraisse, 1987). Motor responses to rhythmic stimuli have been investigated and connections between cortical areas and "peripheral origin sensations" speculated.

Given the amount of research in the area of expressive timing in performance (Clarke, in Deutsch 1999), and the fact that much of the tradition of folkloric drumming in Cuba is passed down with no written music and thus needs to be repeated as faithfully as possible with no written cues, would Repp’s work (cited in Deutsch, 1999) replicate? How does a drummer utilize timing and phrasing to create certain effects? Is this style fixed or does it vary? When examining Afro-Cuban folkloric drumming styles it would be possible to investigate the ebb and flow of different drummers’ styles to find similarities and/or differences in performance techniques. The effects of the different styles can then be assesses, methodologically, to gauge the differences in styles with a drumming tradition. Are stylistic differences even detectable and what styles are preferred? Cuban batá drumming varies in style from neighborhood to neighborhood, even house to house (M. Spiro, 1998, email correspondence). Similar ceremonial rhythms are interpreted in different ways. The expressive content of the music may be affected by the character. The influence of the music on the listeners may differ according to style. The inherent patterning of the six heads of the batá, for example, form discrete melodies. Kubik’s work (1962, 1979, cited in Carterette and Kendall, 1999) could be extended to investigate these concepts in Afro-Cuban folkloric drumming.

My ideas about this area of research, neurophysiological bases of rhythm, stem from research done with arrhythmia, or jet lag disorder (Silverman, 1989). One of the findings from the research is that of an area of the brain , specifically the suprachiasmatic nucleus (SCN). This area of the brain, residing above the optic chiasm, is theorized to be one of the areas thought of as "biological clocks", regulating the flow of melatonin, a neurochemical which regulates sleep. Since jet lag disorder is a disorder relating to body rhythms, this writer has hypothesized that there are areas in the brain which process rhythmic information that may be psychological and musical. Hence the interest in rhythm and drumming research.

With the reading of some of the literature on perception and cognition of rhythm, this writer has become aware of the use of the "clock" or beat framework in many of the research paradigms. Developing and maintaining this internal clock is a subject of great interest to musicians and music educators. This writer sees the importance and relevance of looking further into the research of Yeston (1976, cited in Tighe and Dowling) and Povel (1981, cited in Tighe and Dowling) with further research into beats, pulses, meter, the importance, in the Western tradition, of metronome markings and time signatures, and the relevance of these studies to a furtherance of music education, learning theory, and pure musical enjoyment.


Deutsch, D ( 1999 )The Psychology of Music, pps. 473-497, pps. 758-762

Deutsch, D (1982) The Psychology of Music

Dowling, W. J. and Harwood, D. L. (1986)Music Cognition

Dowling, W. J, Lung, K.M., and Herrbold, S (1987) Aiming attention in pitch and time in the perception of interleaved melodies Perception and Psychophysics, 41 (6), 642-656

Fraisse, P. (1987) A historical approach to rhythm as perception Action and Perception in Rhythm and Music, 55

Gabrielsson, A. The Complexities of Rhythm Psychology of Music - The Understanding of Melody and Rhythm pps. 93- Thomas J. Tighe and W. Jay Dowling, eds.

Locke, David (1982) Principle of Offbeat Timing and Cross-Rhythm in Southern Eve Dance Drumming

Manning, Philip Director, Batswork Rhythm Workshops email correspondence

Silverman, C.B. (1992) Arrythmia - Jet Lag Disorder Term Paper California State University Los Angeles

Tighe, T.J. and Dowling, W.J. (1993) Psychology and Music -The Understanding of Melody and Rhythm

Wier, Deniss (1998) Director, The Trance Institute, Switzerland. email correspondence

Wier, Dennis R. Trance: from magic to technology, Ann Arbor: Trans Media. 1996