Physiological Explanation of the Two-Sided Shamanic Drum

~Nicholas Noble Wolf

This article is an update specifically for the Talking Drum Newsletter of an earlier version which appeared in a now defunct publication, Shamanic News.

A shamanic drum is a sacred article that is used for journeying to help oneself or to help others--typically for healing. While medicines (spiritual helpers) such as the spirit of Horse, can be used in conjunction with the drum to make journeying easier and faster, even in its own right, the drum will carry you. In the following, I offer a "technical" explanation of how the drum, itself, works to carry one into the dream for journeying.

A traditional shamanic drum is typically two and a half to four inches in depth and 15 to 24 inches in diameter. However, I know people with larger and smaller drums that work equally well. The head or heads are covered with rawhide, typically deer or elk, but sometimes goat or horse. Cowhide, a nontraditional covering, is occasionally used, but some people will say such a drum has a tendency to "moo." This is because of what mankind’s breeding of cattle has done to the souls of cows.

When we strike the drum with a beater, the beat draws our attention, helping to still the mind-chatter. One might say that the mind becomes fixated upon the beat. With our mind out of the way, the resonance of the hide’s vibrations can then cause the mind to shift from the normal waking beta state, into an alpha state. The alpha state is the electrical frequency of the brain between 8 and 13 Hz. indicating the lack of external stimulus. It is that of daydreaming and mental relaxation.

Any drum can assist the mind to shift into the alpha state; you could even use an old, plastic water cooler bottle, but the water bottle will have difficulty in shifting the mind into the theta state (4 to 8 Hz.). This shifting into the theta state is accomplished by the drone of the drum and results in a sleepy state of wakefulness or a light dreaming state.

The two-headed drum has an additional aspect not carried in other drums such as single-headed drums. When one side is struck, it sends vibrations through the center of the drum causing the other side to vibrate at the same resonance or frequency. Therefore, beating on one side actually results in two sides playing. When the second side vibrates, it sends its vibrations not only out into space, but also back to the first side. At this point, the drum now has two sides sending vibrations towards one another, vibrations that are identical in frequency, but exactly mirror opposites of one another. Somewhere in the middle of the drum, these opposite vibrations meet and cancel each other out. Those frequencies that are identical opposites of one another actually serve to nullify and create a place of no sound at that frequency. The audio industry has noted a similar situation when one stereo speaker is wired backwards (i.e., one positive to positive, the other positive to negative) and sends mirror vibrations to those coming from the other speaker, cancelling out part of the music.

Unlike a stereo system, in shamanic journeying this cancelling is desired. With intent, you can place your attention on the portion of the resonance that is cancelled. The is the place of no sound. When you place your attention here, you hear nothing--just silence. I want to point out that you can not do anything to find this place. You must allow yourself to find it. Using the words of Carlos Castaneda, shamanic journeying is "not doing." When a person has found the place of no sound, his deep or lower theta and higher delta brain waves and will be stimulated causing him to enter a hypnagogic state or trance. The hypnogogic state is the state between deep sleep and waking--the state where dreaming occurs. It is in the higher portion of this state that lucid dreaming occurs. Lucid dreaming is the awakening within the dream-time such that a person knows they are dreaming and can control the dream. When drumming, though, the hypnagogic state is reached while awake and one enters a deep trance or dream state. Essentially, one is dreaming while awake. Hypnotists take their subjects into a hypnagogic state also. However, unlike hypnosis, during shamanic drumming, one remains in control of his dream.

Once a person has entered into the hypnagogic state, it is possible to free the spirit to journey to the underworld and celestial realms of the soul. However, my intent here has been to explain why shamanic drumming works so well. While there are other ways, such as meditation, the drum, and particularly the two-sided drum, is the most effective and fastest way that I have encountered to reach the mythic worlds.

(originally published in Talking Drum Newsletter, Winter 2002)
© copyright 2002, Nicholas Noble Wolf