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Human Uniqueness Compared to "Great Apes": 
Relative Difference
Human Universality: 
Population Universal (Some Individuals Everywhere)
MOCA Domain: 
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Drumming, or periodic non-verbal acoustic production via percussive activity, is present in virtually all human cultures. Such percussion is typically produced manually (i.e. using the hands), but can also involve the feet and/or the use of implements such as sticks, and is preferentially exercised on resonant surfaces. Though the central function of human drumming is unknown, it may serve a prosocial or communicative function based on the contexts in which it is commonly displayed (e.g. community gatherings, prayer/meditation, organized combat).

Some Old World primates also display periodic acoustic behavior. Chimpanzees, bonobos, and gorillas, for instance, have all been observed using limbs (typically hands, sometimes feet) on resonant objects in a manner similar to human hand drumming. Drumming has been observed throughout wild and captive chimpanzee populations and in gorillas who have not been exposed to others performing the behavior, suggesting that drumming in Old World apes is genetically-based and species-typical. Drumming by gorillas is typically performed on their own bodies (i.e. chest-beating) or the bodies of others, and often accompanies playful behavior in juveniles and display behaviors in adults. In contrast, chimpanzees tend to drum on resonant external objects such as the trunks/buttresses of trees, and have been observed returning to particularly resonant objects repeatedly to drum, indicating the coupling of the auditory output with the motor behavior. Buttress drumming by chimpanzees is primarily performed during travel in conjunction with vocal bouts, is unique between individuals, and is variable between chimpanzee populations. Such drumming bouts may thus function to coordinate movement and spacing of dispersed individuals within a community by producing individually distinctive long-distance signals. Captive macaques also occasionally produce salient rhythmic acoustic patterns using artificial objects. Since larger, more dominant macaques are most likely to drum, this behavior may serve to convey information about size or status, as larger macaques are capable of manipulating larger, heavier objects to produce acoustic signals. However, drumming has not been observed by macaques in the wild.

Drumming behavior is absent in orangutans, suggesting that drumming behavior in the primate lineage likely arose approximately 8-10 million years ago alongside divergence of chimpanzee and orangutan lineages. Nonetheless, human drumming is characteristically distinct from the drumming of other primates, as human drum bouts tend to be significantly more complex and longer in duration, can embody tempos independent of emotional or arousal states, can be performed synchronously with others, and are often practiced (i.e. rehearsed) outside of display contexts.


Timing of appearance of the difference in the Hominin Lineage as a defined date or a lineage separation event. The point in time associated with lineage separation events may change in the future as the scientific community agrees upon better time estimates. Lineage separation events are defined in 2017 as:

  • the Last Common Ancestor (LCA) of humans and old world monkeys was 25,000 - 30,000 thousand (25 - 30 million) years ago
  • the Last Common Ancestor (LCA) of humans and chimpanzees was 6,000 - 8,000 thousand (6 - 8 million) years ago
  • the emergence of the genus Homo was 2,000 thousand (2 million) years ago
  • the Last Common Ancestor (LCA) of humans and neanderthals was 500 thousand years ago
  • the common ancestor of modern humans was 100 - 300 thousand years ago

Probable Appearance: 
8,000 thousand years ago
Definite Appearance: 
200 thousand years ago
The Human Difference: 

Though periodic percussive acoustic behavior occurs in chimpanzees, bonobos, and gorillas, human drumming possesses a variety of features that have not been observed in other apes. Drum bouts produced by apes last only a few seconds, while humans often produce sustained bouts of drumming that can last minutes or even hours. Additionally, manual drumming during chimpanzee pant-hoot displays and gorilla chest-beating displays do not exhibit dynamics independent of emotional/arousal state (i.e. faster, louder as emotional arousal increases). While human drumming can mirror emotional and arousal states, it can be and is often dynamically independent of immediate state.Most notably, human drumming displays a degree of isochrony that dramatically exceeds drumming produced by other apes. Though bimanual drumming by non-human primates may occasionally appear temporarily isochronous, these occasions typically emerge at the frenetic apex of drumming displays and thus likely reflect the motoric ceiling of manual percussive frequency. Similarly, humans possess a unique capacity to entrain to rhythms produced by others, and, consequently, to synchronize drumming bouts. In contrast, chimpanzees exclusively perform drumming displays alone, and while young gorillas occasionally exchange chest-drumming bouts during play as a prelude to chasing or playful interaction, there have been no observations of synchronized drumming. Various non-human primates have exhibited the ability to mutually entrain vocalizations (e.g. staccato hooting of bonobos, interlocking duets of gibbons and siamangs), but such entrainment does not appear to extend to non-verbal acoustic production. Though Ai, a language-trained chimpanzee, did prove capable of synchronizing tapping to an isochronous beat, a lack of tempo flexibility and low phase accuracy nonetheless demonstrated insufficiency for human-like drumming.

Universality in Human Populations: 

Drumming is present in virtually all human cultures, but is not practiced by all individuals. Preferences of particular styles of drumming (e.g. meters, instruments, etc.) and cultural significance of drumming vary between cultures. Individual drumming proficiency is highly variable between individuals.

Mechanisms Responsible for the Difference: 

Though the mechanisms responsible for characteristics unique to human drumming are not clear, they may derive from differences in manual dexterity and cognitive capacity. Enhanced fine motor control may allow for more precise percussive acoustic production, facilitating sustained isochrony. Additionally, the ability to "imagine" the rhythm and thus more effectively predict the occurrence of the following beat may facilitate both isochrony and synchronization. The human penchant for isochrony may have arisen as an evolutionary biproduct of rhythmic, isochronous language.

Possible Selection Processes Responsible for the Difference: 

It is possible that drumming arose in Old World apes as a mechanism for long distance communication or as a dominance display to demonstrate the ability to strike forcefully or manipulate large objects. Enhanced manual dexterity, "imagination," and isochronous language may have been independently selected for in humans, with corresponding abilities incorporated into the existing evolutionary template for drumming. Synchronized drumming can also serve a prosocial function, and may thus confer a fitness advantage by encouraging cooperative socialization.

Implications for Understanding Modern Humans: 

Drumming, along with vocalization, is one of the simplest forms of musical production. Consequently, understanding the emergence of our unique percussive abilities may provide insight into the evolution and functional significance of our aesthetic appreciation of music and propensity for complex musical production.

Occurrence in Other Animals: 

Drumming-like behavior is seen in a number of animal species independent of the primate lineage. For instance, male wolf spiders produce short, periodic/rhythmic bouts with their legs as a mating display. Similarly, kangaroo rats engage in foot drumming as a display behavior. Studies have shown that African elephants are capable of producing isochronous drumming using their feet, though this behavior has not been observed in the wild.

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  1. Social, contextual, and individual factors affecting the occurrence and acoustic structure of drumming bouts in wild chimpanzees (Pan troglodytes)., Babiszewska, Magdalena, Schel Anne Marijke, Wilke Claudia, and Slocombe Katie E. , Am J Phys Anthropol, 2015 Jan, Volume 156, Issue 1, p.125-34, (2015)
  2. The evolution of rhythmic cognition: new perspectives and technologies in comparative research, Ravignani, A., Gingras B., Asano R., Sonnweber R., Matellán V., and Fitch W. T. , Proceedings of the 35th Annual Conference of the Cognitive Science Society, Berlin, Germany, p.1199-1204, (2013)
  3. Monkey drumming reveals common networks for perceiving vocal and nonvocal communication sounds., Remedios, Ryan, Logothetis Nikos K., and Kayser Christoph , Proc Natl Acad Sci U S A, 2009 Oct 20, Volume 106, Issue 42, p.18010-5, (2009)
  4. On the role and origin of isochrony in human rhythmic entrainment., Merker, Bjorn H., Madison Guy S., and Eckerdal Patricia , Cortex, 2009 Jan, Volume 45, Issue 1, p.4-17, (2009)
  5. A non-human animal can drum a steady beat on a musical instrument, Patel, A., and Iverson J. , 9th International Conference on Music Perception and Cognition, (2006)
  6. Rhythm in Music: What is it? Who has it? And Why?, Bispham, John , 2006, Volume 24, Issue 2, p.125-134, (2006)
  7. Sexual selection in the wolf spider Hygrolycosa rubrofasciata: female preference for drum duration and pulse rate, Parri, Silja, Alatalo Rauno V., Kotiaho Janne S., Mappes Johanna, and Rivero Ana , Behavioral Ecology, Volume 13, p.615-621, (2002)
  8. Evolution and Function of Drumming as Communication in Mammals, Randall, J. A. , American Zoologist, Volume 41, p.1143-1156, (2001)
  9. Symbolic communication in wild chimpanzees?, Boesch, C. , Human Evolution, Volume 6, p.81–89, (1991)