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Exploring the Motor Uses of Instruments in Music Therapy- Buffalo Drum, Ocean Drum, and Tambourine

 by Madison Michel, MT-BC

Hello all, Madison here. For my graduate practicum project in fulfillment of my master’s in music therapy at Colorado State University (distance), I decided to delve into instruments and the creative ways we can use them as music therapists to address motor needs with a wide variety of clients.

This is a resource intended for other music therapists, students, related professionals, anyone curious about music therapy. The following profiles are 3 of 8 total in which  I explore ways to use the instruments to address multiple motor needs.

Be sure to click through the links to the demonstration videos in each profile  for an even more in depth look at each instrument. I hope you learn from and enjoy this project!

*This post may contain affiliate links. All opinions represented here are our own. Thank you for supporting our small business! 

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Profile on Motor Uses of the Buffalo Drum

History of the Buffalo Drum

The Buffalo Drum is a Native American drum made by stretching buffalo hyde over a handmade wooden frame. The drum offered spiritual connection for many Native American tribes and was used in spiritual ceremonies. Being the keeper of the sacred drum was considered a high honor, and the drum was seen as a moving, breathing entity of spiritual life.

Music Therapy and the Buffalo Drum

While music therapists don’t often use traditional buffalo drums, manufactured drums offer many of the same rich and vibrant sound qualities. Find one here:  Remo Buffalo Drum.  Holding the buffalo drum while it is played offers a rich sensory experience, fantastic for use with populations who have sensory needs. The buffalo drum can be played by hand or using a mallet, offering many options to address motor goals even before adapting the instrument. The buffalo drum has a wide diameter, allowing plenty of room for visual representation on the drum’s surface for the music therapist to make use of as well.

See Madison’s Demonstration Video: Exploring Motor Uses of Instruments in Music Therapy- Buffalo Drum

Motor Goal



Arm flexion, extension, abduction, adduction, internal and external arm rotation, endurance, leg flexion

Shift drum to various positions to target specified motor movements, utilize timer or time period (verse or chorus of a song) to facilitate repetitions.

Utilize adaptive grips when playing with mallets as needed.

Grasping, endurance, strength training

1. Have the client grasp and hold the buffalo drum in specified position while therapist plays.

2. Have client grasp and play the drum with a mallet for an extended period of time.

3. Have client grasp alternative items like water bottles or weights and play drum while holding them in a controlled fashion.

Utilize adaptive grips when playing with mallets or other items as needed.

Sensory/motor stimulation

Hold the drum close to an area of the client’s body in need of stimulation or have client hold the drum across lap or torso. Play the drum at varied volumes and tempos to allow the client to experience tactile, proprioceptive, vestibular, and auditory stimuli.

Watch for signs of over/under stimulation and adjust as appropriate.

Visual motor coordination

1. Place visual targets on various points of the buffalo drum for the client to aim for in sequence

2. Cue client to throw or toss tennis ball or ball with Velcro on it towards the drum as a visual target.

Utilize Velcro strips to place visual representations in varied spaces on the buffalo drum surface.

Profile on Motor Uses of the Ocean Drum

History of the Ocean Drum

The Ocean Drum is thought to originate from Native American water drums. These were made from solid wood or dried clay containing varying amounts of water on the inside. The Ocean Drum is made from a hooped frame with dried hyde stretched over it containing small beads. The modern version is made with synthetic material rather than animal hyde and often has one clear plastic side so you can see the beads within. Find one to purchase here.

Music Therapy and the Ocean Drum

The ocean drum is a rich and vibrant instrument used by many music therapists. It comes in varied shapes and sizes for ease of transport and can even be handmade from everyday household items. Here are directions to make your own. Hitting the drum traditionally creates a snare like sound, but the beads expand its expressive capabilities beyond that of an everyday drum, making it highly versatile for the mobile music therapist who may have limited room in their instrument wagon. 

See Madison’s Demonstration Video: Exploring Motor Uses of Instruments in Music Therapy- Ocean Drum

Motor Use


Sensorimotor stimulation

  • Angling the drum while holding it so that the beads move from side to side can provide vestibular stimulation as the weight of the beads shifts. 
  • Vestibular stimulation can also be provided by holding the drum over the head while shifting the beads to give a sense of movement. 
  • Tactile exploration can be utilized during music making to explore the various textures of the drum head. (fibrous, plastic, pliable, hard, etc).
  • Ocean drums with clear drum heads can provide visual stimulation for attentional visual targeting, especially if the beads are colorful.

Upper/lower extremity flexion and extension

  • Use the ocean drum as a target for varied ranges of motion in the arms and legs.

Endurance/Strength and grasping in the upper extremities

  • Dependent on the size of the ocean drum, weights can vary greatly, making them great choices for meeting a wide variety of need in building strength and endurance for extended periods of time while music making.
    Varied sizing in band thickness can offer practice grasping and manipulating an item even as weight shifts.

Profile on Motor Uses of the Tambourine

History of the Tambourine

A traditional handheld tambourine consists of a rounded ribbon as a base with a drumhead stretched across. The ribbon has a hole or handle to support the tambourine and one or more row of metal jingles/jangles equally spaced around the ribbon. Early uses of tambourine date back to religious uses in ancient Greece, Rome, and the greater Middle East. In the 13th century, Crusaders brought the tambourine back to Europe, where it has been used since in varied kinds of Western music. Of particular note with tambourine is its multi stylistic use in orchestral music, pop music, traditional folk music, and religious music.

Music Therapy and the Tambourine

The tambourine offers feedback from tapping, shaking, or virtually any other kind of manipulation you can think of, and modern versions can be found in a huge variety of sizes and shapes. This, paired with its wide stylistic use, makes the tambourine a long time tool in the music therapist’s toolbox. Adaptations to the tambourine allowing it to be strapped onto a person or stand, rather than grasped, make it an excellent adaptive motor instrument. Find a tambourine to purchase here.

See Madison’s Demonstration Video: Exploring Motor Uses of Instruments in Music Therapy: Tambourine

Motor Use


Sensorimotor stimulation

  • Tapping the tambourine on various parts of the body can provide proprioceptive and tactile input for individuals with sensory needs. The different textures of tambourine including the drum head, hole, ribbon, and jangles allow for varied texture exploration. 
  • The tambourine is a particularly effective tool for meeting sensory needs in the fingers. Manipulating the jangles with the fingers can provide a sensory outlet that can directly contribute to the live musicing experience.


  • With so many variations with size and shape, tambourines offer a wide variety of grasps to practice sustained movement and play which builds endurance and strength. 
  • Following movement directives at varied tempos for set durations of time can target muscles in different ways while playing the tambourine. 
  • Adaptive stands can allow the tambourine to be mounted at varied heights in order to target various upper extremity reaching goals during music activities.

Foot flexion and ambulatory feedback

  • Foot tambourines can be used to specifically target foot flexion, often a first step when working on lower extremity mobility. 
  • Foot tambourine offers continuous auditory feedback to the participant wearing it, making it useful for a variety of lower extremity mobility work such as toe tapping, marching, weight shifting, and walking


Drum types and origins: The Ocean Drum. (2013, June 22). Retrieved from

History of the Tambourine. (2014, July 7). Retrieved from

Native American drums have a rich and sacred history. (n.d.). Retrieved from

Madison Michel, MT-BC

Music Therapist – Board Certified

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