What’s happening in the Drum Room?

What’s happening in the drum room (and why should we be interested)?


The drum room is a place to have fun and make noise. But it is also an example of a Complex Adaptive System. When more than 6 people are present and involved, they will interact with each other in a dynamic way, and the results are interesting.


From a technical (complexity) perspective, some possible things to observe might be:


Emergence of behaviour

When a co-ordinated rhythm happens – because no speaking was involved, and nothing was written down, this has to be emergent. The behaviour of the whole cannot be ascertained by the behaviour or properties of the parts, a result of self-organization.



This is a feature of complex systems (other examples are applause, dancing in groups, menstrual cycles of women living in proximity). The coordination of activity of independent agents (in this case, the people in the room playing percussion instruments).


Strange attractors

Some types of rhythm will happen more easily. The unplanned and uncoordinated interactions of the “drummers” may resolve into a recognisable shape. This is an emergent property of the Complex Adaptive System in the Drum Room. When a strange attractor emerges in a system it is likely the system will stay with that behaviour.



A large effort by one person in the drum room will not necessarily make a big change in the collective behaviour – for instance if a radically different beat is initiated by one person, it will not necessarily cause the rest of the players to change. Conversely, a small change in emphasis in the way a player is contributing to the rhythm can trigger the emergence of a new pattern involving the whole room.


Porous borders

Complex Adaptive Systems are in communication with the environment around them. There can be free flow across the boundary. People can join the drummers, or leave the drummers, freely and unpredictably. What happens when the personnel changes?




As ever, it’s worth thinking about these observations, and trying to consider how they might apply to ordinary situations we find ourselves in.



Mark Waters, November 2009