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The Importance of Rhythm in Everyday Life

Life is full of rhythm.

Key points

  • Rhythm is essential to dance, poetry, and speech.
  • Across all cultures, humans synchronize to and move with musical rhythms.
  • Human rhythms are intentionally communicative.

Rhythm is one of the central aspects of music in all its forms. Rhythm gives structure to the music and brings the musical notes to life. Rhythm consists of the relative durations of pitches (or, more precisely, the relative timing of the intervals between note onsets).

Rhythm, however, is not just for music. Life is full of rhythms (Kotz, 2018). There are many kinds of natural rhythms, such as when a person walks, waves at the shore, or a dripping tap. We feel deeply the cycles of sun and moon, planting harvest. The human body is replete with rhythmical processes, such as respiration, heartbeat, circadian cycles, and menstrual cycles. And we know good movies are usually released in December.

Human rhythms are intentionally communicative. For example, someone walking down the street in a leisurely fashion has a distinct rhythm compared with someone who is waking to work. A sense of timing is important in conversations. When we speak, we communicate not only with the words we choose, but also with the rhythm of speech. A generally slow pace creates a calm mood, whereas a quick pace suggests excitement or impatience. A frequent change of pace within a long speech is likely to create a sense of instability or volatility. Pauses between words contribute significantly to expressive speech. A speech unbroken by pauses is likely to strike listeners as confident, controlled, and motivational. For example, President Obama pauses regularly when he talks.

Our experience of rhythm seems to involve a sense of movements, such as foot-tapping, head-nodding, and social interactions (e.g., smile to a smile). Moving to music occur spontaneously, without training. Our bodies respond to music in conscious and unconscious ways (except in cases of pathology such as stroke and autism). For example, infants make a greater number of rhythmic movements when they hear music.

The urge to move to music is universal. Music that is rated as high in groove motivates more spontaneous movements than music that is low in groove. The term groove refers to the quality of music that makes individual listeners want to move. Factors that influence groove include emotional responses to the music, preferred tempo, enjoyment, and familiarity.

Humans seem to have a unique capacity to coordinate or synchronize to music. This process of synchronization is also referred to as entrainment or attunement. Foot taping is the typical demonstration of entrainment. When we are entrained, our attention literally moves with the music, and this encourages our bodily movements. With our body movements, it is as if we are tracking the movement in rhythm itself.

Entraining the body normally simulates emotion. Sharing rhythmic behaviors such as singing, dancing, chanting, or talking together can increase social bonding. We often get immense pleasure whether engaging in dancing or observing other people dancing. For example, tango dancing with a partner leads to significant increases in positive affect, and reductions in negative affect (Kreutz, 2008).

The concept of entrainment also extends to the biological systems, such as the resetting of body clocks by sunlight (circadian entrainment). The cycle of day and night influences the internal body clocks of many individual organisms. If our body clock falls out of synchrony with the cycle of day and night we suffer from jetlag, which can result in tiredness, wakefulness, and irritability (Clayton, 2012). The circadian entrainment is a good example of how the cycle of day and night influences the internal body clocks.

The ability to entrain external rhythms has significant implications for our well-being. The ability to synchronize movements increase group cohesion. When individuals interact socially, for example in conversation, walking in time with other people, or dancing together, the rhythms of their actions tend to become entrained. Synchrony promotes cooperation. If I can entrain to your behavior and you to mine, then we are able to coordinate our actions. Feeling connected to our social communities causes the release of endorphins, which are associated with feelings of pleasure and gratification and a sense of trust (Launay, et al 2016).


Clayton, Martin. 2012. What Is Entrainment? Definition and Applications in Musical Research. Empirical Musicology Review 7: 49–56.

Kreutz, G. (2008). Does partnered dance promote health? The case of tango argentino. The Journal of the Royal Society for the Promotion of Health, 128, 79 – 84.

Kotz, S. A., Ravignani, A., & Fitch, W. T. (2018). The evolution of rhythm processing. Trends in Cognitive Sciences, 22(10), 896–910.

Launay et al (2016), Synchrony as an adaptive mechanism for large-scale human social bonding, Ethology, 122 (10) (2016), pp. 779-789.

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