Behind the Beat: Rhythm & the Brain

How rhythm can change your brain & your life

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The oldest known musical instrument, other than the voice, is the drum. Humankind’s use of the drum since the dawn of civilization may help explain why our brains are so innately attuned to respond to rhythm. Or from another perspective, the role of music and rhythm in our evolutionary development may have naturally led our ancestors in pursuit of ways to express themselves through it. 

Either way, our systems are dependent on and respond to rhythm. Research has shown that music with a steady beat serves as an auditory control mechanism for organizing all kinds of thought and movementfrom opening the door to remembering where you left your keys.

Rhythm and drumming have served as an important source of communication throughout much of human history. Years after the evolution of other instruments that expanded the potential for richer musical palettes, the use of more basic percussive instruments and rhythmic patterns remained a way for humans to communicate and synchronize with each other. 

We can recognize it in the message-encoded drumming among slaves, the patterns of military drummers on the battlefield and the talking drummers of Western and Central Africa. This connection provided the foundation for one of the earliest forms of electronic communication: Morse code. The human brain is wired to recognize and organize our thoughts into rhythmic patterns.

The Benefits of the Beat

Why is the beat, or rhythmic pattern, so important? What is the science behind the beat? Our systems naturally entrain to the pulse of the music. From our early days in the womb, when our inner rhythm synchronized to the beat of our mother’s heart, to the countless times we moved and sang along to our favorite song, our brain and our metabolism were being programmed by the rhythm.

Unlike visual stimuli, music has a remarkable ability to drive rhythmic, metrically organized motor behavior. This is why it is much easier to tap along in accurate time to an audible beat than it is to move in time to a flashing image or light. This is also why we are so tempted to move our bodies whenever we hear a beat we like. For better or worse, our entire system is affected by the tempo and rhythm of a piece of music.

In addition to engaging many of the areas of our brains required for active listening, physically playing a rhythm helps us create a complex neurofeedback loop between the auditory cortex and the motor cortex that controls the movements of our bodies. When a musician performs, at least three basic motor-control functions are required: timing, sequencing and spatial organization of movement. 

Performing rhythmically — be it with a shaker, a drum or your clapping hands — and learning to do so in time, is extremely powerful for the brain. It can help build new neural pathways and create an inner order that can be both revitalizing and calming, not to mention a lot of fun.

In popular music, different kinds of rhythms — and the degree of emphasis on the beat or rhythmic pattern — elicit associations with different moods and different musical genres. Different tempo and rhythmic patterns viscerally inform our body to move in certain ways. The slow ¾ beat of a waltz triggers a very different response from the half-time dramatic pop ballad, the midtempo, beat-driven hip-hop track, or the insistent up-tempo dance rhythm of a techno beat. Our brains and our bodies respond quite differently to each.

Regardless of the type of rhythm, our minds look for patterns and our bodies tries to make sense of it through how it physically feels. If it feels good in the body, we respond favorably. If it doesn’t feel good, it can take away from the listening experience. 

For a musician, singer or dancer, “feel” is a crucial and often subtle aspect of rhythm. The comprehension and mastery of rhythm is essential to a professional musician, and the effect of rhythm and those subtleties of “feel” viscerally affect the cells of the body and interpreted by the brain in ways that can range from motivating, foot tapping, relaxing or, if too far out of sync with our energetic needs, disturbing.

Finding and Following Our Inner Rhythm

Everything in nature operates in cycles of rhythm and patterns. Just as the beat of the drum can affect us, we function better when our minds and bodies are in sync with the natural rhythmic cycles of life. The organs in our bodies, our biological clocks and our nervous systems are kept in homeostasis when we are in sync with the body’s circadian rhythm. This internal rhythm is optimized even further when it is in sync with the natural rhythmic cycles of the Earth, which dances in rhythmic cycles with the universe. In yoga, we call these cycles of life and energy that govern nature the Ritam. The nature of rhythm, as it relates to properties of the universe and our internal energy flow, is beautifully expressed in the following stanza by Gabrielle Roth:

Energy moves in waves. Waves move in patterns. 

Patterns move in rhythms.

A human being is just that energy, waves, patterns, rhythms. 

Nothing more. Nothing less.

A dance.

It is because rhythm is so organic to the functioning of our brain and operating system that we can apply its principles to so many areas of our lives. Time is an external measurement of the space between events. Rhythm, on the other hand, is internal, and offers us a much more organic and beneficial way to experience or “feel” the passing and cycles of life that we attempt to measure with time. Unlike time, rhythm engages us, draws life force through us with each breath, and pumps fresh blood, nutrients and oxygen to trillions of living cells each time our hearts beat.

When the rhythm of our life “feels” right, we flow through our experience of life. Moving fast or slow, we maintain a sense of being in sync, of being deeply connected. When our inner rhythm is off, like a song played at the wrong tempo, we feel rushed, frustrated, anxious or — at the other end of the spectrum — sluggish, drained or heavy. 

This is the dance of life — to your optimal rhythm — one in which you can amplify your energy when needed, nourish your connections and healing, and create higher states of joy, innovation and flow.

If you make yourself aware of and follow your own inner rhythm section — your natural groove — you will feel more connected and fulfilled. Music can help you with this as well, by learning how music can help you achieve and support your natural growth and flow. 

If you need to pick that rhythm (and your energy) up a little, just turn on one of your favorite songs, one with a great rhythmic feel, and start moving to it.

This excerpt is adapted from my bestselling book Amplified, available online or at a bookstore near you. 

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