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Rhythm in Movement and its Potential Role in Rehabilitation

by Stephen Braybrook(more info)

listed in exercise and fitness, originally published in issue 221 - April 2015

In everyday life, what is it that you witness each time you observe people move? You may see the external actions of running, jumping, hopping, waving and nodding. What you do not see but are the internal actions of your heart beat, your breath or your brain waves. These natural rhythms can be witnessed on a microscopic scale inside our bodies as well as on a more macroscopic scale in the natural world around us; such as the rising and setting of the sun and moon; the changing seasons and the tidal ebb and flow. Rhythm, denotes much of our daily lives. The consistent things that are happening on a micro and macroscopic level, which we may or may not be aware of.

Rhythm in the biological body is the dynamic grouping and structuring of the frequency’s and amplitudes, brought about through the vibrational components of the external and internal forces. These are constantly fluctuating in the biological body and rhythms can transition through distinctive order or disorder and patterned or non- patterned motion.


Stephen Braybrook Rhythm in Movement


Rhythmicity plays a critical part in learning, development and performance of movement. The timing of movement is essential in many motor control and cognitive functions and the formation of rhythm can integrate basic levels of sensory perception and motor integration into complex cognitive processes and motor adaptations. The fundamental building process of rhythm is synchronization. The word synchronous means to happen, exist or arise at precisely the same time. In response to rhythm, motor responses may be synchronized to an auditory rhythm, frequently referred to as entrainment.

Rhythm not only affects the timing of movement but also the total movement pattern. This rhythmic adaptation of neural auditory and motor impulses is based on motor synchronization to auditory signal frequency. This suggests that rhythm provides time information across the duration of the movement and not just the endpoints of movement; when a response is matched to the period of the rhythmic signal that has been produced. One such way in which the auditory system is re-established is through the use of music.

In order for this music assisted entrainment to work on the human body, the music must be at the same frequency and allowing the motor response to sync with the beat. This enables the following responses:

  1. Steady and stable emergence between the rhythmic cue and the rhythmic motor response, which is achieved almost instantaneously.
  2. Rhythmic formation, which is interval-based in an anticipation- corrections process. This means the brain recognizes the periodicity pattern of the rhythmic stimuli and synchronization is achieved by an anticipatory response.
  3. Small deviations in synchronization alignments do not need to be corrected by overcorrections.
  4. The motor output system recognizes and responds to synchronization changes even at or below conscious awareness.

This is a fascinating insight into rhythm but we also need to ask ourselves the question what happens if rhythm is distorted or disordered in anyway? Will this result in problems and if so what rehabilitative aids can be implemented in the attempt to re-establish as commutative series of neurological pathways?

One area for re-establishing cognitive learning and motor enhancement within a rehabilitation setting is through the use of rhythmic music within gait training. This type of music therapy technique has been proven to be an effective treatment to improve functional gait for individuals suffering from neurologic disorders; such as post-stroke patients, Parkinson’s disease, traumatic brain injury and cerebral palsy. The purpose of using rhythmic music with these disorders is to activate the rhythmical entrainment and reconnect previously functioning motor pathways that are damaged.

The question still remains of how can this possibly occur?  Simply put, the use of a sound is processed instantaneously, as an external auditory stimulus and then processed internally. There are three main areas that are highlighted through auditory processing of rhythmic music: rhythmic entrainment, auditory-motor pathway priming and movement cueing.  Rhythmic entrainment is the process whereby connections are made between the auditory and motor systems in the brain. The perception of rhythm is processed in a variety of neuronal areas, many of which are involved in motor planning and output. Perception-action mediation or the ‘mirror neuron system’ describes this phenomenon where simply listening to music automatically engages action-related processes in the brain and can bring about the reactivation of movement.

Auditory-motor pathway priming is accomplished by activation of motor neurons through the stimulation of sound stimulation, specifically rhythm which creates muscle activation. Finally, movement cueing refers to all aspects of gait actions on and between heel strikes. The audible beat used in rhythmic music cues the endpoint of gait movement or the heel strike. The period of information refers to the duration between beats that serves to cue all actions between heel strikes, such as weight shift and is where rhythm serves as a continuous time reference, executing the entire pattern of movement by increasing spatial and temporal patterns it encases.

However, all of these points lead us to ask some specific and critical questions, such as:

  • What music is best to use?
  • Which beat and tempo is best to use?
  • Can this auditory response that appears to be influenced by music also be influenced just by the voice? And if so what pitch and tone should be used?
  • What movements should be incorporated in the rehabilitation programme to best maximise the music’s benefits?
  • Can rhythm be used not just for individuals with a neurological disorder but can it influence sporting or generalised performance in movement?
  • Does rhythm and the effect it has upon the neurological disorders spoken about in the main section of this article influence individuals with autism and ADHD?

These questions are an example of the potential importance of further research and validation into the full spectrum of rhythm and its potential role in human movement patterns. The full extent of its potential use in a rehabilitative role as highlighted above and also as a tool for enhancement and development of optimisation of movement patterns for all, is an area of movement science that we should all be watching out for with anticipation. Maybe rhythm holds a fundamental and primal key to unlocking a secret hidden pathway between the extrinsic and intrinsic; the outer environment and inner workings of our biological systems.


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About Stephen Braybrook

Stephen Braybrook BSc MSc also know as The Movement Man is a highly qualified and experienced health, fitness and sports professional with a passion for the study of human movement, optimization of sporting performance and rehabilitation.  His area of special interest is human biomechanics and is currently writing a book and devising courses based on a modern look at biomechanics. Please see for more information.  Stephen may be contacted via Tel: 07890 263149;

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