We all have that friend. You know exactly the person I am talking about. The one that is at the bar that refuses to dance because they “don’t have any rhythm”. Sure, your two left footed creature of a friend might be on to something, they are however, very incorrect. They may not be good dancers, but hear me out. Of course we all know after a few adult beverages we come to find out that friend can move, despite their authentically awkward turtle like resemblance. While this friend may not win the next leading role in “Swan Lake”, they DO have rhythm. That is because 97% of humans have rhythm. Hard to believe? Grab your dancing shoes and let’s find out.

We should start off by defining rhythm. We all know what it means, but it might be a little hard to describe. Rhythm is a series of beats that exists within a measure of time. For example, this is how we dance without making fools of ourselves (unless you are THAT friend, see above). And more importantly, this is often how we walk and even how our bodies function, like our heart beats or the rhythm of our breaths. This is all thanks to the rhythm-brain connection. In order to discuss the rhythm-brain connection I have to talk about something called entrainment (not to be mistaken by a Sean Connery film)…… Right now, I want you to stop reading this blog and put on your favorite up-tempo song.  And consciously try to walk across the room with the beat.  You will mostly like find that this is quite easy.  Now, put on the same song and try to not walk with the beat (or a subdivision of the beat).  If you are able to walk “off-beat”, this is most likely because you were able to come up with some sort of a cognitive strategy to “tune-out” the music.  This phenomenon of being able to walk on beat is called entrainment, meaning that your brain is synchronizing to the rhythm.  And Yes, 97% of people can do this regardless of age, culture, race, etc.  For a quick example, see this dancing baby video, and ask yourself, “How could a child that young LEARN to have rhythm?”  It must be something we are born with!

But How?

Your brain is called a feedforward mechanism and not a feedback mechanism.  This means that your brain processes time information rather than event information.  When you hear a rhythm that repeats and you are able to walk to it, your brain is NOT hearing one beat and then telling your leg to move and doing this over and over again (that would be feedback).  Your brain is processing the time intervals in between each beat and anticipating when the next one is coming and telling your legs to move (feedforward).This is because your brain perceives the time distance between the beats you hear. From a neuroanatomy perspective, Your brain’s auditory system can tap into the motor structures of your brain. This relationship will create an entrainment between the rhythmic stimulus you hear and your motor response. Therefore, you can move your body to entrain to the rhythm you hear almost without even thinking. Pretty amazing stuff, right?

You may be asking yourself, what does this have to do with Neurologic Music Therapy? Well, Rhythmic Auditory Stimulation (RAS) is here to save the day! This uses the rhythm-brain connection to help rehabilitate people that suffer motor dysfunction due to a neurologic injury or disorder. More specifically, it can help people walk again using rhythm. I know– this just gets cooler and cooler. RAS can retrain the brain to walk again (called gait training) after a serious neurologic injury or disorder. During RAS, a clinician can use live musical cues to match the beat of a patient’s walking pattern. Then after the patient has entrained (YES!) to the beat, the rhythm can be altered (sped up, slowed down, etc.) based upon the person’s goal, and musical cues are enhanced by the clinician to help force movement. The patient will likely then walk at an adjusted rate and typically demonstrates improved gait symmetry, balance, stride length, and cadence.

So who can benefit from RAS? RAS can benefit patients who have had strokes and brain injuries, individuals with Parkinson’s and Huntington’s disease, and children with cerebral palsy. For example, stroke patients improved on balance, stride symmetry (by 32%), and stride length (by 88%) after RAS. Similar work has been done with traumatic brain injuries and for Huntington’s disease (Thaut & Abiru, 2009). In patients with Parkinson’s disease, RAS helps to improve their gait because they can synchronize their movement to the beat, which replaces their impaired internal timing function. RAS also enhances gait patterns that are more complex, like combining upper and lower limb movements (Nombela, Hughes, Owen, & Grahn, 2013).

Along with gait training, rhythmic training showed improvement in challenging motor timed and perceptual tasks (Benoit, Bella, Farrugia, Obrig, Mainka, & Kotz, 2014). This is the rhythm-brain connection. This is how rhythm and music can help people to walk again after an injury or disorder has taken their abilities away. We can retrain and re-educate our brains with the use of Neurologic Music Therapy. As for your friend we talked about earlier? They might just need some dancing lessons.

#musicitsscience #neurologicmusictherapy

This rhythmic entrainment can be beneficial for a number of other motor dysfunctions, not just walking.  And we will dive into that in future blogs.

Written By: Steph Mathioudakis, MedRhythms Blogger


Benoit, C.E., Bella, S.D., Farrugia, N., Obrig, H., Mainka, S., Kotz, S.A. (2014). Musically cued gait-training improves both perceptual and motor timing in Parkinson’s disease. Frontiers in Human Neuroscience, 8(494), 1-11.

Nombela, C., Hughes, L.E., Owen, A.M., Grahn, J.A. (2013). Into the groove: Can rhythm influence Parkinson’s disease? Neuroscience and Biobehavioral Reviews, 8(3), 1-7.

Thaut, M.H., Abiru, M. (2009). Rhythmic auditory stimulation in rehabilitation of movement disorders: A review of current research. Music Perception, 27(4), 263-269.