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Feel the Rhythm: How Music Affects Movement

“Music moves me.”

I hear this all the time when I introduce myself as a music therapist.  Typically, people are referring to the emotional affect music has on them.  Music reaches us in a way that other things do not.  It accesses our emotions, involves our minds, shapes our identity, connects us in community…and it also, literally, moves us.  My audience knows all of these things, but what I know and get to share with them – and with you – is why.  Why does music make us feel things? How can a song propel us to move our bodies, tap our toes, clap our hands, or bob our heads almost against our own will? Why does music move us?

fMRI of brain with music-activated regions in red and orange chromatone.

Perhaps unfortunately, the answer is scientific.

Here’s your neuroscience lesson of the day: rhythm prompts motor. Our brains are just naturally organized for movement to be a response to some audible rhythm. The areas of the brain that prime or prepare movement have direct pathways that easily recruit the auditory cortex, so every beat or rhythm we hear has a very easy and efficient path to cue movement. Some of us have a stronger connection with rhythm and specific songs that “move us,” not realizing that we’ve cultivated this by strengthening neural connections over the years.

The music industry knows this fact, whether or not they actually understand it. Music that is typically coined “dance music” has a very strong pulse or beat for that very reason: to get people moving. This is why when you hear that one song you can’t help but get up, join the masses, and shake your groove thang. This is also why, in physical rehabilitation, listening to music with a steady beat can help to organize, coordinate, and perpetuate movement. A music therapist harnesses this power by matching a patient’s current speed or motor pattern and can select or create music with rhythmic and spatial cues to improve the quality, duration, or strength of motor patterns. That’s a lot of terminology to basically state the same thing: music moves us. Even after an injury, music moves us. And now you know why beat or rhythm we hear has a very easy and efficient path to cue movement. Some of us have a stronger connection with rhythm and specific songs that “move us,” not realizing that we’ve cultivated this by strengthening neural connections over the years.

Music symbols in varied colors as background behind black silhouettes of 5 people dancing.

Next time you’re at a wedding or party or elevator, don’t stifle the urge to move to the music. Feel the rhythm! Or, as Justin Timberlake aptly sings, “I can’t stop the feeling.  So just dance, dance, dance.”

For more information about music therapy in rehabilitation, contact Chrissy Watson at chrissy.watson@star-center.org.

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