I've Got Rhythm!

Updated: May 22, 2019

by Jessica Finch Bogacik, MS, MT-BC

What do you do when you hear music with a good beat?  Do you tap your toes?  Snap your fingers? Dance? Responding to rhythm is a basic and primal part of human functioning, and helps us connect to and understand our temporal surroundings.  Rhythm is prevalent in our bodily functioning as well.  Our hearts, brain waves, respirations, and sleep cycles all operate in rhythmic patterns, and can be affected by external rhythms.

The application of rhythm in music therapy interventions is useful in many different ways.  Predictable rhythm can alter mental states and help to repair brain injuries. It has been shown to help stroke patients learn to walk and speak again, increase focus and concentration in children with ADHD, increase serotonin and dopamine levels, improving mood and helping alleviate symptoms of Parkinson’s disease, and many other benefits.

In hospice music therapy, the application of rhythm in music interventions provides many potential benefits.

  1. A sense of comfort.  Predictable rhythm used in familiar songs can bring back positive memories, and encourage patients and their families to participate in active music making, such as singing or playing instruments.  Steady rhythm helps people feel grounded and can give them a sense of well-being.

  2. Entrainment. This is the process of synchronizing rhythms.  This can be applied to human functioning through music therapy interventions to address dyspnea and anxiety, among other concerns.  Bodily rhythms such as heart rate and respiration are not constant, but change in response to circumstances.  Using predictable and steady rhythm, the principal of entrainment suggests that the internal rhythm (respiration, in the case of dyspnea, or heart rate, in the case of anxiety) can be changed by introducing an external stimulus at a similar rate, and then changing the stimulus.  For example, if a patient is anxious and has a pulse of 120, the music therapist would first try to match the quick tempo of the heart rate with the music.  Then, with the intention of reducing the heart rate, the therapist would gradually reduce the tempo of the music always maintaining a strong and predictable rhythm. Ideally, the patient will sense this change and their body will adjust itself, synchronizing with a slower rhythm, and thus reducing this uncomfortable symptom of anxiety.

  3. Improved mood. Hearing and interacting with rhythm can stimulate the production of neurotransmitters in the brain that can lead to improved mood.  Encouraging movement, and eliciting positive memories, music with distinct and predictable rhythm can help improve patients’ moods.  Rhythm motivates us to move, in an almost instinctual way.  Just as movement through exercise stimulates production of serotonin and dopamine (two neurotransmitters known to affect mood), so can movement through dancing. 

  4. Increased interaction.  Music is a social activity by its very nature.  When people make music together, melody, lyrics, and especially rhythm are flowing through and between each person making the music.  There is an attentiveness and interaction that is required when two or more people are making music together.  This interaction is natural and fun, and something that is not easily achieved by some patients who are isolated due to illness, grief, or disorientation.  Sharing familiar music with steady rhythm is a great way to provide opportunities for social interaction through music making.

Rhythm is one of the many elements of music that have effects on humans. Its benefits are many, and it can be applied effectively to help hospice patients achieve improved mood, and sense of well being, to improve their physical symptoms of anxiety or other ailments, and to encourage social interaction, among other benefits.

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Music Therapy, LLC

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