How Rhythm adds to the JOY of music listening

  • Know the main reasons why rhythm or beats play such an important part in music appreciation and enjoyment.

Musical Rhythm is an important component of emotion induction in music. Our brain circuits recruit these movements during spontaneous entrainment of attention by music. This influences the subjective feelings evoked by music. Music with rhythm, brings about a sense of completeness.


So, what is this entrainment?


The term entrainment describes a physical principle “whereby two rhythmic processes interact with each other in such a way that they adjust towards and eventually ‘lock in’ to a common phase and/or periodicity”. The synchronization of bodily rhythms with music happens at different levels the motor level, the autonomic physiological level, the attentional level and even the social level. Imagine two different streams of beats, with different characteristics, e.g., speed, time intervals, running together in the listener’s brain!


This is a very common phenomenon: Who has not been caught unawares with the foot tapping or the body moving to the music heard in the background? This a classic example of entrainment.


Musical rhythm makes our brain act in synchrony with the music. And what we perceive as a pleasant or unpleasant effect is because of the beats that communicate to the listener the musical moods/emotions.


Let us examine a few of those interesting components of rhythm which enhance our music listening pleasures!


Importance of Meter - Most music is based on a precise temporal structure, i.e. meter, which creates the perception of a repetitive beat.  This discernment of musical beats emerges from the entrainment of neuronal populations in our brain that resonate at the frequency of the musical beats. Generates great excitement and joy!


Beats - leads to the perception of a distinctive hierarchy between individual beats. This greatly helps in determining the perceived structure of the music which leads to greater understanding of the music and therefore enjoyment!

Tempo - A listener’s attention is enhanced at a specific moment in time, stimulus processing can be facilitated for all senses at that time. Accordingly, an auditory rhythm can influence visual attention. Sudden slow tempo or fast, constitute a key source of emotions experienced during music listening. Bodily rhythms may synchronize to those present in the music, consequently generating varied feelings, among everyone. This creates a wow factor in the listener’s brain whilst listening to music.


Beat/Rhythmic Patterns - motor attention is directly linked to musical pleasantness.  Rhythmical patterns of a certain complexity range are rated as more pleasant and evoke stronger feelings. Pleasant music enhances the rhythmic entrainment of attentional processes.


 Harmony (chords or several notes of a family played together) increases the listener’s pleasure with beats. Pleasant music is clearly associated with predictable intervals of time between beats, giving a sense of dependability to the listener, who can then dive into listening to the music unhindered! 


Role of the Repetitive Beat - Most music is based on a precise temporal structure, i.e., meter, which creates the perception of a repetitive beat. The role of expectations and predictions is interesting, and if the same beat is followed the music has happier connotations to the listener. The listener feels a sense of relief, assumes the same beat is going to exist, and plunges into the enjoyment process.


Measures of the Beat - the first beat of the metrical unit represents a strong beat with high attentional level. The second beat of a four-beat measure is a weak beat with relatively low attentional level. It leads to a different interpretation of the same music. Same music evoking different feelings!


Rhythm strengthens auditory skills that help not only in musical performance but in everyday communication. 


Rhythm in Daily Life - Everyday communication rarely occurs in ideal conditions: from busy restaurants to Public Transit, the human auditory system is constantly faced with the challenge of picking out a meaningful signal from competing inputs. Understanding speech is an everyday communication challenge.  And here is where Rhythm comes in and provides an informative measure of auditory function. Rhythm helps the successful integration of cognitive, linguistic, and sensory processing in response to novel incoming sounds.


Music is learnt with Rhythm - Many of the same aspects of auditory processing that are important to noise perception have been shown to be strengthened in musicians compared with non-musicians. Musicians’ superior auditory skills learnt from rhythm arise from precise neural encoding of sound coupled with strengthened cognitive function. AND show advantages in processing speech and non-verbal communication sounds.


Musical experience not only strengthens the specific components of sound that are meaningful within musical practice (e.g., the sound of a musician’s own instrument).  Sentence incomplete. This is due to the fact that musical practice provides experience not only with the specific ingredients of musical sound, but also with the process of integrating those ingredients with rhythm.


This ability to extract meaning from a complex auditory scene is an important factor in the transfer of skills to non-musical domains. Understanding speech in a noisy background is made easier with the help of rhythm.


Strong and Weak Beats - Strong beats are equally fast detected as targets presented than weaker beats when music is more pleasant. Off-beat conditions come as huge surprises to the listener’s brain interrupting the process of music listening. Just as in our daily lives, a sudden brake of the car, the trundling of the rail wagons, the screeching police siren etc. bring sudden surprises. All our expectations induced by pleasant consonant music at the brain level, is because of the rhythmic perception.


Thus, our behavior during music listening is strongly affected by beats and rhythm.


Rhythm establishes a sustained pleasant emotional state, in which attention is globally broadened and readiness to react is heightened,


Rhythm an integral part of our ability to associate with music.

Music makes me close my eyes & Beats help turn lights off. Anonymous quote.

Beats allow our heart to enjoy music is an Old Irish saying.



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Author is a Toronto based BANSURI musician,teacher,speaker, maker of flutes of various worlds, a published author. His writings rely on his experiences of learning music, as he continues on that beautiful never ending journey. His thoughts emanate from the discipline and study of music spans over decades. He is deeply influenced by the Indian Music Traditional guru-shishya parampara; his guruji Late Pandit Malhar Rao Kulkarni bansuri musician, Swami Parmananda of Kangra Valley Ashram where he spent learning ancient Vidhis of India, principally Chanakya Neeti. The priceless subject that strengthens thought processing abilities. A subject forgotten as Chanakya did not write any of his teachings down as a matter of his principle. The views and ideas expressed are his own, the objective being to invoke the person to think differently, on simple issues that surround all of us in day to day life. Site is

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