Expressing Collective Emotion Through Musical Rhythm

Rhythm as a source of emotional reactions.

Posted May 01, 2020

Music is intimately associated with experiences of emotions. Rhythmic entrainment is a possible mechanism of emotion that can be evoked by music. Rhythmic entrainment also binds individuals together into cooperative communities. For example, music has been used during the coronavirus lockdown because it brings people together socially—and positive social interactions release opioids in the brain’s reward center.

Music imitates emotional reactions. Music is a form of art that lives over time. By nature, emotions are regarded as transient processes emerging and transforming themselves in time. A typical emotional response (surprise) involves a quick rise lasting for a few minutes and then followed by relatively slow decay. In this respect, music and emotions share an important feature, as they both fluctuate in time (Levitin, et al., 2018). What comes up often comes down.

One of the most common human responses to music is to move to it. The urge to move to music is universal among humans. Our bodies respond to music in conscious and unconscious ways. Listeners react to the pulse, tempo, and rhythmic patterns of the music.

The term entrainment is usually paired with the notion of coordinated rhythmic movement. It describes a phenomenon in which two or more independent rhythmic processes synchronize with each other. For example, the rhythmic coordination of hand clapping in an audience, or a foot-tapping to the beat of a song, is a very common experience (Thaut, et al., 2015).

The classic example of entrainment is that of pendulum clocks ticking in synchrony. In 1666, the Dutch physicist Christian Huygens discovered that the pendulum frequencies of two clocks mounted on the same wall or board became synchronized to each other (Clayton et al., 2005). 

Entrainment affects our behavior in many ways. The movements of a group of people in a harmonious fashion is a form of synchronization. People instinctively match their footsteps to music, and music makes them walk faster or slower. Once you sync-up with the music tempo, the rhythm will power you forward. Similarly, when we walk with someone, we coordinate our footsteps with theirs.

Rhythmic entrainment is recognized to make an important contribution to the formation of musical emotions. Music allows different rhythms in the brain and the body to resonate with the same patterns presented in the temporal structure of the music (Juslin et al., 2010). By becoming aware of these physiological changes, the listener consequently feels emotionally engaged.

For example, in one music therapy study, the researchers demonstrated that when the brain of a patient and therapist become synchronized while listening to classical music, the patient’s brain activity shifted suddenly from displaying deep negative feelings to a positive peak (Fachner et a., 2019). The process of entrainment creates shifts in brainwaves themselves, generating slower frequency brainwaves that promote deeper states of relaxation.

Music can calm our mind. When we listen to music, our bodies respond automatically. Music can induce relaxation through entrainment effects to slow breathing and heartbeat. Music can also boost our energy, such as marching bands as a warm-up for football games.

Entrainment is rooted in the social aspect of human experience (Vuilleumier & Trost, 2015). There is perhaps no stronger behavior to unite humans than coordinated rhythmic movements, such as singing, dancing, chanting, walking, or talking together. These activities can increase social bonding.

Entrainment could also be interpreted as a form of empathy. Music plays an important social role, as it can coordinate actions, enhance cooperation and communication (Koelsch, 2010). For example, when individuals interact socially in conversations, the rhythms of their actions tend to become entrained. In this way, rhythm synchronization plays a role in the generation of empathic feelings. Moreover, being in synchrony with a group of people is generally regarded as a very pleasant experience.


Clayton, Martin; Sager, Rebecca and Will, Udo (2005).In time with the music: the concept of entrainmentand its significance for ethnomusicology. European Meetings in Ethnomusicology, 11, pp. 3–142.

Claytom Martin (2012) What is Entrainment? Definition and applications in musical research Vol. 7, No. 1-2, 2012

Fachner , Jörg C., Clemens Maidhof, Denise Grocke, Inge Nygaard Pedersen, Gro Trondalen, Gerhard Tucek, Lars O. Bonde. (2019) “Telling me not to worry…” Hyperscanning and Neural Dynamics of Emotion Processing During Guided Imagery and Music. Frontiers in Psychology; 10 DOI: 10.3389/fpsyg.2019.01561

Koelsch, S. (2010). Towards a neural basis of music-evoked emotions. Trends Cogn. Sci. 14, 131–137.

Levitin J Daniel, Jessica A. Grahn and Justin London (2018), The Psychology of Music: Rhythm and Movement,  Annu. Rev. Psychol. 69:51–75.

Thaut, MH et al., (2015) Neurobiological foundations of neurologic music therapy: rhythmic entrainment and the motor system, Front. Psychol., 18 February 2015.

Vuilleumier P, Trost W.  (2015) Music and emotions: from enchantment to entrainment. Ann N Y Acad Sci. 2015 Mar;1337:212-22.

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