The Role of Rhythm in Martial Arts and Athletic Performance – And How to Train It

By on October 8, 2015

Music is the pleasure that the human soul encounters from counting without knowing that it is counting.” – Leibniz

Beat deafness is a type of ‘amusia’ that leaves those affected with no discernable sense of rhythm. That means they won’t be able to clap along with an audience in time with music, or dance in a manner that demonstrates an awareness for the beat. My mate has amusia and he looks like a prick when he’s dancing.

But moreover, he may also be worse at fighting, video games and sports as a result of it.

Why Rhythm is So Important

While an inability to dance is not a terrible affliction in itself (worse things have happened, anyway), there are a number of other ways in which an inability to ‘feel the beat’ might prove to be a drawback. Specifically relating to athletic performance, martial arts and parkour.

We can see this most obviously playing a computer game. Almost every platform game in history at some point will include an enemy or laser that requires you to make a timed jump. The key is to watch the laser beam flicker on and then off, find the rhythm and then subsequently to pass at just the right point to avoid getting hit. More modern games like Arkham Asylum or Remember Me will even turn their combat system into a what boils down to a rhythm game.


The same skill is necessary when we find ourselves waving our hands under a tap that’s dripping water and trying not to get wet. Or alternatively when a cat is sitting by the tap trying to catch said drip and being entertained for hours.

Computer games are essentially playgrounds where we can test and hone the skills that we need to survive in the real – and more precisely in the dangerous environments that we originally evolved in. Imagine that you’re traversing a cave and it’s not water but stones that are falling rhythmically from the ceiling. Now that sense of timing becomes more importantly.

Or more realistically, imagine that you have to catch a ball that’s flying through the air, or block or dodge a punch that’s coming at you. While this doesn’t necessarily involve rhythm, you’ll still be training the very same ability to time intervals in order to move at precisely the right moment. My beat deaf friend actually has great hand-eye coordination when it comes to catching, so there is certainly more to it than that (he’s still a prick though).

(Side note: That friend and someone else I know who is beat deaf has limited appreciation of music. Connection?)

In one fascinating study (1), it was shown that participating in rhythm training could improve tennis performance, helping players to time their strikes and to hit the ball with more consistency. This directly demonstrates the role of rhythm in at least one athletic pursuit and it’s very likely it would translate to similar results in other sports.

In free running, the distance you cover with each step is something you need to calculate precisely in order to know precisely when to time your jump. Get the pacing wrong and you’ll end up tripping over your own feet and taking a quick plummet to the ground below.

Where Does Our Sense of Rhythm Come From?

A sense of rhythm might indicate a higher-level ability to gauge the passage of time. This is useful for pattern recognition and prediction and has undoubted survival value. An ability to gauge time allows us to anticipate all kinds of things in our environment and rhythm may be a byproduct/emergent property of that ability. Catching drips could also actually be useful for cats if they’re looking for something to drink…

tap cap

This might even be why demonstrating a sense of rhythm during dance is used to attract mates. This is my theory but I’m not the first to have thought of it (2).

The left auditory cortex is thought to be largely responsible for our ability to identify rhythms, though this appears to focus more on auditory beats and timing. The parts of the brain that governs our general perception of time are thought to be the cerebral cortex, cerebellum and basal ganglia (3). Visualization may also play a role in determining how long something is likely to take and this is supported by the fact that the motor cortex activates when we’re estimating how long a movement will take, versus the visual cortex when we’re estimating the duration of visual stimuli. Again though, it gets complicated as in one study it was found that rats still had some ability to perceive time, even with their entire cortex removed (4), this suggests that to some extent time perception is an unconscious and low-level process. This is why we can ‘feel’ the beat, rather than logically calculate it.

How to Improve Your Sense of Rhythm

Regardless of where rhythm comes from, it’s clear that it has value beyond just preventing you from looking like a loon on the dance floor. So how do you improve it?

Studies like the tennis one we looked at earlier, tend to rely on challenging participants to complete movements to the beat of a metronome. They’re then scored based on how many milliseconds off of the beat they were.

This is the same technique is also used to measure timing and to look for improvements. The High/Scope Rhythmic Competence Analysis Test is one such tool used by researchers.

I unfortunately couldn’t find something like this (that’s one for me to make then!) but I did manage to find THIS which was quite neat. Playing along with these videos in your head is also a good way to test your own rhythm ability.

Games like this can of course be used to train your sense of rhythm, as can playing mainstream rhythm based computer games like Guitar Hero which give you that immediate feedback that you need to improve. This is yet another way for video games to be used as a form of brain training. And even a game like Arkham Asylum or anything with ‘Quick Time Events’ could be useful.

rhythm combat

I’m all for this kind of brain training because it’s fun, thus meaning you’re actually likely to use it. Even tapping along to a metronome and playing close attention can be useful and is often recommended as a simple exercise for improving rhythm. In this cool article it’s suggested that skipping rope could even help to develop rhythm. Or how about jogging and working hard to keep a very specific pace and cadence? When you ‘find your pace’ as a runner, it can have a very pleasing effect

And finally, of course something else you can do to train your innate sense of rhythm is to learn an instrument. It is well established that musicians out-perform non-musicians in visual and auditory timing tasks, as you would expect (5). Though, as with my friend who can catch, the superior ability does not appear to transfer to every aspect of time perception (6).

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About Adam Sinicki

Hi there! My name is Adam Sinicki, I'm an entrepreneur, psychology graduate and amateur bodybuilder interested in fitness, self improvement, technology and transhumanism. I run an online business (NQR Productions) which allows me to live the lifestyle I want: getting time to hit the gym and to work on my projects and apps. Stick around and I'll be sharing my experiments and adventures in brain training, bodybuilding, productivity, business and technology.