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Posted Tuesday December, 8th 2020

The 4 Functions of Rhythm in Expressive Arts Therapy

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Are rhythm-based experiences beneficial for people with traumatic stress? Some have suggested that it is one way to bypass cognitive functioning and support connections via more primitive parts of the brain impacted by trauma (Perry, 2009). In other words, interventions that focus on a sensory-based level could be more effective than purely cognitive strategies. Current thinking tells us that rhythm stimulates patterned and repetitive experiences and influences mind and body in wide-reaching ways. Depending on the beat, rhythmic experiences can energize, bring about sensations of enlivenment, or engage us through entrainment and synchrony. When trauma has dulled the ability to experience joy, playfulness, and pleasure, rhythm can be a way to reintroduce aliveness to body and mind (Malchiodi, 2020).

Technically, by definition rhythm is the length of notes. Tempo is another important term; it actually refers to the pace of a piece of music and how quickly or slowly it goes by. There is also meter—how hard or light you tap your foot or clap your hands, for example, when listening to music. So. when you are tapping or clapping to music, there are some beats that seem stronger than others when grouped together. All three of these components are often implied in the experience of rhythm even though each has a slightly different meaning. For simplicity’s sake, just think of rhythm as the overarching concept when it comes to applying it in expressive arts and trauma treatment. It’s often easiest to think of it as how you or your client perceives the “heartbeat” or pulse of any rhythm, sound, or song.

Everyone reacts differently to music; we respond to cadence, melody, and lyrics depending on our experiences and other factors. In working with individuals of all ages who have traumatic stress there are personal preferences for rhythms (fast, slow, loud, soft) along an extensive continuum. In working with traumatized children over decades, I observed that their engagement with percussion often emerges in extremes. That is, often a child with traumatic stress used instruments very loudly or very softly and very fast or very slow [or not at all after initial attempts]. Another might sing in monotone or in a narrow range of rhythms, often getting stuck in repetition without flexibility. I learned that helping these children and later, adults understand different ways to experience rhythm began to support the flexibility necessary to self-regulate their struggles with hyperactivation. In other cases, rhythm became the starting point to re-sensitize children and adults to experiences of play, energy, and enlivenment that years of traumatic stress and adverse events robbed from them.

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