Entrainment in Music

The issue of Liturgy dealing with “Pentecostal Worship,” guest-edited by Tanya Riches and L. Edward Phillips, looks at many aspects of the topic, including the use of music to create what Pentecostals value as “worship music.” For Nathan Myrick, that term refers to what happens to a group of people involved in rhythmic synchronism. What follows is an excerpt from his essay. –– Melinda Quivik


Recent research in several fields has been exploring the abilities of autonomous, that is, self-regulating and sustaining, rhythmic processes to synchronize when near one another. This phenomenon, called “entrainment,” was first documented in 1655 when the Dutch physicist Christian Huygens, inventor of the pendulum clock, noticed two clocks on a table whose pendula had been swinging out of phase had become synchronized. When he manipulated one of the pendula so that it was out of time with the other, he noted that both clocks returned to synchrony in about half an hour.

In the world of Newtonian physics that dominated the Enlightenment and early Modern eras, entrainment was mostly connected to mechanical oscillations, such as clocks (and, interestingly, pipe organs and their billows). However, this understanding began to shift over the last three centuries, as biologists and anthropologists observed the same sorts of synchronizations occurring in living beings. This was at first in relation to rather benign instances of environmental entrainment on a macro level, such as the light–dark cycles of plant life, the photic phases of trees and shrubs in four-season climates, and their adjustments to small variation in the length of days that result in the regeneration of leaves and layers of wood (tree rings). In other climates, those same botanical species will enter those same phases at different dates and times, depending on the angle of the sun’s rays and the subsequent length of days. In this case, the trees and plants (biological organisms) adjust their rhythms (oscillations) in response to an external force that acts upon them: the earth’s rotation in relation to the sun’s light and warmth.

In addition to biological responses to the seasons and environmental stimuli, animals and humans can also entrain to each other. This kind of entrainment is called mutual entrainment because each rhythmic process adjusts its rate and tempo towards the others. Consider that in the spawning seasons of fish, each species spawns at approximately the same time each year. . .

People engage in micro-mutual entrainment as well, often unconsciously. For example, when walking with someone, have you noticed how most of the time you walk stride for stride in step with them? . . .

In addition to our physical activities, entrainment also affects our brains, how we think. Our brains engage in rhythmic processes, with neurons constantly firing from one to another and sometimes back again. When our brains encounter another rhythmic process, that process affects the rate at which our impulses oscillate. How do our brains encounter other rhythmic processes? Through our senses, such as sight, touch, and sound. As environmental entrainment, this can happen when you listen to music by yourself; your brain begins to send impulses in time with the rhythm of the stimuli you are engaging. . . . Research has indicated that musical entrainment occurs when the tempo of the music is sufficiently similar to the rate of human movement.


Nathan Myrick’s full essay in Liturgy 33, no. 3 is available by personal subscription and through many libraries.

Nathan Myrick is a PhD candidate in church music at Baylor University focusing on the ethical and theological significance of Protestant worship music. His work has appeared in The Yale Journal of Music and Religion, Liturgy, The Hymn, and HM Magazine.

Nathan Myrick, “Embodying the Spirit: Toward a Theology of Entrainment,” Liturgy 33, no. 3 (2018): 29-36.

David Turnbloom