The Importance of Physical Movement

One of the most basic musical skills is to feel a regular beat. Body-movement is a way to achieve that, because the outer movement of regular walking, tapping, clapping, etc. is more and more internalized. This ‘inner movement’, the inner imagination of a regular beat, is the basic musical element of many musical styles and traditions. To achieve this, regular training is necessary, that’s why physical movement connected to musical sound has to be practiced constantly on all levels of musical training and education.

Of course there is also meter, irregular beat and additive rhythm. But I believe that also those can only be achieved by having them felt with body-movement first. In that sense, activities such as clapping games are of major importance. While singing a song or reciting a rhyme, the musical layer of beat, meter and/or rhythm is performed with body-percussion. Clapping, tapping, stumping and walking are central movements with sounds to express that layer. Often a rhythmical ostinato is performed as a second part next to the sung melody. In this respect, these activities can be called polyphonic. With this the foundation of musical polyphony is laid, as well as the foundation of ‘multi-tasking’ which every musician needs: phrasing while playing, listening while singing, following a conductor while playing, etc. Active music making is not a single action but a combination of different layers of activities[1].


Musical elements must have gone “through the body” to finally implement themselves into the inner musical imagination. Actually, also the hand signs are a form of physical movement that open up the inner musical space of pitch awareness and pitch difference . The more the handsigns are practiced while singing on solfa, the more they become internalized. We can then say that different melodic intervals become felt as different ‘distances’. At least, even the word ‘interval’ is a spatial expression[2]. In the same way we could think about learning the distance in time between regular beats. If we have experienced a regular beat in a spatial way first, by practically performing the beat with body movement, we develop also a feeling for the distance in time from one beat to another. Above all, a steady beat is rather the result of what is felt between the beats. After one beat is felt, we are on our way towards the next one. And this ‘way’ has to be filled with actual movement before a steady beat becomes an inner musical concept.


This comes close to the method of Eurhythmics[3], founded by the Swiss music educator Émile-Jacques Dalcroze (1865-1950). He says:


“Most children have no instinct for time, for time values, for accentuation, for physical balance, because the motor faculties are not the same in all individuals and because a number of obstacles impede the exact and rapid realization of mental conceptions. One child is always behind the beat when marching, another always ahead, another takes unequal steps, another, on the contrary, lacks balance. All these faults, if not corrected in the first years, will reappear later in the musical technique of the individual. Unsteady time when singing or playing, confusion in playing, inability to follow when accompanying, accentuating too roughly or with lack or precision, all these faults have their origin in the child’s muscular and nervous control, in lack of co-ordination between the mind which conceives, the brain which orders, the nerve which transmits, and the muscle which executes. And, still more, the power of phrasing and shading music with feeling depends equally upon the training of the nerve centers, upon the co-ordination of the muscular system, upon rapid communication between brain and limb — in a word, upon the health of the whole organism.”


Of course the word ‘fault’ is quite strong concerning children and their (physical) development. I think Dalcroze rather intends musical inabilities than a fault or failure of the person. But what he actually says is that physical barriers in musical expression will also limit the whole organism in future musical learning. If no inner imagination of a movement is prepared in the brain by movement itself, only poor control of the physical performance of music will be possible in a later stage. In fact, this is fostering the idea that musical concepts are learned ‘through the body’ first before they are implanting in the inner imagination of the brain.


For my teaching practice this means that musical inabilities of students, regardless the age, can mostly not be corrected by teaching them theoretical concepts verbally. The students have to go through physical learning still. A suitable example that I often encounter in solfege-lessons is the well-known inaccurate performance of a dotted quarter note followed by an eighth note:



The solution would rather not be to tell the students that the dot makes the quarter note a half value longer[4]. The problem is mostly that the beat is not felt while performing the rhythm, so the eighth note is performed ‘somewhere’. In this case I choose to sing musical repertoire (songs, canons, etc.) where the rhythm pattern occurs. A good example is the song ‘Aura Lee’, see in the following chapter. The next step are activities such as walking the beat and sing the song, clap the rhythm of the melody and walk the beat, clap the beat and walk the rhythm, performance in two groups (one performs the beat, the other performs the rhythm), labelling the sound with rhythm language, speak the rhythm and perform the beat, etc. All this is first done without notation. So only after correct performance of the rhythm pattern by a lot of musical practice, related body-movement and listening awareness I would turn back to the notation which then actually represents the feeling of the rhythm that is already part of the inner musical imagination. According to my experience, correcting musical inabilities by cognitive explanation will not substantially develop a student any further in his musical skills. Of course the fact that the dot lengthens a note with half of its value is important to learn, but only after the skill of its performance has been learned. And of course a lot of cognitive information has to be given to the students. Labelling musical phenomena with theoretical expressions is necessary, but first skills and experiences have to be developped. Otherwise there is nothing to label, and it remains only theoretical knowledge which remains irrelevant for musical performance.

As stated above, in my view all musical learning should start without notation and lead to it in a later stage. But this is not only a methodology to correct inabilities, it is also a fundamental approach to teaching music in general, again regardless the age of the students[5].

[1] Of course there is also ‘flow’ in performing music, but I tend to think that flow only can occur if you can ‘forget’ all you have learned and deliver yourself to the very moment of performance. And of course this is not the same as brainless technical reproduction of written notation.

[2] “early 14c., from Old French intervalle (14c.), earlier entreval (13c.), from Late Latin intervallum "space, interval, distance," originally "space between palisades or ramparts," from inter "between" (see inter-) + vallum "rampart" (see wall (n.)).” (source:

[3] not to be confused with Eurythmy by Rudolf Steiner and practised in Waldorf-schools and anthroposophic circles.

[4] By the way, in manuscripts from the 18th century I sometimes saw the dot written on the place where normally the second beat would have been written. So the dot actually is the following beat where the note is tied over to. The idea that the dot makes the note a half value longer was perhaps rather be invented as a trick to understand how much longer the note will become concerning the note value and the time signature. So I doubt that this idea was the very origin of the dot. Actually this could be another research project: the typographic history of the musical dot.

[5] Though, the age of students is relevant for the choice of repertoire. The age is however irrelevant concerning the described methodology.