Most theories of motor cortex have assumed that neural activity represents movement parameters. This view derives from what is known about primary visual cortex, where neural activity represents patterns of light. Yet it is unclear how well the analogy between motor and visual cortex holds. Single-neuron responses in motor cortex are complex, and there is marked disagreement regarding which movement parameters are represented. A better analogy might be with other motor systems, where a common principle is rhythmic neural activity. Here we find that motor cortex responses during reaching contain a brief but strong oscillatory component, something quite unexpected for a non-periodic behaviour. Oscillation amplitude and phase followed naturally from the preparatory state, suggesting a mechanistic role for preparatory neural activity. These results demonstrate an unexpected yet surprisingly simple structure in the population response. This underlying structure explains many of the confusing features of individual neural responses.