Weak magnetic fields offer nearly lossless transmission of signals within biological tissue. Magnetic nanomaterials are capable of transducing magnetic fields into a range of biologically relevant signals in vitro and in vivo. These nanotransducers have recently enabled magnetic control of cellular processes, from neuronal firing and gene expression to programmed apoptosis. Effective implementation of magnetically controlled cellular signalling relies on careful tailoring of magnetic nanotransducers and magnetic fields to the responses of the intended molecular targets. This Primer discusses the versatility of magnetic modulation modalities and offers practical guidelines for selection of appropriate materials and field parameters, with a particular focus on applications in neuroscience. With recent developments in magnetic instrumentation and nanoparticle chemistries, including those that are commercially available, magnetic approaches promise to empower research aimed at connecting molecular and cellular signalling to physiology and behaviour in untethered moving subjects.