If I arrived for a spinning class at my favorite studio and learned that the sound system was down, I would probably pack up my shoes and go home. I cannot imagine exercising without music. The instructor’s choice of music makes the difference between a great class that is over before I know it and one in which I find myself constantly glancing at my watch, wondering when I can leave. Is my preference for exercising to music rooted in some real effect that music might have? Is the best music for exercise simply the music you happen to like the most? Or are there other factors aside from personal taste that make some music especially appropriate for exercise?
This question is harder to answer than you might think. Costas Karageorghis and David-Lee Priest, two researchers at Brunel University in London, England, recently published an overview of 62 studies completed since 1997. (Karageorghis and Priest, 2012 Parts I & II). Of these studies, some contained too few participants to be useful. Different studies examined different populations, making it hard to get an overall picture. It is by no means clear that the factors which motivate top athletes such as Olympic swimmer Michael Phelps or tennis champions Venus and Serena Williams would also motivate a moderately active person such as myself. When the presence of music seems to have a positive effect on exercisers it can be difficult to tell which features of the music prompts the effect. Is it “internal” characteristics of the music, such as tempo, rhythm and timbre, or is it features that are “external” to the music, such as the personal or cultural associations that musical works often carry? And which music should be used in experiments? Researchers have tested an impressive variety of musical genres, including pop, fast jazz, slow classical music, and Japanese folk music. (Although judging by the material I read, experimenters have high hopes for the theme from Rocky.)
The overall impression given by this research is highly positive. When music is used before athletic activity, it has been shown to increase arousal, facilitate relevant imagery, and improve the performance of simple tasks. When music is used during activity, it has ergogenic (work-enhancing) effects and psychological effects. Listening to music during exercise can both delay fatigue and lessen the subjective perception of fatigue. It can increase physical capacity, improve energy efficiency, and influence mood. In study after study, the use of music during low- to moderate-level intensity exercise was associated with clear improvements in endurance.
Researchers have found that the power of music has definite limits. While music can hamper physiological feedback signals at moderate levels of intensity, it is markedly less effective at high intensity levels. It does not reduce perceptions of exertion when exercisers are pushing beyond the anaerobic threshold (that is, the point at which lactic acid begins to accumulate in the bloodstream). One possible explanation is that at high levels of intensity the body’s physical feedback dominates the nervous system, so that distraction by any means is more difficult to achieve. Also, music seems to be of greater benefit to less-trained exercisers. This could be because trained or competitive athletes tend to work at higher levels of intensity. Or it might be because untrained exercisers are motivated by the positive feelings aroused by music, while trained athletes are more motivated by the desire to perform well and to focus on the specifics of training.
Interestingly, there are times when trainers and coaches should avoid the use of music. When exercisers need to devote their full attention to a task (say, for safety reasons), or when they are learning a demanding new skill, or when they are working at high intensity and need to pay full attention to their physical limits (“listening to the body” in other words) the use of music should be limited. And watch the volume! Researchers have found that even moderate-level activity, if accompanied by very loud music (over 100 decibels), can cause temporary hearing loss (Lindgren & Axelsson, 1988).
Costas I. Karageorghis & David-Lee Priest (2012): Music in the exercise domain:a review and synthesis (Part I), International Review of Sport and Exercise Psychology, 5:1, 44-66
Costas I. Karageorghis & David-Lee Priest (2012): Music in the exercise domain:a review and synthesis (Part II), International Review of Sport and Exercise Psychology, 5:1, 67-84
F. Lindgren & A. Axelsson (1988): The influence of physical exercise on susceptibility to noise-induced temporary threshold shift, Scandinavian Audiology, 17, 11-17.