Jonathan Fader, Ph.D.

Jonathan Fader Ph.D.

The New You

How Music Can Help You Get Ahead, The Right Way

Science-based ways that music can motivate.

Posted Mar 13, 2015

 Chris Hunkeler
Source: Creative Commons: Chris Hunkeler

“Eye of the tiger”

“Ain’t no mountain high enough”

“We are the champions”

Whether you like these songs or not, they all share a central trait – motivation. Music has been shown to be a motivator not only for exercise and athletic performance, but also for work productivity and efficiency.

An expert in the psychology of exercise, Costas Karageorghis, PhD, refers to music as a “type of legal performance-enhancing drug” for its potent abilities to increase productivity as well as power and strength.

But how can we maximize the motivational effects of music? For both work and exercise, studies have shown that specific music choices can enhance performance more than others. And more importantly, in some cases music can be distracting or even counterproductive in completing the task at hand. Here are a few guidelines on how to maximize the benefits of music for both work and sports:

Music at work

Music has been shown to increase work productivity as well as performance for a range of professions, from surgeons to technology specialists. One way music facilitates these improvements is through its regulation of mood. Not only does music elevate positive feelings and suppress negative emotions like depression and anger, it can also calm or heighten anxious feelings - creating the optimal work mindset.

Best for: Moderately skilled workers were shown to benefit the most from music by research that explored the effects of music on technology specialists. They completed assignments more quickly and generated better ideas. Whereas, experts were not affected t all by the music and some novices even found the music distracting.

Worst for: Music was shown to be distracting for tasks that required more cognitive attention and was counterproductive to absorbing and remembering new information.

Music in exercise and sport

Music’s effects on exercise were first observed in 1911 by educator and statistician, Leonard Ayres, who found that cyclists pedaled faster when a band was playing. More recent studies have explored how music motivates exercisers and found that it can distract the brain’s attention from physiological feedback of fatigue. This can lower perceptions of effort being exerted.

Best for: Multiple studies have shown that self-paced sports such as cycling or running can be exponentially enhanced by music with higher tempos since they tend to increase speed.

Worst for: Music is less likely to serve as a motivator for high-intensity sports/exercises since the body’s physiological responses become too strong to ignore.

While the advantages of music are clear, there is still room to optimize  its motivating effects. For both work and athletic environments, the selection of music is crucial. For work, a study focusing on surgeons, found that people completed tasks more accurately when they enjoyed the music that was playing. For sports,on the other hand, Dr. Karageorghis suggests a more specific method for choosing the most effective music. He developed the Brunel Music Rating Inventory, which after asking participants to rate motivational qualities of music in relation to sport and exercise, showed the importance of music tempo, pointing to an ideal tempo between 120 and 140 beats per minute. Dr. Karageorghis accordingly suggests "Push It" by Salt-N-Pepa, "Drop It Like It's Hot" by Snoop Dogg and the dance remix of "Umbrella" by Rihanna for maximal effect.

When music is used strategically, it holds the power to increase productivity, accuracy and efficiency for anyone from gym-goers to surgeons. And if we think of it as a “drug”, as Dr. Karageorghis refers to it, music is one that can be used to our benefit.

For more on motivation and sport psychology, follow Dr. Fader on Twitter and Facebook.