The Effects of Music on Exercise
Nicole M. Harmon and Len Kravitz, Ph.D.
In a previous review of literature on music and exercise (Kravitz, 1994), a physiological approach was undertaken to investigate the evidence-based findings of different types of music on physical strength, gait, endurance performance, and motor skill acquisition. The current article will review the ergogenic and psychophysiological effects of music and exercise. In addition, impressions and observations on the impact music has had on the fitness industry from some world leaders in exercise are summarized in Side Bar 1. Although many scientific questions about music and exercise have been answered since the previous review, it could be argued that more questions about the mechanisms of music and movement are still unanswered.
Music Promotes Movement: Putting Theory to the Test
Four of the main ways in which music may facilitate exercise performance include, #1) a reduction in the sensation of fatigue, #2) an increase in levels of mental arousal, #3) an improvement of motor coordination, and #4) an increase in relaxation (Szabo, Small, and Leigh, 1999). With the reduction in sensation of fatigue hypothesis (#1), it is felt that music prevents the exerciser from focusing on specific physical sensations of fatigue. It has been proposed that this mechanism is much more effective at lower exercise intensities. At higher intensities, the body’s internal cues of fatigue have a greater influence over the musical fatigue interference (Karageorghis and Terry, 1997). With the increase in levels of arousal theory (#2), the model predicts that altering the mind’s arousal state with music will result in an increased exercise performance, as if the music is ‘psyching’ one up to perform exercise better (Karageorghis and Terry, 1997). The improvement in motor coordination (#3) construct suggests that some types of (rhythmic) music will improve, augment or enhance gross motor tasks, thus improving exercise performance. In the increase in relaxation supposition (#4), the idea is that some of the byproduct molecules of high level exercise, such as acidosis and elevated hormones (which contribute to fatigue), may somehow be dampened by music, thus enhancing performance (Szmedra and Bacharach, 1998).
In testing this last construct, Szmedra and Bacharach had 10 healthy well-trained males complete two 15-minute treadmill trials at 70% of VO2max. In one trial the subjects listened to classical music (Hooked on Classes #3), and the second trial was a control with no music. Because plasma lactate and norepinephrine have been identified as indices of exercise stress, Szmedra and Baccharach measured these components along with heart rate, blood pressure and perceived exertion during the treadmill running. The results of this study showed statistically significant decreases in heart rate, systolic blood pressure, perceived exertion ratings and lactate levels when individuals listened to music during the treadmill test. Though the levels of norepinephrine were slightly lower in the group who listened to music, they were not statistically significant. The authors suggested that music has the ability to interfere with unpleasant stimuli and sensations associated with exercise. Not only can music allow individuals to perceive their exertion to be less, it can influence metabolic (acidosis) and hemodynamic (heart rate and blood pressure) components.
To test some of the other theories how music improves exercise performance, Szabo and colleagues (1999) studied the effects of slow-rhythm and fast-rhythm classical music on progressive cycling exercise to voluntary physical exhaustion. The 12 male and 12 female subjects in the study listened to slow music, fast music, slow to fast music, and fast to slow music with a control of no music. For the slow to fast and fast to slow trials, once a subject’s heart rate reached 70% of maximal reserve, the tempo was adjusted either slow to fast, or fast to slow. It should be noted that symphony music was utilized in this study and that the fast music was two times faster than the slow music. The investigators found that the participants in the slow to fast intervention completed a slightly higher (and statistically significant) exercise workload than all other study conditions. The authors proposed that this study suggests that music may provide a temporary distracting effect to some of the body’s internal cues associated with tiredness. A recent study by Yamasita and colleagues (2006) with 8 males performing a 30-minute submaximal cycle ergometer exercise bout for 30 minutes at 40% VO2max and one at 60% VO2max substantiates this finding. The researchers found that when the subjects listened to self-selected favorite music during the 40% VO2max, they had lower ratings of perceived exertion than the control situation (no music); however, the music did not show this effect during the 60% VO2max trial. Adding to this, North and Hargreaves (2000) suggest that the choice of music needs to provide a sufficient stimulus to be able to sustain and optimize this state of mental and physical arousal.
Practical Application: Research findings suggests that the introduction of music to a workout routine can allow the individual to continue to exercise with a greater efficiency. Individuals can increase workload or time to exhaustion. Despite a lack of understanding of the exact mechanism of this phenomenon, music can act as a motivator for individuals, helping to distract them from uncomfortable physical sensations of exercise (such as acidosis). Having clients listen to their favorite self-selected music choices during challenging exercise is a favorable application fitness professionals have employed for years.
Effects of Different Types of Music on Muscular Strength and Endurance
In one investigation with college aged males (n=25) and females (n=25), physical strength was measured using a grip strength test AFTER participants listened to stimulative (energetic, > 130 beats/min) music, sedative (relaxing, < 100 beats/min) music, and a white noise control (sound from a blank cassette) (Karageorghis et al., 1996). Careful thought was taken to choose familiar music to subjects so as to best enhance any arousal effect of the music. Analysis of the results revealed that when subjects listened to stimulative music prior to the grip strength test they yielded significantly higher strength scores than after listening to sedative music or white noise. Furthermore, sedative music produced significantly lower grip scores than white noise. The men and women showed very similar reactions to the music and its effect on grip strength; thus no difference in genders responses was found.
Crust (2004) examined the effects of listening to music at certain times during a muscular endurance (holding a dumbbell at a 90 degree angle in front of body to exhaustion) test rather than just prior to the test. Subjects (27 college males) listened to either white noise or self-selected motivational music (120 beats/min) in the following three conditions: 1) Prior Exposure to test (music or white noise played immediately before test), 2) Half Exposure to test (music or white noise played simultaneously with task and terminated half-way through test), and 3) Full Exposure to test (music or white noise initiated simultaneously and continued throughout test). Crust found that all conditions of music exposure, whether prior, half or full, produced significantly longer endurance times than white noise. When results were compared WITHIN the self-selected music condition, those who experienced full exposure to music during their entire test produced significantly longer times compared to those with exposure prior to test. Crust noted that using self-selected motivational music (as opposed to researcher-selected music) was much more indicative of a real-life situation.
Practical Application: Musical preferences should reflect the level of arousal needed to perform certain tasks (North and Hargreaves, 2000). Specifically, when doing physically demanding work or exercise, choosing inspiring music that the client preferably enjoys is a worthy strategy to follow (Crust, 2004).
The Effects of Music and Rhythmic Stimuli in the Rehabilitation of Gait Disorders
Walking in humans is accomplished with the continuous communication between three processes; motor, cognitive and perceptive. Many stroke patients are often left with abnormal gait function that can be characterized by features such as asymmetry in stance and swing time, a decreased stride length, slowed gait velocity, and poor joint control (Schauer and Mauritz, 2003). These characteristics are mainly caused by abnormalities in motor control and recovery and can be enhanced with the use of extensive motor training. Schuaer and Mauritz (2003) showed that gait training using an auditory feedback of the patient’s own steps with a musical accompaniment produced greater improvements than those in the conventional gait therapy control group. Significant improvements seen in the intervention group were an increase in gait velocity, an increase in stride length, an improvement in symmetry deviation, and heel-on-toe-off distance (rollover path lengthened). The researchers hypothesize that all three processes (motor, cognitive and perceptive) were in some way influenced by the musical stimulus, producing an overall improvement in walking. In a review of literature by Kravitz (1994), it was suggested that the beat in music might improve gait regularity by allowing individuals to find a desired rate of movement. The rhythm and percussion of auditory cues may seemingly affect coordinated walking and proprioceptive control positively
Practical Application: Health care and fitness professionals who work with those who exhibit abnormal or limiting gaits may find the addition of rhythmic music a therapeutic addition to a client’s fitness program.
Ergogenic Effects of Music on Exercise Performance
For years researchers have investigated the effects of music on exercise performance and results have revealed conflicting data, most likely due to the very different research designs employed by the scientists (Karageorghis and Terry, 1997). Copeland and Franks (1991) investigated the effects of different types and intensities of music on a graded maximal treadmill test. Subjects (13 and 11 college-aged females and males, respectively) walked/ran to maximal capacity while listening to Type A (loud, fast, exciting music), Type B (soft, slow, easy-listening music), or C (no music control) stimuli. The actual times to exhaustion varied by less than 30 seconds and the maximal hearts rates only varied by 2 beats/min in the three conditions, which may very well indicate that in measures of maximal work capacity, music is not able to provide an ergogenic effect above that of the body’s physiological limitations.
Unlike many studies that focused on “time to exhaustion” during exercise trials, Atkinson et al. (2004) investigated average speed, power, heart rate and RPE during timed trials on a cycle ergometer. A “dance” music (142 beats/min) 10-kilometer (10-K) trial was compared to a no music 10-K control trial with 16 physically active males (25 years of age). Results showed that average speed, power and heart rate were significantly higher with the music accompaniment when compared to the no music control group. The time to complete the test was significantly (statistically) lower (i.e., better) in the music group. Though subjects were cycling at higher speeds during the music trial their perceived exertion was also higher. This suggests that they were fully aware of how hard they were working despite the attempt to alter perceived exertion with the use of music. Subjects noted (in their qualitative assessment of the trials) an ergogenic effect of music that seemingly provided a stimulatory effect to the cycling performance. Substantiating this qualitative finding with a very large group (532 subjects) of male and female participants, Priest and colleagues (2004) showed participants were inspired to exercise by preferential choices of music, with the one commonality being that the music has a strong rhythmical component.
Practical Application: When considering the nature of the exercise program, whether increased endurance is the objective, or speed is a goal, there is some evidence that music may provide some ‘ergogenic’ gains in exercise performance. It is very consistent in the research that individuals enjoy the exercise regimen much more when the music is motivating to them (Atkinson, 2004).
How Rhythmic Accompaniment Affects Movement
Thaut et. al. (1999) state that rhythm “constitutes one of the most essential structural and organizational elements of music.” The upshot of rhythm on the body’s motor control system is that this component in music is related to some of the body’s motor behavior control mechanisms. Although not completely understood, Thaut and colleagues state that rhythmic music provides an external auditory stimulus that may augment some motor behavior processes. The authors continue that “one of the most exciting findings in this area of research, however, may be the evidence that the interaction between auditory rhythm and physical response can be effectively harnessed for specific therapeutic purposes in the rehabilitation of persons with movement disorders.”
Molinari et al. (2003) explain that this motor control enrichment from auditory rhythmic stimuli probably affects motor effectors in the cortex of the brain, or at the spinal levels. This enhanced knowledge may lead to new approaches in the future for rehabilitating patients with cerebral motor defects. For instance, when Parkinson’s patients were exposed to a musical selection and then asked to perform certain motor tests, results showed significant improvement in aiming and line tracking which is evidence showing fine motor improvement through hand-arm coordination (Bernatsky et al., 2004).
Practical Application: When an exercise program involves the coordination of motor skills, large or small, the concept of applying a rhythmic component to exercise sessions may aid clients in learning these skills. As the research above suggests, this is especially applicable to those in the health and fitness fields that involve working with those with motor disturbances such as, stroke patients, brain injury patients and individuals with Parkinson’s disease. It still remains unclear what the exact physiological and neurological effects rhythm and music have on motor control. More research is needed in this area.
Summary and Conclusions:
The following key statements and conclusions from this review article confirm and add to many ideas fitness professionals have realized in their professional experiences when working with music in exercise.
A) The four central hypothesis in which music may facilitate exercise performance include, 1) a reduction in the feeling of fatigue, 2) an increase in levels of psychological arousal, 3) an improvement of motor coordination, and 4) a physiological relaxation response.
B) The use of stimulative, favorite music provides an acute incentive to exercisers of all ages, abilities and gender.
C) Health and fitness professionals working with those who have orthopedic and/or neuromuscular disorders may find that the addition of a rhythmical music stimuli to a conventional exercise therapy program an aid in the rehabilitation process.
D) The research is somewhat conflicting to what extent music can enhance maximal and near maximal exercise performance.
E) As more understanding evolves, the future looks very hopeful for individuals with some motor behavior disturbances to improve their motor skill ability through the use of auditory rhythmic stimuli.
Side Bar 1: How Has Music Shaped the Fitness Industry?
To determine how music has shaped the fitness industry over the last two and half decades, a panel of innovative and highly esteemed pioneers in the fitness industry was contacted to seek their views. The distinguished group consisted of the following:
Lawrence Biscontini, MA, and Wellness & Spa Specialist
Jay Blahnik, 1996 IDEA Fitness Instructor of the Year and 2006 Can Fit Pro Fitness Instructor of the Year
Shannon Griffiths Fable, Fitness Educator & Owner of Sunshine Fitness Resources
Gay Gasper, Fitness Educator, Group Exercise Director of Planet Image-Union, NJ
Maureen Hagan, VP Operations for the GoodLife Fitness Clubs and Director of Education for Canadian Fitness Professionals
Angie Proctor, Executive Director of the Aquatic Exercise Association
Julie See, President of the Aquatic Exercise Association
Ken Alan, Lecturer, Department of Kinesiology, Cal State Fullerton
Petra Kolber, 2001 IDEA Fitness Instructor of the Year
Sara Kooperman, CEO of SCW Fitness Education and Founder of The Mania Fitness Instructor Training Conventions
In exercise, over the last 20 years (or more) how do you see how music has changed or evolved in the fitness industry?
Pre-1985, workout music was only available on vinyl records. Organizing music required thoughtful preparation. To maintain group energy, you literally threw one record off and threw another one on the record player. This necessitated 6 – 12 breaks during class to change songs. Without continuous music, add-on choreography-building wasn’t feasible. The music didn’t last long enough to build progressive combinations.
Music used to be primarily for background in all types of fitness classes. Today, although that still occurs, there is also another branch of fitness which weaves music in a more integrated way into the workouts. Instructors have found ways to use music to deepen a sense of awareness of self and promote an inward focus of the student by choosing certain types of instruments, volume, and orchestrations.
Years ago classes were primarily dance exercise, so the music had to be mixed at specific speeds depending on what you were teaching. Today, with the expansion of group exercise into cycling, yoga, pilates, sport inspired workouts, treadmill classes and even rowing classes, the music variety has expanded beyond anything I could have ever imagined. Some classes still require the music to be mixed for best results, but other classes might only need music purchased directly off of iTunes (Apple Inc.). We are not always “exercising to the beat” now, and that changes everything. Now, I teach with an iPod (Apple Inc.) and have hundreds of classes stored in a device that fits into the palm of my hand!
Much more attention, scrutiny and money is being spent to create an “ex-ertaining” workout experience with the use of music throughout fitness clubs, in workout areas and especially in the group exercise, spinning, mind body studios.
Music has become one of the strongest motivators in exercise adherence and is largely responsible for the success of physical fitness activities not only in group exercise settings, but also in personal cardio training and strength training.
In what ways has the professional fitness music industry contributed to exercise and how have we inspired those companies who make fitness music?
There’s no question fitness music companies have been an asset to instructors. They have made [the arduous task of] finding and selecting music less painful, less costly, less time-consuming, and perhaps less stressful. They do [a lot of] the ground work for you; they select songs, determine BPM, blend songs into a continuous mix, and remove extra music counts for consistent phrasing. Their catalogs also introduce new music to instructors that may have not been otherwise discovered.
As the years have gone by the quality, content and feel of the music designed for the fitness industry has improved by leaps and bounds. The area that I have seen the biggest improvement in is in the vocals; these days it can be pretty hard to distinguish between the original version and the “sound alike”, which is so important when teaching.
There is a great deal of musical variety available now––different styles and techniques. This makes it easier for fitness professionals to create and succeed at developing new programs. This may make it harder for the music companies because they have to create more styles.
Having 32-count phrasing makes program design and instructing so much easier and the outcome more professional. By recognizing the dynamic nature of fitness and constantly evolving bpm, arrangement (e.g. circuit vs continuous training vs cycling) and music styles, the professional fitness music industry has been an integral part of the continued success of group exercise. Having a wide selection of music choices prevents me as the instructor, as well as my students, from getting bored with training – even after 25 years!
Is music a vital part of our classes and programs, and if so, why has it become such an important component?
Music can help you execute movements at the proper speed, and it can even help you get through the toughest parts of a workout you don’t think you will make it through! Music can also have a calming effect for classes like yoga and a “I want to kick, punch and jump” effect for classes like kick-boxing and sport workouts. It can make you smile and lift your spirits!
Shannon Griffiths Fable:
Music showcases an instructor’s personality and individualizes the exercise experience. The way an instructor works with the music can make magic as it can free up the necessity to count repetitions or time exercises, thus providing quality motivation and cueing time. Music can calm and soothe and seal a workout; there is nothing better than finishing off a fabulous class with a well thought out, specifically chosen cool down track that leaves students feeling amazing when they walk out the door!
Music is one of the most important ‘ingredients’ in group exercise classes. Music inspires us to move and keeps us together as a group. Music is the greatest motivation to move and workout.
The number one reason music has become such a vital component is that it motivates and inspires participants to move, express themselves and feel/explore rhythm and energy and release stress/inhibitions. Exercisers of all ages are able to “lose themselves in the music” and reap more health benefits (including mindfulness) by being fully engaged in the workout whether it be a yoga, dance or a barbell weight training class.
Yes, yes and yes. Your music selection can make or break a class. It can add energy and excitement to a class. If you choose your music well it makes your job easier. Music is the heartbeat of the class––constantly in the background but a vital part of the exercise experience.
Selected Quotes on Music
Music will always be critical for primary movement application (when human movement and music work together in unison) programs. Without it, a significant element is missing.
The music is like oil in a car—it helps the car run very efficiently. In exercise, music can help to coordinate the brain-body-and breath of each participant, which is truly the start and end, the alpha and omega, of fitness today.
Music can help make a workout go by faster, and it can make a workout feel less challenging.
Shannon Griffiths Fable:
Music is that common thread that brings us all together.
Music is what drives us.
Music makes or breaks the exercise experience today and it should be a place/component of the club or program that directors, managers and owners invest in with a good sound system to deliver the music and the experience.
Music and movement is a natural relationship and to get more of our population moving, this needs to be emphasized.
Great music and motivation leads to an exercise experience – not “just exercise.”
You can have a dirty floor, a broken microphone, a bad attitude and if the music is working––all is right with the workout.
My senior participants frequently comment that they enjoy my classes because of the music…I play the styles THEY prefer!
Atkinson, G., Wilson, D., and Eubank, M. (2004). Effects of music on work-rate distribution during a cycling time trial. International Journal of Sports Medicine, 25 (8), 611-615.
Bernatsky, G., Bernatsky, P., Hesse, H-P., Staffen, W., and Ladurner, G. (2004). Stimulating music increases motor coordination in patients afflicted with Morbus Parkinson. Neuroscience Letters, 361, 4-8.
Copeland, B.L. and Franks, B.D. (1991). Effects of types and intensities of background music on treadmill endurance. The Journal of Sports Medicine and Physical Fitness, 31 (1), 100-103.
Crust, L. (2004). Carry-over effects of music in an isometric muscular endurance task. Perceptual Motor Skills, 98 (3 Pt 1), 985-991.
Karageorghis, C.I. and Terry, P.C. (1997). The psychophysical effects of music in sport and exercise: A review. Journal of Sport Behavior, 20(1), 54-68.
Karageorghis, C.I., Drew, K.M., and Terry, P.C. (1996). Effects of pretest stimulative and sedative music on grip strength. Perceptual and Motor Skills, 83(3 Pt 2), 1347-1352.
Kravitz, L. (1994). The effects of music on exercise. IDEA Today, 12(9), 56-61.
Molinari, M., Leggio M.G., De Martin, M., Cerasa, A., and Thaut, M. (2003). Neurobiology of rhythmic motor entrainment. Annals of the New York Academy of Sciences, 999, 313-321.
North, A.C. and Hargreaves, D.J. (2000). Musical preferences during and after relaxation and exercise. American Journal of Psychology, 113(1), 43-67.
Priest, D.L., Karageorghis, C.I., Sharp, N.C. (2004). The characteristics and effects of motivational music in exercise settings: the possible influence of gender, age, frequency of attendance, and time of attendance. Journal of Sports Medicine and Physical Fitness, 44(1), 77-86.
Szabo, A., Small A., and Leigh, M. (1999). The effects of slow- and fast-rhythm classical music on progressive cycling to voluntary physical exhaustion. Journal of Sports Medicine and Physical Fitness, 39(3), 220-225.
Schauer, M. and Mauritz K.H. (2003). Musical motor feedback (MMF) in walking hemiparetic stroke patients: randomized trials of gait improvement. Clinical Rehabilitation, 17(7), 713-722.
Szmedra, L. and Bacharach, D.W. (1998). Effect of music on perceived exertion, plasma lactate, norepinephrine and cardiovascular hemodynamics during treadmill running. International Journal of Sports Medicine, 19(1), 32-37.
Thaut, M.H., Kenyon, G.P., Schauer, M.L., and McIntosh, G.C. (1999). The connection between rhythmicity and brain function: implications for therapy of movement disorders. IEEE Engineering in Medicine and Biology, 18 (2), 101-108.
Yamashita, S., Iwai, K., Akimoto, T., Sugawara, J. and Kono, I. (2006). Effects of music during exercise on RPE, heart rate and the autonomic nervous system. Journal of Sports Medicine and Physical Fitness, 46, 425-430.
Nicole M. Harmon recently earned her Bachelors Degree in Exercise Science from the University of New Mexico in Albuquerque. She plans to continue her education in the health sciences and pursue a degree in physical therapy.
Len Kravitz, PhD, is the program coordinator of exercise science and a researcher at UNMA, where he won the 2004 Outstanding Teacher of the Year Award. He was honored with the 1999 Canadian Fitness Professionals (Can-Fit-Pro) International Presenter of the Year and 2006 Can-Fit-Pro Specialty Presenter of the Year awards, and the 2006 ACE Fitness Educator of the Year award.