Music is a big part of our daily lives. These days we can instantly access whatever songs or media we are in the mood for through our own personal playlists or streaming services like Spotify or Pandora. It can give us instant gratification and motivation. Everyone has their own preference when it comes to music genres or styles, and some even prefer to listen to podcasts or audiobooks.
Auditory stimuli is a part of commuting to and from work, relaxing after a long day, or even getting psyched up before a big lift or exam. They can invoke an emotional response due to the voice of a favorite singer, the story of the lyrics, and even past memories and nostalgia for certain experiences with the song. Due to the effect of music on such neurological events; it may have psychological and physiological benefits that can help with performance not only in the gym, but in everyday life.
You see it all the time on social media, people posting about how they forgot their iPod or headphones, and because of that they had a terrible workout or needed to go home to retrieve them. Can you imagine any “high-intensity” workout class without music? I think not. Nowadays, it seems like it’s unheard of to enter a gym without the presence of music either on loudspeakers or through your headphones. This phenomenon isn’t unfounded though.
Studies have shown that listening to music distracts endurance athletes from pain and fatigue, elevates mood, and reduces perceived effort of exercise. When listening to music, it seems like people run further, bike faster, and lift more weight.
Researchers have found that the two most important parts of music are tempo and speed. Rhythm response too, which is a term psychologists use to describe how much a song makes you want to dance. When we listen to music, we all have an innate and unconscious drive to move to the rhythm. We synchronize our movements with the music, whether its bobbing our heads or tapping our toes.
Lifting weights, running, and cycling typically involve high intensity and lots of effort, so it’s not surprising that typical gym goers prefer upbeat and fast tempo songs. In a recent survey, it was found that hip-hop, rock, and pop were the genres that populated the majority of college students’ playlists. When asked why they listen to music during exercise, the students stated that they wanted to work out longer, harder, and to make it seem easier (Barney, Gust, & Liguori, 2012).
Music can be a huge motivating factor that makes individuals comfortable with participating in strenuous activity, especially those who are new to it. I know personally when I lift, run, or participate in individual activities, I love having my music playlist on. It seems to keep me focused and motivated as it did for the students in the study above.
Listening to playlists with steady rhythm and upbeat tempo can have a physiological performance effect as well as psychological. When cyclists synchronized their movement to the music they were listening too, they decreased their oxygen intake by 7% compared to cyclists not moving with the rhythm. It seems like having personal music can efficiently increase economy of movement, and therefore allow you to perform better during exercise (Bacon, Myers, & Karagoroghis, 2012). Music has a metronome effect, which helps reduce false movements and patterns that cause increased work and unnecessary fatigue. Along with the improving oxygen efficiency during movements such as cycling and running, it has been found that music creates a distraction barrier for the brain.
During exercise and in cases of extreme fatigue and exhaustion, the body has a protective response to shut the body down to escape harm. The muscle cells of the body become acidic due to the inability to buffer lactate, which causes hydrogen ions to accumulate in the muscle and shut it down. Now, music during these intensities can’t counteract our muscle physiology, but it can change the perception of how hard we are working. Music is extremely motivating and can help individuals ride out the waves of exhaustion and finish strong in a workout. In moderate and low intensity workouts, music also has great influence. Just be careful not to overdo it in certain spin classes though.
The psychological and physiological effects of music is visceral. It is rooted deep within the brain on an unconscious level. Listening to music changes our perception. What we feel, see, hear, and even smell changes. Music and movement are entangled within the brain. Even at rest, listening to music sends signals throughout the brain about motor coordination and movement. A good example of neural links with auditory sounds is what happens when you hear a loud scream or bang; you naturally jump, and your sympathetic nervous system ramps you up for either fight or flight.
Next time you are feeling unmotivated or are due for a really tough workout, try some new tunes and embrace the effects that music brings to the gym. It might just improve your performance and make your experience more enjoyable.
by Ross Curtis
Ross Curtis is a Senior Staff Coach and Weightlifting Program Director at Halevy Life.
Ross holds a Bachelor’s Degree in Exercise Science and a Master’s Degree in Kinesiology, both of which were earned at University of Northern Iowa. Ross is not only an accomplished athlete in weightlifting (Olympic Lifts), track and field, and football — but also a highly qualified coach, holding Certified Strength & Conditioning Specialist (CSCS), USA Weightlifting (USAW) and ClinicalAthlete Weightlifting Coach (CWC) certifications.