How Using The Right Music Enhances Performance In The Gym
By Jay Campbell
June 3rd, 2022
Can something as simple as music make you run faster, lift more, and enhance your overall physical performance?
It’s a question we’ve asked ourselves since 1911, when scientist Leonard Ayres happened to notice cyclists in a six-day race going faster while a music band was playing.
And in the 21st century, music is just as impactful as exercise for improving our emotional well-being.
We all unconsciously bring our smartphones and wireless earbuds to the gym to “get in the zone”, but why?
Does blasting our favorite tunes get us in the right mental state for breaking through our personal bests?
Or is it just a placebo?
Do we need to change the type of music we listen to?
Or will anything from the best-selling charts suffice?
This ultimate guide will tell you everything you need to know, plus how I personally like to use music to my physical advantage.
Is Music Proven To Improve Physical Performance At All?
First, let’s address the question of whether music has any kind of effect at all.
Sports psychologist Dr. Costas Karageorghis of Brunel University (London, England) wrote a literature review in 2012 that had the following to say about music’s performance-boosting effects:
“There is evidence to suggest that carefully selected music can promote ergogenic and psychological benefits during high-intensity exercise, although it appears to be ineffective in reducing perceptions of exertion beyond the anaerobic threshold. The effects of music appear to be at their most potent when it is used to accompany self-paced exercise or in externally valid conditions.”
However, despite only being able to offer theoretical explanations for WHY music can improve exercise performance, he made this bold statement in the paper:
“An ergogenic effect is evident when music improves exercise performance by either delaying fatigue or increasing work capacity. Typically this effect results in higher-than-expected levels of endurance, power, productivity or strength.
In this sense, music can be thought of as a type of legal performance-enhancing drug“
Karageorghis went on to divide music’s effects on exercise into 3 categories:
- Psychological — how mood, cognition, behavior, and emotion are influenced
- Psychophysical — how physical effort and fatigue are subjectively perceived (a subcategory of psychological)
- Psychophysiological — correlates of psychological effects induced by music, such as changes in blood pressure or heart rate
Additionally, he has theorized that “music can synchronize an athlete’s rhythm and movement and [music] can act as a trigger for learning certain motions and aid with muscle memory” (Source).
Now granted, you won’t see iPods and iPhones being listed as “banned substances” by the World Anti-Doping Agency (WADA) or any other international sports body in the near future.
But when you look at specific sports such as endurance running, there’s enough of an effect to warrant a ban:
“USA Track & Field, the national governing body for distance racing, had just decided to ban athletes from using portable music players in order ‘to ensure safety and to prevent runners from having a competitive edge.’
Rais resolved to hide his iPod shuffle under his shirt. Many fellow runners protested the new rule, which remains in effect today in an amended form: It now applies only to people vying for awards and money.”
So clearly there’s something to the idea of music as a training aid.
Which by extension means we should be seeing real-world results when we put some songs in our ears and pump up the volume.
Sure enough, a comprehensive meta-analysis of 139 studies published between 1911 and 2017 came to the following conclusion:
“In total, 598 effect sizes from four categories of potential benefits (i.e., psychological responses, physiological responses, psychophysical responses, and performance outcomes) were calculated based on 3,599 participants.
Music was associated with significant beneficial effects on affective valence (g = 0.48, CI [0.39, 0.56]), physical performance (g = 0.31, CI [0.25, 0.36]), perceived exertion (g = 0.22, CI [0.14, 0.30]), and oxygen consumption (g = 0.15, CI [0.02, 0.27]). No significant benefit of music was found for heart rate (g = 0.07, CI [−0.03, 0.16]). Performance effects were moderated by study domain (exercise > sport) and music tempo (fast > slow-to-medium).
Overall, results supported the use of music listening across a range of physical activities to promote more positive affective valence, enhance physical performance (i.e., ergogenic effect), reduce perceived exertion, and improve physiological efficiency.“
Going by the 3 categories of effects provided by Karageorghis, there are several specific benefits we can draw from all the +100 years of evidence available to us.
Let’s see what’s been uncovered so far!
(NOTE: The majority of studies appear to involve endurance exercise and not resistance training, but many of the takeaways are equally applicable)
Distraction From the Pain of Exertion
There was an interesting study published in 2017 where 22 subjects’ pain tolerance was tested AFTER they completed an exercise session where they could control the music they were listening to:
“Physical exercise was coupled to music by integrating weight-training machines with sensors that control music-synthesis in real time. Pain tolerance was measured as withdrawal time in a cold pressor test.
On average, participants tolerated cold pain for ~5 s longer following exercise sessions with musical agency. Musical agency explained 25% of the variance in cold pressor test withdrawal times after factoring out individual differences in general pain sensitivity.”
The primary reason why music appears to work so well in this context is the distraction it provides from the uncomfortable pain.
This was confirmed in a 2007 survey of 318 chronic pain sufferers who relied on their preferred music as a form of physical therapy:
“Results indicated distraction and relaxation to be the most frequently perceived benefits of music reported by participants. Both frequent music listening and a perception of music as personally important were further found to relate to higher quality of life.
Also, personal importance of music was significantly related to listening to help pain. These findings suggest beneficial effects of music listening to long-term pain.”
Or as explained by researchers Adrian North and David Hargreaves:
“In The Social and Applied Psychology of Music, authors North and Hargreaves suggest that music distracts from the pain you endure during a workout through competing stimuli, meaning both music and the pain from your exercise are competing against each other. It’s easier to forget about or ignore pain or fatigue when you’re distracted by a song.”
But can music help push through the common feeling of exhaustion?
Delaying the Experience of Physical Fatigue
Similarly, we see this competitive effect apply when it comes to experiencing fatigue during the most difficult parts of a workout.
Rather than give in to this common feeling, why not use a free tool to push through our body’s signals and reduce the perceived effort needed to break through plateaus?
This was the case in one 2020 study where physical activity became much easier to perform with high-energy music:
“…researchers from Italy evaluated 19 women who participated in endurance activities, such as walking, jogging, or biking, and high-intensity workouts, such as weightlifting or using a leg press.
The women exercised under four conditions: without music, with slow music, with fairly high tempo music, and extremely fast-paced music at a high BPM (beats per minute).
The researchers measured the women’s heart rates during their workouts and subsequently asked them how they felt about exercising to the various types of music.
They found that those who listened to the high tempo music experienced the highest heart rates and also perceived their workout as less difficult.“
And if we go back to the 2012 review published by Karageorghis, this effect is replicable regardless of the activity’s intensity or how well-trained the subjects are.
When fitness enthusiasts completed a cognitively demanding task and then went on a high-intensity run in 2021, their perception of effort was altered with music and their interval running capacity improved.
And when cardiac rehabilitation patients were doing their daily exercises in 2015 alongside special synchronized music, they were able to get more activity in per week compared to those who didn’t:
“The study, recently published in the journal Sports Medicine – Open, was conducted at the Toronto Rehab hospital and involved 34 cardiac rehabilitation patients.
One third of patients did not listen to music during their prescribed cardiac rehabilitation exercises and the other two-thirds listened to music that was selected because its tempo matched the patients’ prescribed walking or running pace – which researchers refer to as tempo-pace synchronized music.
…Patients who listened to tempo-pace synchronized music exercised an average of 105.4 minutes per week longer than patients who did not listen to music.
Furthermore, the group whose music had been sonically enhanced with extra rhythmic beats achieved the greatest increase in their total weekly activity, averaging an additional 261.1 minutes or more of weekly physical activity than their music or non-music listening counterparts – corresponding to a 70 per cent increase in weekly exercise.”
Even in studies where performance is not significantly increased, the lowered perception exertion is a game-changer.
One study involved 8 male runners and 9 female runners running a 1.5-mile running trial with no music, or motivational music of their own choosing.
“Subjects improved mean performance time by 10 seconds and increased average heart rate by 4.5 b·min–1 in the motivational music condition, but neither were significantly different (p = 0.09, 0.10).
However, the music condition significantly lowered subjects’ RPE by 0.5 points (p = 0.02). That motivational music improved performance time, although not significant, is noteworthy considering the significantly lower RPE reported“
But the case for using music in the gym gets better…
Increasing Work Capacity via Boosting Stamina
Even if the PERCEPTION of effort doesn’t change, can people physically improve their performance with music in their ears?
A 2013 study published in the Indian Journal of Physiology and Pharmacology seems to suggest so, noting how the tempo of music can make a significant difference
“30 healthy female college students in the age group of 18 to 25 years were made to walk on the treadmill 3 times at one week interval: without music (A), with slow music (B), with fast music (C). Duration of exercise and rate of perceived exertion [RPE] were recorded at the end of each session.
The results showed an increase in the duration of exercise in Group B and Group C as compared to Group A and the increase was more in Group C as compared to Group B. It was observed that level of RPE was the same at the end of every exercise session.
…It can be thus suggested that exercises can be performed for longer duration with music than without music and the effect is more with fast music than with slow music. Also with music, the same level of exertion is perceived though the walking duration is considerably increased.”
A similar effect was seen in a 2020 experiment of twenty healthy young adult men who underwent a 6-minute run test… those who listened to music covered a greater total distance and had a faster running speed on average (albeit without any difference in pacing).
Additionally, the same results of greater total exercise duration are observed when both men and women are involved in the same study, so the effects are not dependent on gender.
Let’s make this more interesting… what happens when we apply this to the bench press within trained men? AND give them the option to choose the music they want?
Someone did this in 2021 and the results were surprising:
“Subjects either listened to preferred or nonpreferred music during a bench press exercise test. Subjects completed as many repetitions as possible at 75% of their 1 repetition maximum with maximum explosive intent. Power and velocity of the barbell movement was measured for the first 3 repetitions using a linear position transducer.
…Results indicate that listening to preferred music increased overall bench press repetitions completed (p = 0.005; effect size [ES] = 0.84). During the first 3 repetitions, mean velocity (p = 0.001; ES = 1.6), relative mean power (p = 0.012; ES = 0.55), peak velocity (p = 0.011; ES = 0.99), and peak power (p = 0.009; ES = 0.35) were higher while listening to preferred music vs. nonpreferred music.
Finally, motivation during the lift (p < 0.001; ES = 5.9) was significantly higher while listening to preferred vs. nonpreferred music.“
Another notable resistance training study involved 7 men in college completing a task involving isometric weight-holding.
Before, during, and after their task they would listen to either their preferred music or white noise — while using music before the task did not influence performance, music DURING performance led to greater muscular endurance via longer weight holding times.
Moreover… there’s a separate study where 31 college-aged men completed a 1-rep max bench press test, followed by a second set of repetitions to failure at 60% of their 1-rep max.
This was done once without music, and again two weeks later with motivational music of the subjects’ choosing.
It was interesting to see that muscular endurance benefitted more from music than maximal muscle strength:
“Listening to music during the strength endurance test improved performance by 5.8%, which worked out to about one additional rep per individual. No significant difference was seen in the control (non-music) group.
Interestingly, music did not influence 1RM [1 rep max] test results. The researchers state this is likely because exercising with music can reduce the rate of perceived exertion at light and moderate workloads, but this effect is not as significant at maximum or near-maximum loads”
Yet we have some studies where music was simultaneously shown to increase work capacity AND reduce perceptions of fatigue at the same time.
One of such papers comes from Karageorghis’ earlier published work in 2009:
“Thirty participants exercised on a treadmill while listening to a selection of motivational rock or pop music, including tracks by Queen, the Red Hot Chilli Peppers and Madonna. They were asked to keep in strict time with the beat.
The findings show that when carefully selected according to scientific principles, music can enhance endurance by 15% and improve the ‘feeling states’ of exercisers, helping them to derive much greater pleasure from the task.
One significant new finding is that music can help exercisers to feel more positive even when they are working out at a very high intensity – close to physical exhaustion.”
(The original paper can be found here)
And although I can’t find the paper claiming a simultaneous reduction of perceived effort by 12%, Karageorghis clarifies his stance based on his decades of research in a recent podcast:
“On average, music will reduce perceived exertion by about 10%. That only works at low to moderate intensities of exercise.
Any piece of music will lower perceived exertion by about 8%. And a preferred piece of music will lower perceived exertion by 12%. So you can see that there is some variability there”
We can see this not just in the real world, but on a much smaller scale when you look at key biomarkers.
An old 1998 exercise study consisting of 20-something well-trained men found that listening to music while going on a 15-minute run led to lower levels of norepinephrine production, lower lactate production in working muscle, lower heart rate, and lower blood pressure.
Clearly, there’s a significant boost in physical endurance that’s not to be ignored or taken lightly.
You think elite athletes keep their earbuds on and blast their favorite songs at max volume… just because?
It’s not an accident and anybody who has competed at any respectable level knows how music, used correctly, is a powerful tool for keeping your adrenaline at just the right level.
We see it in basketball, where competitive female players reduced the frequency of choking on free throws and landed more of them with lyrical music (which they say helped to decrease public self-awareness and think less about technique).
We see it in tennis players, who use music to “elicit various emotional states” and select their tracks based on factors such as “extramusical associations, inspirational lyrics, music properties, and desired emotional state” (Source).
(NOTE: The Inner Game Of Tennis is one of the most widely-read books in sports psychology, first published in 1974 and since recommended to athletes regardless of their sport)
Even for the average Joes and weekend warriors, music can go a long way in transforming regular exercise from something boring to something worth pursuing:
“A total of 24 study participants walked 400 meters on an outdoor track at a pace of their choice under one of three conditions: some subjects walked while listening to 6 minutes of the song Happy by Pharrell Williams; some participants listened to a podcast of a TED talk; and some subjects did not listen to any sound.
During the walking task, the participants’ brainwaves were measured using EEG [electroencephalography]. Also, the scientists assessed how each of the three auditory conditions affected the participants’ attention during the walking task, as well as how they affected their feelings of alertness and fatigue.
The researchers found that listening to music led to a 28 percent increase in enjoyment during the walking task, compared with no auditory stimuli. Enjoyment was also 13 percent higher for those who listened to music, compared with those who listened to a podcast.”
I want to emphasize this once more — music can literally be the catalyst that helps people start and maintain a regular exercise regimen:
“Participants (N = 148) recruited from undergraduate physical education courses completed 20 min of moderately paced walking, with or without a personal music player. Mixed model Analyses of Variance revealed that exercise significantly increased participant mood in all measured dimensions (ps ≤ .001).
Analyses also supported the moderating role of music to the effect of exercise on mood pleasantness because those who listened to music during exercise reported feeling significantly more pleasant after exercise than those who did not listen to music (p = .009, d = 0.42). Using an independent-samples t test, exercise enjoyment was significantly higher among participants who exercised with music (p = .049, d = 0.33)”
This is one of the effects that gets replicated in scientific research over and over again, even for inactive individuals who take on unpleasant forms of training.
Seriously… give it a try. It may be the thing that makes 2022 your very first year of consistent exercise.
The BEST Music For The Gym, According To Science
The only remaining question is what TYPE of music will give us the best overall satisfaction with exercise and the greatest boost in physical performance (at least one if not ideally both).
Generally, researchers look to meet as many key criteria as possible when selecting the “right” music:
(a) strong, energising rhythm
(b) positive lyrics having associations with movement (e.g., “I’m gonna make you sweat” by Snoop Dogg);
(c) rhythmic pattern well matched to movement patterns of the athletic activity;
(d) uplifting melodies and harmonies;
(e) associations with sport, exercise, triumph, or overcoming adversity (e.g.. Heather Small’s ‘Proud’, used in the London 2012 Olympic bid);
(f) a musical style or idiom suited to an athlete’s taste and cultural upbringing. Choose tracks with different tempi, to coincide with alternate low-, medium-, and high-intensity training.
Yes, you need to set a conscious intention in curating your workout playlist if you want to take advantage of music’s therapeutic power.
Whether you’re mentally preparing yourself in between sets or busting out the final rep needed to hit a personal best, the right tracks can make all the difference.
So here’s what the science has to say on this matter…
Use Music You Can “Vibe” With
This is where the N-of-1 rule applies: You have to actually LIKE the music you are using if you want to get into the right mindset for training.
Experiment with different kinds and types of music as you develop the mindset for going to positive muscular failure.
With that said, here are some general tips for music selection that are backed up by research.
While some research suggests that music with lyrics lowers one’s perceived exertion better than instrumental music, you may find otherwise.
You’ll definitely want to opt for lyrics with an uplifting and inspiring message, which I’ll talk more about later.
Rhythmic music you can “synchronize” your movement with seems to be the best choice for endurance exercise:
“Although many people do not feel the need to run or move in exact time with their workout music, synchrony may help the body use energy more efficiently.
When moving rhythmically to a beat, the body may not have to make as many adjustments to coordinated movements as it would without regular external cues.
In a 2012 study by C. J. Bacon of Sheffield Hallam University, Karageorghis and their colleagues, participants who cycled in time to music required 7 percent less oxygen to do the same work as cyclists who did not synchronize their movements with background music.
Music, it seems, can function as a metronome, helping someone maintain a steady pace, reducing false steps and decreasing energy expenditure.”
The same isn’t always true for lifting weights, which has more to do with your mental state of mind than maintaining a consistent pace.
I’ve personally found that bass-heavy music works best for instilling confidence, and one study backs this assertion up:
“…[a 2014 study published in] Social Psychological and Personality Science has determined that bass-heavy music inspired the greatest sense of power in test subjects who were exposed to various sounds.
The first phase of the study took 31 genre-spanning songs and identified how powerful each track made subjects feel, based on a seven-point scale. Songs were ranked from most to least powerful.
…Researchers found that music predetermined to be powerful generated three common consequences of power: abstract thinking (i.e., an ability to see the big picture), along with a sense of perceived control in various scenarios, and the ability to make the first move in competitive situations. “
It goes without saying that energetic and stimulating music should be your first choice, as sedative and relaxing music can have the opposite effect of what you want in the gym:
“[In a 1981 study by Pearce et al.,] subjects were 33 male and 16 female undergraduate students randomly assigned to the order of the three types of stimulation (stimulative, sedative, and silence).
Analysis indicated that listening to sedative music decreased [grip] strength significantly when compared to stimulative music and silence. However, no statistical significant difference was seen between stimulative music and silence.”
…sedative music may actually decrease a person’s muscular fitness potential training ability. This is congruent with early pioneering research that shows muscle tension can be altered by choice of music: stimulating music increasing muscle tension with sedative music decreasing muscle tension (Sears, 1957)”
In other words, even no music is better than the light classic rock tunes that sometimes get cycled through on the gym radio.
You don’t want to be mellowed out — you want your music to accelerate your drive and motivate you to push beyond your current limits.
Finally, I need to re-emphasize the importance of choosing the music YOU want!
You may have noticed in a handful of the studies quoted thus far that subjects got to curate their playlist.
More and more evidence suggests this makes far more of a difference than we may think:
“musical agency significantly decreased perceived exertion during workout, indicating that musical agency may actually facilitate physically strenuous activities. This indicates that the positive effect of music on perceived exertion cannot always be explained by an effect of diversion from proprioceptive feedback” (Source)
“… compared with NM [no music], relative power output was significantly higher, trial time was significantly lower, and heart rate was significantly higher during the PREF [preferred music] but not the NON-PREF [non-preferred music] condition…. Listening to preferred warm-up music improved subsequent exercise performance compared with no music, while nonpreferred music did not impart ergogenic benefit.” (Source)
“… Listening to self-selected music in a mentally fatigued state negates the negative impact of mental fatigue on endurance running capacity and performance, potentially due to altered perception of effort when listening to music.” (Source)
“… several factors such as music tempo, volume, and genre preference may modulate the ergogenic effect of music. An ergogenic effect is commonly reported with faster tempo music (>120 bpm) set to muscle volume of 70–80 decibels. Using individual preference regarding music genre seems to produce the most consistent performance-enhancing effect. Besides these factors, lyrical content, harmony, and melody are also factors that may determine the ergogenic potential of music” (Source)
Let’s go over one last talking point in exercise music that most people get too anally retentive about…
Choose The RIGHT Tempo For The Gym
When studies on music tempo are conducted, the main variable being looked at is “beats per minute” (BPM).
If we know that an uplifting track will be more beneficial than a mellow track, so logically the same should hold for faster-paced songs:
“High-tempo music — the type that equates to about 170 heartbeats per minute — reduces perceived effort and boosts cardiovascular benefits more than lower tempos, according to a new [2020 study] published in the journal Frontiers in Psychology.
…The study found the effects were greatest for endurance exercise, such as brisk walking, running, biking and swimming, than for high-intensity exercises such as weightlifting, jump roping, speed walking and high intensity interval training.“
Conversely, playing slower music should significantly shorten post-exercise recovery time when compared to faster music.
But what’s really interesting is what happens when you also factor “loudness” into the equation, as one 2006 study did:
“A total of 30 volunteers performed five 10-min exercise sessions on a treadmill. The music listened to whilst exercising was either fast/loud, fast/quiet, slow/loud, slow/quiet or absent. Measures of running speed, heart rate, perceived exertion and affect were taken. Significant effects and interactions were found for running speed and heart rate across the different music tempo and loudness levels.
More positive affect was observed during the music condition in comparison to the ‘no music’ condition. No significant differences for perceived exertion were found across conditions. These results confirm that fast, loud music might be played to enhance optimal exercising, and show how loudness and tempo interact”
It turns out volume is not as important as tempo, and only matters if the music is fast-paced:
“…heart rate increases if the volume of fast music is increased, but not if the volume of slow music is increased.
This, together with the main effect found for tempo, suggests that tempo is more important than loudness in increasing heart rate, but that at the higher levels of heart rate (fast music) increasing the volume can add a little more to heart rate”
So far, it sounds like water is wet — playing faster music leads you to push harder AND enjoy the music more.
But with respect to BPM, we turn again to Karageorghis and his research.
A study published by Karageorghis and his team in 2011 found the following in terms of music tempo preference among exercising subjects with respect to cycling intensity:
“The music tempi preferences as reported were compressed into a much narrower band than the original prediction. Thus, although the range of exercise intensities assayed covers almost the entire submaximal range, the span of preferred music-tempi is relatively small (approximately 125–140 bpm)”
The diagram below (taken from the study) does a great job of showing what the quotation means:
(%maxHHR = percentage of maximum heart rate reserve, the difference between resting and maximum heart rate)
And in a 2014 study from Karageorghis, when the form of exercise was switched to treadmill walking at different intensities, the range of preferred music tempo was much narrower at 123-131 BPM.
While more research needs to be done on engineering music for specific situations — pre-workout (warm-up), intra-workout, and post-workout scenarios — the takeaway message is clear…
Match the rhythm, tempo, and loudness of the music to whatever you are doing at the moment. Go for the loud fast-paced music (120-140 BPM) during resistance training and intense cardio, and use the quieter slow-paced music for cooldown and activities such as yoga.
To get an idea of what to look for, use BeatPort’s advanced search feature and look up deep house music in the 120-140 BPM range.
My Time-Tested Rules For Building A Dream Physique With Music
With the science portion of this article covered exhaustively, I want to end this article by giving you my experience-based rules for using music in the gym.
I follow these same rules myself and advise them to all of my private coaching clients.
You may disagree with them and call me a kook, but I don’t care. I follow my eyes and what manifests in the real world.
DO NOT listen to aggressive heavy metal music
Yes, I’m alienating a large portion of the fitness community by taking a hard stand against one of the most popular music genres among weightlifters.
But I didn’t reach this conclusion by accident.
I was reminded of why I follow this rule when I accidentally found a very old blog post published in 2013.
It was from an Olympic weightlifter who has spent many years training with world champions and Olympic medalists.
And it turns out there’s a good reason why all of the lifters use upbeat music, while nobody listens to death metal:
“.. the best lifters in the world do not listen to music that creates a negative or aggressive emotional response. This ties back to the ANS [autonomic nervous system].
Weightlifting uses the parasympathetic nervous system – a good lift is done on reflexes, not ponderous thinking of the central nervous system. A lifter needs to be able to focus and zone out the background.
Lifting with anger and aggression causes the lifter to tighten up. Thinking angry thoughts to hit a big lift can cause the lifter to, well, overthink the lift.“
Mind you, Olympic weightlifting is a sport where young teenagers effortlessly lift more than 99% of people who ever step foot in a gym or spend their entire lives there, and do so with graceful form.
Some videos to show you what I mean:
As you can see in the last video, the powerlifters get aggressively emotional and the lifts look downright ugly despite the superhuman records they set.
Contrary to what you believe, “psyching yourself up” isn’t what you’re going for:
“The strength sport side of weightlifting requires a ramped up emotional state (with its increased adrenalin levels) just to move the bar at all.
But the technical sport requires you remain poised and in FULL control, allowing the body to do what it was trained to do and not get in its way.”
Even though I’m not an Olympic weightlifter myself, the principles I teach in my Positive Muscular Failure training course are highly similar to what these athletes do.
But above this, there’s another more important reason why I turn people away from heavy metal: The lyrics and overall tonality steer you in the opposite direction of raising your vibration.
CNN (surprise surprise) wrote an article about several studies linking hostile behaviors and thoughts to listening to aggressive music:
“Another paper, published in 2003 in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, reported that music can incite aggressive thoughts and feelings. During five experiments with 75 female and 70 male college students, those who heard a violent song were shown to feel more hostile than those who heard a nonviolent song, from the same artist and style.
The study showed that violent songs led to more aggressive thoughts in three different measures: More aggressive interpretations when looking at ambiguous words, an increased speed with which people read aggressive compared to non-aggressive words and a greater proportion of people completing aggressive words when filling in blanks on forms given to them during the study.”
I’m not saying music CAUSES people to be violent. I won’t say someone who listens to metal is a violent person, and of course there will be people who are already violent by nature and happen to be drawn to this music.
This is not about being nitpicky or being a prude.
It’s the recognition that every song you play and put on repeat is literally entraining you to think, feel, and act a certain way:
“Our bodies respond to music in conscious and unconscious ways. While we may take the influence of music for granted, there are complex interactions occurring in our brains and bodies that impact our physical movement, thoughts, and feelings.
When we listen to music, our bodies respond automatically. We breathe in time, move in time, and our hearts may even beat in time”
I recommend reading the paper I just quoted if you want to completely alter your perception of music’s life-changing (or life-ruining) power.
So with all of this in mind, why CHOOSE to put things in your ears that do not serve your best and highest purpose?
Reserve your music for the gym and ONLY the gym
This is the key to maximal performance that very few people talk about.
We have unconscious habits related to consistently showing up in the gym — the clothes we wear, the time of day we go, the logs we record, the foods and drinks we eat, etc.
At some point in our fitness journeys, we just “do it” without having to think about it or exert tremendous mental willpower.
Music needs to be treated the same way if it’s going to work to our advantage.
Here’s what you MUST keep in mind when you create your playlist:
- You will ONLY use this playlist when you work out, and absolutely nowhere else in your daily life
- Once you have a playlist that works in cultivating the right mode of thinking, do not tinker with it
- Consistently use the same playlist when working out to form the mental connection between the songs and 100% training intensity
- At some point your opening song will be the “trigger” that snaps you into lifting mode.
If you don’t feel 100% ready to break your limits and push through muscular failure, either your songs suck or you aren’t focused enough.
Use high-quality gear
This is the least-important bit, but I personally find having a pair of extremely good headphones helps me stay in the zone and drown out all the background noise.
Use whatever works for you and does not interfere with proper form.
Personally, my Bose QuietComfort 35 wireless noise-canceling headphones have been reliable since 2016 and haven’t broken down on me once.
Some people prefer earbuds instead of over-the-ear headphones… again, we’re all N-of-1.
According to an internal study conducted by sound technology company Sonos, even the QUALITY of music can have an effect on exercise performance:
“The three-day experiment measured the physical and mental responses people had while working out in a high-intensity interval training in three scenarios: Listening on low-quality wireless speakers, listening on a pair of Sonos Ones, and working out in silence.
When exposed to high-quality sound, participants reported a 26% increase in positive feelings about their workout and 34% increase in feelings of connection with their workout partners (despite a 3.5% increase in average heart rate and 2% rise in energy exerted).
In other words, great sound enabled people to work out harder without feeling like they were doing extra work.”
In short, invest in a solid pair of earphones that will last you several years of wear and tear in the gym.
DO NOT become overly dependent on music
One final note… don’t get to the point where your gym performance suffers because you left your earbuds at home one day.
Music is a TOOL, but it is worthless when compared to your mental attitude and a proven training plan.
In fact, some people are overly dependent on having music around them for a workout to the point where millennials are dubbed “The Headphone Generation”:
“In a quest to better understand the power of music and headphones on people’s daily lives, music lifestyle brand SOL REPUBLIC conducted a survey [of 1,000 Americans] that showed that a whopping 62% of Americans say a day without music is worse than a day without human interaction.
…and nearly 20% of respondents, who listen to music the most, would actually give up a meal a day instead of their music.
The first-ever SOL REPUBLIC Music Snapshot also found that two out of three headphone owners (66%) would be less active without music to push them, while 40% would kill their workout completely if they didn’t have their headphones.“
And some studies go as far as to suggest music itself doesn’t improve performance, and there are a few theories to explain why.
One study found that what does increase is the amount of risk-taking behavior… and people who already perform well got a boost in self-esteem from their own select music.
Another study suggests it is the EXPECTATION of music impacting our performance that does the trick:
“For this experiment, ninety-one college students were invited to run several laps while listening to music for a certain duration The ninety-one students were divided into three groups. Members of Group A (n=25)were told that music would heighten their athletic performance immensely. Participants of Group B (n=19) were told that music would greatly diminish their ability to perform well. And those in Group C (n=47), the control, were not given any information on the impact that music would have on their performance.
The results were fairly significant and demonstrated that preconceived notions on the effects music are key to actually seeing positive effects from music during athletic performance.
…[it is] not the music that is changing the level of athletic performance achieved but it is that knowledge that an outside force might have the ability to change one’s performance level that actually made an impact”
Moreover, there is only so much music can do to override the body’s signals to quit:
“A much-cited 2004 study of runners found that during hard runs at about 90 percent of their maximal oxygen uptake, a punishing pace, music was of no benefit, physiologically. The runners didn’t up their paces, no matter how fast the music’s tempo. Their heart rates stubbornly stayed the same, already quite high, whether they listened to music or not.
… likely due to the ineluctable realities of hard work. During moderate exercise, they write, music can “narrow attention,” diverting ‘the mind from sensations of fatigue.’ But when you increase the speed and intensity of a workout, ‘perceptions of fatigue override the impact of music, because attentional processes are dominated by physiological feedback.’ The noise of the body drowns all other considerations”
Plus, people have their own reasons for working out without music:
- Benefitting from silence
- Better focus on form (music is a distraction to some people)
- More efficiency with finishing workouts quicker (again, we’re all built differently)
- Greater focus on smaller details of a workout
Something worth thinking about the next time you freak out over losing your headphones!
Additional Reading Resources For Music’s Performance-Enhancing Effects
Music is ultimately an expression of your conscious manifestation — what do YOU want out of a workout?
Do you want to be fast-paced and energetic? Do you want to feel stimulated and uninhibited in your ability to move your vessel as you please without physical limitation?
Then choose the music that best syncs with your desired outcome. And you will soon find your body synchronizing with the songs you have chosen.
With time you will find the right tempo, intensity, lyrics, and volume for having the best workout of your life.
I’ll leave you with three additional reading resources if you want to dig into this topic even deeper than I have…
Costas Karageorghis published a textbook in 2016 that summarizes his nearly 30 years of studying music and its impact on athletic performance (seriously, you can’t read a single article on this topic without his name appearing at least once)
This 2021 literature review goes deeper into the physiological mechanisms explaining how music influences our response to exercise.
Finally, PhD Student Matthew Stork did a podcast on his experience with performance-enhancing music as a strength and conditioning coach.
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