Scientifically Proven Impacts of Music on Performance

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For some runners the thought of lacing up without a killer playlist is simply unimaginable. While for others, the serenity of some quiet me-time in nature is what it’s all about. And while running with or without music is a matter of personal preference, there’s no denying the science behind music and performance.

Have you ever wondered if that extra surge of energy you feel when your favorite song comes on during a long run is all in your head? And have you wondered if running to a faster beat can really make you run faster? The good news is that extensive studies have been done on the impact of music on physical performance over the past few decades. And even better news is that the results of these studies are out there for anyone to utilize as they please. So let’s have a look.

The impact of music on our daily lives

Let’s forget about running for a moment and just look at the impact of music on our daily lives. It doesn’t take a science buff to notice that the effect of music on humans can be extremely powerful. Have you ever noticed how a particular song can make a sad situation even that much more heart-wrenching? Or how music adds a whole new dimension to a tragic movie scene? Well, scientists agree. Existing scientific evidence suggests that music has the power to, among other things:

  • Capture our attention
  • Raise our spirits
  • Trigger a whole range of emotions
  • Alter or regulate our mood
  • Evoke memories
  • Increase work output
  • Heighten arousal
  • Induce a state of higher functioning
  • Reduce inhibition
  • Encourage rhythmic movement

No wonder then that the potential or perceived impact of music on performance also captured the imagination and attention of the scientific community, right? Because what if music has a similar impact on physical performance? And what if its power could somehow be used as a type of legal performance enhancer?

The impact of music on physical performance

And while the term “legal performance enhancer” might sound a little over the top to some, that’s exactly what music has been referred to by Dr Costas Karageorghis, world-leading researcher on music and performance. Dr Karageorghis, who has worked in this field for over two decades and published more than 100 scientific papers on the topic, summarizes the impact of music on physical performance as follows, based on both his own and others’ research findings:

While running, or participating in other endurance- based activities that require repetitive movements, music that has been selected by the user for motivational purposes has been show to:

  • Reduce perceived exertion
  • Improve energy efficiency
  • Increase work output

In addition, evidence suggests that certain songs can promote both ergogenic (i.e. enhancing physical performance or stamina) and psychological benefits during high-intensity activities. This does, however, appear to be ineffective beyond the aerobic threshold.

The impact of music on performance furthermore appears to be most significant when used to accompany exercise that is self-paced. Also keep in mind that, if music is selected based off of motivational qualities, the impact of music on both performance and the psychological state is magnified.

The mechanisms through which music impacts on performance

So how exactly does all of this happen? What mechanisms can be used to explain the impact of music on performance? According to Dr Karageorghis these mechanisms are still relatively poorly understood and additional research is required to shed more light on the topic.

The following is, however, believed to play a role:

  • Dissociation. Music has the power to draw our attention away from feelings of fatigue and pain experienced during moderate exercise. And while music may not be able to change our perception of fatigue when running at a very high intensity, it does have the ability to change our perception of fatigue in this instance. In other words, it can make us view fatigue in a positive light during high-intensity runs.
  • Promotion of flow states for internal motivation. A state of flow, also referred to as being “in the zone”, can be achieved with the aid of music as part of an athlete’s pre-race rituals. For many runners, listening to motivational music before a goal event allows them to shut out any distractions and focus on the task at hand.
  • An increased level of output through movements synchronized to music. Synchronizing music to repetitive exercise, such as running, has been shown to increase levels of work output. Music has the ability to, for example, balance and adjust movement, thereby prolonging performance.
  • Evoking emotions that increase enjoyment. Music can boost internal motivation by triggering positive emotions. Through these positive emotions, greater pleasure can be derived from exercise.

How to compile an effective playlist

But how can we put all of this into practice, you ask? How do we make sure that we effectively capture the power of music in our running playlists? Here’s Dr Karageorghis’ tips for compiling the perfect playlist:

  • Pre-task songs. Before your race or hard workout, listen to music with a slower tempo. You don’t want to burn off too much energy at this stage! Also remember that you have to find some aspect of the music that you select inspiring, whether it be the artist, composition or lyrics. Songs that are in the 70-100 BPM range would be a good choice.
  • Background music (i.e. asynchronous music) for the early stages of your workout or race. For the early stages of your race, you should ideally select songs with a tempo that is 5% above your working heart rate. (Keep in mind that there is a ceiling effect after reaching 140 BPM.) Good songs to include will be around 125 BPM. (Note that you will not be running to the beat of these songs, they will simply play in the background while you run.)
  • Synchronous music. This refers to songs where you actually run to the beat of the music in order to regulate movement. Dr Karageorghis suggests getting a friend to film you pre-race and then using the footage to determine your work rate at race pace. Select songs with a (steady) beat that ties in with your work rate.  BPM vary depending on your pace, and could be anywhere from 115 to 130 BPM.

Not sure of the BPM of a song?  You can visit this website and find out what the BPM are for your favorite songs!

The takeaway

From the above it’s clear that music can be a very handy tool in your training or racing arsenal. So why not give it a try, especially on days when motivation is lacking? Who knows, it might just work for you! Just remember that running with headphones does pose some safety risks. So only tune in when it’s safe to do so. Many race organizers also don’t allow the use of headphones during their races. Be sure to check before you enter!

 

Sources

  1. Alejandra , 4 Remarkable ways music can enhance athletic performance, Online publication,
  2. C.I. Karageorghis & D-L Priest, Music in the exercise domain: A review and synthesis (Part I), Scientific journal, Dec 07, 2011
  3. Colin Jackson, Dr Costas Karageorghis, Online publication,
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