By Rob Mitchum
This is part of our Clarify Data Stories series. Check out the big issues, minus the noise at www.spotify.com/clarify to watch artists take on the issues that matter to them, like Bethany Cosentino of Best Coast below.
The potential beat connection between our heart health and the music we listen to is the subject of much research, with scientists looking at how songs of various tempos can influence exercise, anxiety, post-surgical recovery, and many other outcomes. For this week’s topic of healthcare, we applied some of those studies’ findings to data on the top 10,000 streamed songs on Spotify from May to September 2016, looking for places where American listening behavior overlaps with the science on health and tempo. The results reveal that, consciously or no, the tempo of popular music reflects biological rhythms identified by scientists and important for exercise and relaxation.
Resting heart rate can vary dramatically between individuals, influenced by fitness level, genetics, medications, emotions, even air temperature. Medical resources typically say that 60 to 100 beats per minute is the healthy range for resting heart rate, with athletes sporting lower tempos, and higher rates signaling potential cardiac problems. Maximum heart rate, on the other hand, tends to top out at 200 in young people and decline with age.
Guess what? We have a “preferred tempo.”
Coincidentally or not, most songs also fall somewhere in the span of 60 and 200 beats per minute. However, when you graph the frequency of bpms for the top 10,000 streamed songs, the most common tempos are not in the resting heart rate zone, when you’d expect most people are listening to music, but slightly higher, between 120 to 130 bpm.
The upper end of the “resting” 60 to 100 zone shows a decent spike, particularly in the 90–100 range. But more songs land between 120 and 130 bpm, a range that includes massive 2016 hits such as Calvin Harris and Rihanna’s “This Is What You Came For” (124 bpm), Galantis’ “No Money” (126), Nick Jonas’ “Close” (124), and Lukas Graham’s “7 Years” (120).
It happens that scientists already figured out this sweet spot for beats per minute. A 2002 study found that people have a “preferred tempo” in this same 120 to 130 bpm range, which aligns roughly with average walking speed and even the tempo of crowd applause. A Brazilian project which looked at the history of songs on the Billboard charts and within the Million Song Dataset found a similar clustering of popular music around 120 bpm.
Even more research has looked at the relationship between music and exercise — an obvious link suggested by the number of people wearing earbuds in any given gym. Unsurprisingly, most studies find that people choose to listen to higher tempo music while working out, and prefer higher intensity genres such as hip-hop, rock, and pop.
A playlist for maximum exertion. And Drake, natch.
Taking a cue from the heart rate zones used by fitness trackers and heart rate monitors to guide exercise, we looked for the most popular songs at each tier, from very light activity to maximum exertion. The average 30-year-old male or female has a maximum heart rate of 190 bpm, meaning that the exercise heart rate zones go up from “very light” (95–114), “light” (114–133), “moderate” (133–152), “hard” (152–171), to “maximum” (171–190).
So depending on our generic person’s fitness goals, he/she can warm up to Justin Timberlake’s “Can’t Stop The Feeling” (113 bpm), burn fat to Drake and Rihanna’s “Too Good” (118), improve aerobic fitness with Zara Larsson’s “Never Forget You” (146), boost maximum performance with Kent Jones’ “Don’t Mind” (159), and do a few high-intensity intervals to Alan Walker’s “Sing Me to Sleep” (176).
[You can also build a playlist entirely from Drake songs by consulting this chart.]
You can input your own maximum heart rate here and take a look at the top 20 songs for each exercise zone, customized to your own natural tempo. One such playlist, for an hour-long workout that builds bpm through all five zones then cools down, can be found below.
But the effect of music on heart rate can also go the other way, assisting relaxation and meditation by slowing heart rate. The scientific literature on this relationship is much sparser, and prone to holistic psuedoscience, but at least a couple reliable sources find that slower music (particularly classical music and Indian ragas) is soothing to both heart and mind.
If you’re looking to wind down instead of work up a sweat, this playlist can help, providing a gentle downward slope of tempo from popular songs with bpm below the 50% max heart rate for our hypothetical average person. You can make your own from the top 100 such songs pictured below.
Hits in this mellow range include Mike Perry’s “The Ocean” (90 bpm), Shawn Mendes “Treat You Better” (83), and Twenty One Pilots “Ride” (75), down to slow-motion ballads such as Adele’s “One and Only” (52) and Ruth B’s “Superficial Love” (43.5). You can even take it all the way down to zero beats per minute tracks such as “Sleep Rain” and “Clean White Noise,” but if your heart is particularly good at syncing up with musical tempo…maybe consult your physician first.
Few musicians (LCD Soundsystem aside) would claim to intentionally manipulate tempo specifically to influence a listener’s physiology. But because so many of the activities we like to accompany with music — exercising, relaxing, dancing, walking, doing chores, and so on — are rhythmic in nature, music can’t help but parallel and influence those actions in subliminal ways. When we talk about songs that touch our heart, we may not be far off.