The Science Behind Music and Sports

Learn more about our first study, conducted together with Hintsa Performance, that we hope will contribute to our understanding of why and how music can support athletic performance.

Many of us listen to music during exercise: we have a favorite playlist for running or cycling, we put on the headphones at the gym. We instinctively know that somehow music listening helps us during physical exertion. In recent years, research has accumulated on the various effects of music listening during exercise, and has revealed interesting findings on exactly why and how music helps us.
 
In addition to common experience, it is quite well established in literature that music listening does indeed support performance in sports¹. In addition to helping us during exercise, the positive effects of music listening also extend to the period before and after the workout. For instance, in a study published in 2007, researchers found that warming up to music resulted in higher heart rate during the warm-up than in the absence of music, as well as increased peak anaerobic power after the warm-up, indicating an enhanced ability to perform short, powerful, energy-consuming actions².

In addition to making warm-ups more efficient, music can also support recovery after physical exertion³. In this study, researchers found that athletes who listened to music after strong physical exertion showed more voluntary physical activity, a greater decrease in blood lactate concentration as well as greater decrease in perceived exertion than athletes who recovered without listening to music. The researchers speculate that the reason why music supports recovery is that it kept the athletes moving after a moment of high exertion and therefore helped clear lactates from muscles. These results are important for individuals such as professional athletes who typically are not able to listen to music during the exercise, but can choose to do so before and after.

“Researchers found that warming up to music resulted in higher heart rate during the warm-up… as well as increased peak anaerobic power after the warm-up”

But what about the effects of music during physical exertion? What kind of music helps us the most? One study compared the effects of music that the participants had rated as “motivational” to music they had rated as neutral. Music was deemed motivational simply if the participants reported that the sound characteristics of the music, such as its rhythm, would motivate them during exercise. Somewhat surprisingly, the researchers didn’t find significant differences in the effectiveness of neutral music and music that the athletes thought would help them during exercise! According to the results, running in sync with both types of music helped the participants run longer.

The study showed that athletes who ran in sync to the beat of motivational as well as neutral music became exhausted by the exercise more slowly, felt less exhausted and also showed lower oxygen consumption than those who ran without music. However, lactate levels were the lowest with motivational music and only motivational music improved mood. This is an interesting finding, because typically it is thought that music exerts most of its effects through emotion. It could then be that if one is only looking to just run that extra mile, you need not particularly believe the music will motivate you.
 
If the performance-boosting effects are not always directly linked to becoming motivated by the music, where could they stem from? According to research, it seems that syncing to the music may be one mechanism. In a study published in 2013, researchers found that running to a beat enhanced performance. In the study, participants came to the lab to run on a treadmill on three occasions. The task was to run until exhaustion. The adequate running speed for each subject was determined by having him run on a treadmill, and gradually increasing the speed of the treadmill every 30 seconds until reaching a speed that the subject said he would be able to maintain for 7–15 min, but not longer.

“Peak and mean power as well as enjoyment were better…with motivational music, individuals reached better physical performance and also enjoyed the highly strenuous activity more.”

In the experiment itself, participants ran at their determined speed under three conditions: 1) with no acoustic stimuli 2) while synchronizing movement to a metronome and 3) synchronizing to motivational music. The subjects ran for as long as they could and the experiment stopped on the subjects’ indication of exhaustion. In concordance with the previous study, there was surprisingly little difference between the performance-boosting effects of syncing to a metronome or to motivational music: both resulted in longer times to exhaustion, the subjects could run for approximately two minutes longer with the metronome or the music than in silence. However, motivational music decreased perceived exertion, but the tick of the metronome did not. The metronome in turn was better than motivational music in producing consistent cadence of running strides, meaning a steady running tempo. The researchers speculate that synchronization supports physical performance because a steady rhythm makes movement more efficient. Motivational music would in turn support performance by helping individuals work harder.

What about exercise where you do not maintain a steady rhythm in movement? An increasingly popular form of exercise is interval training — instead of maintaining a lower level of exertion for a longer period of time, like in an aerobics class, interval training aims at short bursts of maximal exertion, and short periods of rest in between. A recently published study investigated the effects of music listening on performance in sprint interval training. In the study, subjects cycled in an “all-out” manner four times for 30 seconds, with or without music evaluated as motivational. The researchers measured peak and mean power output during cycling, perceived exertion and perceived enjoyment. According to the results, peak and mean power as well as enjoyment were better in the music condition, meaning that with motivational music, individuals reached better physical performance and also enjoyed the highly strenuous activity more.

“Music supports emotions related to physical performance — by listening to motivating music, people find the inner strength to work harder”

This tight link between music, motivation and physical performance has led some researchers into the realm of the avant-garde. Researchers at the Max Planck Institute have in fact created gym equipment that double as musical instruments: you play them by exercising (called “jymmin” by the researchers)! A study published in the prestigious journal PNAS on the effects of these gym-instruments showed that the musical agency (the action of producing music) that this equipment produces is highly motivating and results in less perceived exertion during exercise. More information about the equipment can be found here. Looking forward to gyms that provide “jymmin” lessons!

In summary, music listening during physical exercise produces a number of positive effects ranging from better performance to more enjoyment. The effects most probably stem from the link between rhythm and movement — by syncing to the beat, individuals produce more efficient movements. Another mechanism by which music supports physical performance is based on emotions — by listening to motivating music, people find the inner strength to work harder. However, both music and physical exercise take many forms, and the effects of music listening always depend on a multitude of factors. Therefore, despite great advances in research, we are still far from a comprehensive picture of effects that music can have on physical performance. We at the Sync Project are excited about our first study, conducted together with Hintsa Performance, that we hope will contribute to our understanding of why and how music can support athletic performance.

Written by Ketki Karanam, Co-Founder and Head of Science at Sync Project

References:

1. Karageorghis, C. I., & Priest, D.-L. (2012). Music in the exercise domain: a review and synthesis (Part I). International Review of Sport and Exercise Psychology, 5(1), 44–66. doi:10.1080/1750984x.2011.631026

2. Eliakim, M., Meckel, Y., Nemet, D., & Eliakim, A. (2007). The Effect of Music during Warm-Up on Consecutive Anaerobic Performance in Elite Adolescent Volleyball Players. Int J Sports Med, 28(4), 321–325. doi:10.1055/s-2006–924360

3. Eliakim, M., Bodner, E., Eliakim, A., Nemet, D., & Meckel, Y. (2012). Effect of Motivational Music on Lactate Levels During Recovery from Intense Exercise. Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research, 26(1), 80–86. doi:10.1519/jsc.0b013e31821d5f31

4. Terry, P. C., Karageorghis, C. I., Saha, A. M., & D’Auria, S. (2012). Effects of synchronous music on treadmill running among elite triathletes. Journal of Science and Medicine in Sport, 15(1), 52–57. doi:10.1016/j.jsams.2011.06.003

5. Bood, R. J., Nijssen, M., van der Kamp, J., & Roerdink, M. (2013). The Power of Auditory-Motor Synchronization in Sports: Enhancing Running Performance by Coupling Cadence with the Right Beats. PLoS ONE, 8(8), e70758. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0070758

6. Stork, M. J., Kwan, M. Y. W., Gibala, M. J., & Martin Ginis, K. A. (2015). Music Enhances Performance and Perceived Enjoyment of Sprint Interval Exercise. Medicine & Science in Sports & Exercise, 47(5), 1052–1060. doi:10.1249/mss.0000000000000494

7. Fritz, T. H., Hardikar, S., Demoucron, M., Niessen, M., Demey, M., Giot, O., … Leman, M. (2013). Musical agency reduces perceived exertion during strenuous physical performance. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 110(44), 17784–17789. doi:10.1073/pnas.1217252110


Originally published at syncproject.co.