6:30 am: The alarm on your phone rings loudly, forcing you awake and into workout clothes
6:45 am: A slice of bread pops out of the toaster and is immediately smothered in peanut butter – the perfect fuel for your morning run
7:00 am: You swipe your car keys from the kitchen counter and swing your gym bag over your shoulder, locking the door as you leave your home
7:15 am: You realize you forgot your headphones. It’s too late to turn back for them, but you can’t work out without them. You reroute to the McDonald’s drive-thru.
For many athletes and even for more casual joggers, weight lifters, cyclists, and gym rats, music is a crucial ingredient in the exercise experience. A look around any work out facility will illustrate the strength of this pairing: rows of runners move in place as white headphone cords dangle from their ears, while overhead speakers blast the latest radio sensations.
In 1911, Leonard Ayres observed that cyclists pedaled at a faster rate when a band was playing, compared to when it was silent. Since then, a growing body of research has endeavored to explore the ways in which music, with its rhythmic beats and rousing lyrics, motivates us to run faster and jump higher. Theories on this effect have focused on music’s apparent ability to distract from pain and fatigue, elevate mood, increase endurance, and decrease perceived effort.
Among the suggested mechanisms by which music influences our athletic performance is the concept of synchrony, or the use of music by the brain as a sort of metronome-like supplement. “When moving rhythmically to a beat,” writes author Ferris Jabr of Scientific American, “the body may not have to make as many adjustments to coordinated movements as it would without regular external cues” (Let’s Get Physical, 2013). In this manner, music aids the brain in maintaining steady pace, reducing erroneous steps, and decreasing energy expenditure. In fact, this concept is backed by research suggesting that exercise is more efficient when performed in synchronization with music, with cyclists requiring approximately 7% less oxygen when their ride was accompanied by music (Bacon et al., 2012).
This bolstering effect of music may also help explain why we often find ourselves moving in rhythm with certain beats, as we follow instinct to synchronize with tempo. Some research has even suggested that people have an innate preference for rhythms at a frequency of two hertz, or 120 beats per minute. When asked to fall into a gait or tap their fingers to a beat, most individuals automatically revert to this beat (MacDougall & Moore, 2005). It is also this frequency that, in a survey of over 74,000 popular songs produced between 1960 and 1990, was found to be most prevalent (Moelants, 2002).
This concept of innate pairing of music and movement within the brain is backed as well by observations of overlap between regions designated to movement and those involved with listening to music. This is clear in our startle responses to loud noises, as auditory stimuli evoke muscular movements, but this “crosstalk” has also been observed in imaging studies. When listening to enjoyable music, electrical activity is seen in brain regions responsible for coordinating movement, including the supplementary motor area, cerebellum, basal ganglia, and ventral premotor cortex (Kornysheva et al., 2010).
Given that many of these motor-coordination regions of the brain are associated with dopaminergic transmission, it seems feasible to consider that the integration of music and athletic performance may be tied to dopamine, as well. Heavily associated with the reward system of the brain, dopamine is involved in feelings of pleasure and motivation – two aspects also vital to athletic performance.
In a study exploring the effect of music on the dopaminergic pathway, Sutoo and Akiyama (2004) determined that exposure to music for a period of 120 minutes produced an 18% increase in dopamine within the lateral area of the neostriatum in rats. In addition, systolic blood pressure measurements suggested a depression of blood pressure during exposure to music and persisting at least 30 minutes afterward. The effects were suggested to result from an acceleration of calcium-dependent dopamine synthesis within the brain in response to music (Sutoo & Akiyama, 2004).
Because dopamine plays such an influential role in our perception of pleasure, perhaps one way in which music enhances athletic performance is through the mitigation of pain. When elevated by exposure to music, dopaminergic activity could allow us the distraction from the physiological fatigue and pain that may otherwise compel us to stop. Similarly, this activity could contribute to enhanced motivation to perform. Influencing the ways we perceive the experience of working out, music might just be the competitive advantage we need, so don’t forget your headphones next time you head to the gym.
Bacon C, Myers T, Karageorghis C (2012) Effect of music-movement synchrony on exercise oxygen consumption. The Journal of sports medicine and physical fitness 52:359–365
Dirk Moelants (2002) Proceedings of the 7th International Conference on Music Perception and Cognition / C. Stevens, D. Burnham, G. McPherson, E. Schubert, J. Renwick (eds.). Sydney, Adelaide, Causal Productions, 580-583
Jabr, Ferris (2013) Let’s Get Physical: The Psychology of Effective Workout Music. Scientific American, online, accessed April 14, 2016.
Kornysheva, K., Cramon DY., Jacobsen, T., & Shcubotz, RI. (2010) Tuning-in to the beat: Aesthetic appreciation of musical rhythms correlates with a premotor activity boost. Human Brain Mapping 31(3): 48-64.
MacDougall H, Moore S (2005) Marching to the beat of the same drummer: the spontaneous tempo of human locomotion. Journal of applied physiology, 99: 1164–73