Music has the power to make exercise less boring. But why do some songs positively influence a person’s sports experience and lead to peak performance more than others?
Anecdotally, I know from decades of visiting fitness facilities several times a week that being able to control the music I listen to during my workout increases motivation, increases satisfaction, and creates a more positive emotional state whether I’m doing cardio or lifting weights.
Look around any gym with music playing in the background, and you’ll see that most people prefer to use earbuds, which block out the facility’s selected music and let gymnasts control what they hear during their workout.
However, to date, there hasn’t been much evidence-based research into why gymnasts tend to block facility-selected music by wearing earbuds and seem to prefer having the ability to choose what they listen to during their workout.
Self-Chosen Music vs. Music Selection Facilities
New research from Indiana University on the effect of music on gym users’ exercise experiences compares the effect of a handpicked song—which each listener can control and adjust independently to “hit the mark” during a workout—versus a facility-chosen playlist that gym users can’t change during a workout. practice session. These findings (Williams et al., 2023) were recently published in International Journal of Sports Management and Marketing.
The purpose of this study was to examine how the motivational quality of self-selected music (SSM) compared to facility-selected music (FSM) affected gym users’ emotional states during exercise sessions and how each person rated their overall satisfaction with the exercise experience after completing exercise.
For this real-world study, first author Antonio Williams and colleagues recruited 183 study participants and had them exercise at their own pace in an actual fitness facility (not an exercise lab) while listening to SSM or FSM.
3 Ways Handpicked Music Enhances Your Workout Experience
- Motivation: Hearing self-selected music during exercise increases motivation more than facility-selected music.
- Emotion: Handpicked songs with strong motivational qualities positively influence the emotional state of gym goers.
- Satisfaction: The level of music enjoyment that gym users experience during self-training is directly correlated with the overall satisfaction rating for that training session.
Main takeaways from this study: Handpicked music increases motivation more than facility selected music. Williams et al. found that when gym users have autonomy and can control the music they listen to during a workout, it enhances their overall workout experience in at least the three significant ways listed above.
In particular, listening to music with stronger motivational qualities significantly increased gym users’ positive emotional states during exercise. On a continuum, the more pleasure and arousal a gymgoer experiences while listening to their handpicked music, the greater their overall satisfaction with the given workout experience.
How Do Beats Per Minute (BPM) Affect Self-Practice?
The recent study by Williams et al. (2023) determined that when gymnasts can choose what songs they hear during practice, it increases motivation, improves mood, and makes them feel more satisfied with the practice session. But what kind of handpicked music enhances performance? Is the tempo of the song important when choosing motivational songs for the gym yourself?
Researchers in Norway recently conducted a study on the impact of listening to faster or slower music before undertaking a particularly vigorous 30-second rowing challenge. For these brief, all-out anaerobic workouts, the researchers found that listening to fast-tempo electronic dance music (EDM) improved performance better than listening to slower-tempo music. These findings (Pusey et al., 2023) were published in a peer-reviewed journal Music & Science.
Interestingly, compared to not listening to any music prior to a rowing challenge, fast and slow tempo music has an ergogenic effect that makes rowers less tired and triggers a positive stress response in their nervous system. However, music with a faster BPM creates a state of higher arousal and reduces the exertion felt during the challenge of an anaerobic exercise.
“Regardless of whether the music is fast or slow, it has a positive preparatory effect on the performer than when they are not listening to music,” said senior writer Aron Laxdal in a news release. Added, “Those who have listened to fast music before [anaerobic] sport is also the people who try their hardest during the rowing.”
My life experience corroborates these findings. Anecdotally, I’ve learned through trial and error that when my training session for the day includes high-intensity interval training (HIIT), a self-picked song with a fast tempo works best.
However, during moderate to vigorous physical activity (MVPA) in the aerobic zone below my anaerobic threshold, the rhythm and beats per minute of the self-selected music were less important than the emotional valence of a particular song. For example, I’ve found that slower-paced songs that resonate on a deep emotional level, such as Duran Duran’s “Ordinary World,” can elicit sensory-motor synchronization and feel like rocket fuel during a moderate-intensity cardio session.
For more evidence-based tips on creating playlists that optimize your affective state while exercising, see, “8 Ways to Maximize the Motivating Power of Music” and “How Your Favorite Songs Can Trigger Chill-Producing Moments.”
Antonio S. Williams, Byungik Park, and Zack P. Pedersen. “The Influence of Music on Consumers’ Perceived Motivational Quality and Optimal Levels of Emotional State and Satisfaction with Exercise Experiences.” International Journal of Sports Management and Marketing (First published online: 03 May 2023) DOI: 10.1504/IJSMM.2023.131950
Christopher Garry Pusey, Tommy Haugen, Rune Høigaard, Andreas Ivarsson, Andreas Waaler Røshol, and Aron Laxdal “Turn On Some Music: Effects of Pre-Task Music Tempo on Arousal, Affective State, Perceived Exertion, and Anaerobic Performance.” Music & Science (First published online: May 21, 2023) DOI: 10.1177/20592043231174388
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