If you want to know how music can affect your workout performance, what kinds of music work best, and how to optimize your playlist to get the most out of your workouts, then you want to read this article.
- Music is a proven performance enhancer when compared to not using music.
- While all music helps, it seems that motivational music is the best genre. Tempo matters less than you would think, but high tempo music tends to be a little better.
- The “best” music to listen to would be the one that promotes the biggest emotional response in your body, and the one that has a cadence that matches your own body.
Forget your post-workout shake? Eh, no big deal.
Forget your pre-workout supplement? That kinda sucks but we’re already heading to the gym so let’s just suck it up.
Wait… where’s my iPod?
*PANIC SETS IN*
Shit, turn back, I ain’t working out without my music.
Music is pretty wonderful. It spans so many genres, so many different tunes, and so many emotions. Hell, you can hear a maelstrom of trash cans getting attacked arhythmically and still shed a tear due to it’s pure beauty.
So it’s not a surprise that it’s a proven ergogenic (performance enhancing) aid, and I would find it hard to believe if it wasn’t even more common than supplements themselves.
But which one works best? Is there a best? And is simply choosing your favorite songs the way to go?
You’ll learn all of that and more in this article.
What Is Music? (Seriously)
We all “know” what music is, it sort of goes without saying, but let’s start with a definition anyways. According to Merriam-Webster music is defined as:
> The science or art of ordering tones or sounds in succession, in combination, and in temporal relationships to produce a composition having unity and continuity.
Basically sounds in sequences, anything can qualify.
For the purpose of this article we’re going to look at the usage of music during, or around, a workout. Ambient music in the workout area, a personal playlist, and trying to answer the question as to whether or not there is a best type of music to listen to.
Before we can do that, however, we need to see how and why music influences the brain.
What Matters When It Comes To Music and Exercise?
When it comes to selecting music for your workout, what considerations should you take?
Music or No Music?
Even if it’s not the most interesting question, the first thing we need to ask is why even listen to music?
It’s because it seems to, undeniably, either enhance performance equally to or outperform “no music.” There doesn’t seem to be any evidence to suggest music is impairing compared to standard workouts.
Note, however, while calming music has been shown to improve more mental-based sports performance like dart throwing, it’s possible that a bad music selection could impair performance.
We won’t focus on this much in this article but, rather, focus on gym exercises (both lifting and cardio) which seem universally helped by music.
So what does the data show?
Music during exercise can increase cardiovascular exercise performance compared to not listening to music, and may even increase your rate of running or alter your running cadence without altering how tiring it feels.
Put simply, even listening to music before a workout can result in improvements in power compared to not listening to music as this study using high tempo music found. It could even help with recovery as high tempo music after a workout increased the feeling of recovery (might not apply to actual performance in repeated exercise but, hey, makes ya feel better).
Listening to music during exercise seems to either be similar to not listening to music or, more commonly, show benefits to performance. It seems undeniably that some form of music is better than not listening to music (regardless of music selection).
While it is theoretically possible bad music could impair cognitive based activities if you really hate the song, for the most part slow music seems to be neutral or beneficial.
Of course, there’s also the question of whether or not music playing in the background can influence performance.
There is limited data on this topic but, from what it looks like, high tempo music can improve the physical performance of subjects according to this lone study. Perhaps you should thank the annoying pop music played in your gym rather than curse it (although if you chose to continue hating on it, that is most understandable).
Even music playing in the background can provide an ergogenic benefit but this has only been seen, at the moment, with fast music.
Tempo and Beats Per Minute (BPM)
I put tempo and beats per minute (BPM), both ways to measure the “speed” of a song, together since they have been used at times interchangeably in research. The takeaway here is that slow jazz is, well, slow while heavy metal and punk rock are fast.
Surprisingly, the data is quite over the map on the most commonly researched “measure of success”; that of the rate of perceived exertion (RPE) or how difficult exercise feels.
Sometimes, however, tempo is irrelevant as while music is better than no music, high tempo works to a similar degree as low tempo.
It seems that tempo and BPM, by themselves, don’t really explain the benefits of exercise. Both fast and slow music show benefits at times greater than the other and, at times, equal to each other.
One really interesting topic is how “synchronizing” your music to your exercise may improve exercise efficiency. In this particular study three tempos were used and only one corresponded with the exercise tempo while the other two were either faster or slower than the exercise. High tempo and synchronous tempo did well but slow as a no go.
There’s reasonable evidence to suggest that selecting music with a tempo, or cadence, similar to the one you would normally use with your body during exercise can bring forth the best benefits. If the music must be different from your own cadence at least have it be faster than slower.
Beyond just the tempo and BPM, music also has various genres. Like it or hate it, do certain genres have benefits over others regardless of your preference of the genre?
Studies comparing motivational music against music deemed neither motivational nor demotivating (i.e. neutral) find that motivational music seems to perform better. This has been seen with sprints as well and, when trying to find an “optimal” music some studies will opt for motivational music.
Unfortunately, other studies that use different genres tend to compare different tempos rather than the genres themselves.
At this moment in time it seems that “motivational” music choices, at times self-selected, outperform other genres even if tempo and cadence are similar. This provides some scientific backing to listening to the Rocky theme song.
In other words, listen to what gets you pumped up, regardless of how fast-paced it is.
One of the most interesting ideas when it comes to music is that of musical feedback—your body having control over the music.
The best way to visualize this is with musicians themselves who are literally making the music but it’s not like we can extend those studies to exercise. The closest we have are a selection of studies on “musical agency” or “feedback” that use this monstrosity called Jymmin (Youtube link).
Unfortunately the research is not yet at the level where we can sufficiently answer why this is happening, and unless you want to use the sleazy nightclub machine of sensuality linked above it may be quite hard to put into practice but it’s intriguing.
Bridging the gap between body and music, and having some form of feedback in the music you use during a workout, may hold greater benefits than listening to music that is otherwise disconnected from the exercises you’re doing.
What Does This Mean For My Workouts?
So, what does this mean for optimizing our workouts?
First, listening to music seems to be the clear winner here. Music in the background can help a bit so you don’t need to rush out and buy an iPod if you exercise at a commercial gym but, to give yourself some more agency over your selection it might be nice.
Beyond that, the optimal music seems to be:
- Music that has a tempo, BPM, or cadence that most closely resembles the movements you do during exercise. If you cannot match it then aim for slightly faster music.
- Music that you consider to be “motivational,” which probably means music that evokes an emotional response to succeed upon hearing. Consider songs linked to movies, video games, or events that left a very positive impact on you.
- While it may be impractical, if there is a way for your music to respond to your body’s movements then it would be the “most ideal” of the options.
So the evidence literally ends up advising you to listen to the Rocky Theme song. I’ll still stick to my video game songs though, they leave the best emotional response in me (you’ll understand when you die a thousand times).
Oh, and if you’re looking for a motivational playlist, check out this article:
The Bottom Line on Workout Music
At the end of the day, listening to music is better than not listening to music.
Whether it’s merely a distraction or it reminds you of times of success and joy to help further your exercise, music can be seen as a veritable ergogenic aid.
All music helps, but motivational and high tempo music seems to edge out a win. Music that you feel a connection to, however, triumphs.