Can music aid exercise performance?

The topic of music and running has raised much debate on our forum here at Running 4 Women. There's little doubt that certain types of music are more suitable than others, but why is this? In this article Dr Karageorghis, a respected Sports and Exercise Psychologist discusses the issues

Dr. C. I. Karageorghis, Ph.D.
Accredited Sport and Exercise Psychologist
Brunel University, UK

This article has been inspired by six years of doctoral research in which I found that the "right" music can have a very positive impact on sport and exercise performance. I am grateful to the Academy for cultivating my interest in the area of psychophysical responses to music during my master's programme in 1991/92. I am also pleased to be invited to share my findings with you, the coaches and fitness professionals.

How Does Music Aid Athletic Performance?

A review of this area (Karageorghis & Terry, 1997) based on ameta-analytic study I conducted at the Academy, revealed four main ways which music may aid performance in sport and exercise. First, during submaximal repetitive exercise such as running, music can narrow a performer's attention and as a consequence, divert attention away from sensations of fatigue. This is a technique which many marathon runners and triathletes refer to as dissociation, i.e., focusing on stimuli unrelated to the task such as the surroundings or conducting mental arithmetic. Effective dissociation tends to promote a positive mood state through the avoidance of thoughts that relate to the fatigue component of mood.

Second, music alters arousal levels and can therefore be used as a form of stimulant prior to competition or as a sedative to calm over-anxious athletes (see Karageorghis, Drew, & Terry, 1996). One of the interventions I often use involves the production of audio cassettes containing stimulative music combined with verbal suggestions as a psych-up strategy. Similarly, I use sedative music as a backdrop for relaxation techniques that are administered via verbal instruction.

Third, music is beneficial as a result of the similarities between rhythm and human movement; hence, the synchronization of music with exercise consistently demonstrates increased levels of work output among exercise participants (see Karageorghis & Terry, 1997, for review). Fourth, inrelation to the previous point, the rhythmical qualities of music also emulate patterns of physical skills; therefore, music can enhance the acquisition of motor skills and create a better learning environment. There is evidence from both gymnastics and swimming in support of this (Chen, 1985; Jernberg, 1981).

Selecting the "Right" Music

Our recent work (Karageorghis, Terry, & Lane, 1997) indicates that there are four key factors that influence the motivational qualities of music. First, owing to the fact that people have an underlying predisposition to react to rhythmical stimuli, the Rhythmic Response to the music is the most salient factor. Second, the melodic and harmonic aspects of music shape the listener's interpretation and influence mood state. I refer to this factor as Musicality. Third, the Cultural Impact of music will influence the listener's response through socio-cultural upbringing and previous exposure to music. Fourth, the Association factor which relates to the extra-musical associations evoked by music, i.e., sound can promote sounds that inspire physical activity. The Rhythmic Response and Musicality factors are internal to the composition of music, whereas the Cultural Impact and Association factors are external to the music relating to personal interpretation of music (see Figure 1). Our research shows that the internal factors are more important in predicting how a person will respond to a piece of music than the external factors.

We have developed and validated a questionnaire to rate the motivational qualities of music which is called the Brunel Music Rating Inventory (BMRI: Karageorghis et al., 1997). For a piece of music to truly inspire the listener, it must have strong rhythmic qualities that match the activity at hand and also a tempo which matches the predicted heart rate. The melody and harmony of the music should promote a positive mood state; that is, they should energize the listener and increase vigor. The music should also stem from the listener's socio-cultural background and comply with their preferences. Finally, it is ideal that for the music to be associated with physical activity either through the lyrics, e.g., Work Your Body!, or its association with other media such as film or TV. A classic example of such a track would be Survivor's "Eye of the Tiger", which was a theme from the Rocky series.

There are three additional considerations when selecting music:

a) Variety in the music tends to maintain athletes' interest in the activity;

b) the volume of the music should not be obscured by the noise of the exercise environment.

c) if synchronizing music with exercise, the tempo must concur with the preferred work rate. For example, if you are swimming using the breaststroke at a rate of 100 strokes per minute, it would be sensible to use music playing at 100 beats per minute (bpm). Alternatively, breast stroking at a rateof 60 strokes per minute a tempo of 120 bpm can be used as the swimmer can take one stroke every two beats.

Music and Flow State

Our most recent research (Karageorghis & Terry, 1998) has revealed an interesting link between music and the attainment of flow state during aerobic dance exercise. Flow involves an altered state of awareness during physical activity in which the mind and body function on "auto-pilot" with minimal conscious effort. Some coaches refer to this as being "in the zone"; it is an almost trance-like or hypnotic state. Flow has been associated with optimal psychological state and represents complete enjoyment of and immersion in physical activity. Our study involved 1,231 aerobic dance participants who were asked to rate the motivational qualities of the music used during a class on completion of their workout using the BMRI. They also rated flow using the Flow State Scale, a 36 item questionnaire developed by Jackson and Marsh (1996). The results revealed avery significant association between ratings of music and ratings of flow. We concluded that music may have a considerable effect on enjoyment levels during exercise an selecting the "right" music may be a key factor in maintaining adherence to exercise.


Music is an often untapped source of both motivation and inspiration for sport and exercise participants. One important point to remember is that musical preference is very personal indeed; that is the reason for which I have avoided suggesting which music you should prescribe for your athletes and exercise participants. That is entirely your decision. However, you should now be aware of some factors that make listening to music more rewarding in sport and exercise settings. Happy listening!

Dr. Costas Karageorghis is a BASES accredited scientificsupport and research sport and exercise psychologist. He is a member of theBritish Olympic Association Psychology Advisory Group and lectures in sportpsychology at Brunel University's Department of Sport Sciences.

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