What effect does music have on exercise performance?

By Clem | In Personal Training | on May 13, 2015

Music makes the people come together. It also, apparently, mix the bourgeoisie and the rebel.

Unfortunately for some, this blog entry is not just going to regurgitate Madonna’s greatest hits. Today I’m looking at what research says about the effects of music on exercise and performance.

exercise to lift to

When I get in a gym for a my own workouts I tend to take on a very dark side. I don’t generally like talking to anyone, I just try and get after it (meathead speak for ‘get the work done’). My personality outside of that is very different when I believe I’m pretty approachable but for that hour and a bit that I’m working in the gym myself, I’m not about as responsive to conversation as a twenty year old German Shepard dog.

Part of my dark gym persona is fuelled by what I am listening to. Like many others, I like to workout with music and the music I choose to listen to in the gym could not be more different to the music I listen to outside of the gym. When I’m chillin like a villain, on my way home from work or sunning (extreme sarcasm) myself in Edinburgh I will listen to a lot of indie and maybe some soul from (dont judge) James Vincent McMorrow and James Blake to Ray Charles and Otis Redding. When in the gym however its usually Jay-Z, Kanye or the awesome Run the Jewels. Music I would very rarely listen to unless I had to pick something up and put it down.

Up until a few months ago, I was a regular spinning instructor. Taking on PT clients in a different location meant I could no longer do it but I do miss it sometimes. That class showed me the real effect that music can have on exercise. Once again, the music I listened to in this class bore no resemblance to music I would listen to outside of that studio. Katy Perry, Chris Brown and the likes have never lived on my chillin villain playlist but in a spin class they can have a huge effect.

Why does music have that effect on us when we exercise and how can we make best use out of it?

Research on the effects of music on exercise is quite extensive and developing year to year. This topic has been looked into as far back as 1911 when Leonard Ayres found that cyclists listening to a band pedalled faster than when cycling in silence. A systematic review from Karageorghis et al (2011) (part one & part two) provides some very interesting insights. Karageorghis claims that music to exercise can have an ergogenic (enhancing physical performance) effect in that one can achieve higher levels of endurance, power, speed and strength when compared to without music.

It can also have a psychological effect by influencing mood, emotion, cognition and behaviour. Karageorghis identifies a sub category of the psychological effects as psychophysical effects which reduce the perception of fatigue and physical effort. The authors of the study conclude that music reduces perceptions of effort at low to moderate intensities of exercise by approximately ten percent. This effect does not seem to be the case at higher intensities. This may be due to the fact that higher intensities demand more attention rendering the distracting effect of music useless. The authors also found that this reduction in perceived effort is not moderated by whether you choose the music or someone else does (good excuse to ignore requests when giving a spinning class).

Music has a number of qualities relating to exercise but one of the most important ones are whats called the Rhythm Response. This refers to the effect musical rhythmn like tempo has on your body. The tempo is quite important and pretty intuitive. Treadmill running usually requires a bpm of 160 or more and walking is usually 120 bpm give or take. Research has shown that synchronising your exercise to a beat may help improve oxygen efficiency by improving mean VO2.There a number of other factors involved like harmony (no Christina Aguilera then), how peers/society view the music (Daniel O’Donnell won’t do) and what associations the music has (aggressive, hard core hip hop seems to make me want to go through a brick wall but would make others ears bleed).

music and exercise

He’s obviously not listening to a word she is saying..

Most research has looked at three different situations when it comes to exercise and music.


This involves studies looking into the effect music has prior to performance and focuses on music acting as a stimulative or sedative agent. Anecdotally you will hear of quite a number of people who like listening to particular music prior to a big game to help them perform. The evidence however is quite poor to back it up. Yamamoto et al. (2003) had subjects listen to slow or fast music prior to a trial for 20 minutes and found no difference in power output between both condition. Eliakim et al. (2007) show a similar result with volleyball players with no mean affect on anaerobic output or fatigue. Both studies show increases in heart rate prior to performance but we cannot say for sure whether this is a good or bad thing. If pre task music works for you then go ahead, but research right now does not back it up.


The vast bulk of research on this topic focuses on in-task effects. As mentioned previously, the systematic review from Karageorghis et al. (2011) mentions a number of articles that show music having a positive effect on performance for low to moderate endurance tasks like reduction on perceived effort leading to greater performance outcome measures. This is not as clear cut in higher intensities however.


This area is pretty new in terms of research and the Physiotherapist inside me is more interested here. This focuses on how music might aid recovery from injury, competition or training. As you can imagine, there is very little research on this topic. Research has mainly focussed on health in general rather than directly after training. Research has shown however that there are positive effects from relaxing music limiting stress induced anxiety, systolic blood pressure and heart rate. More research found that listening to relaxing music after a stressful task led to improvements in immune function and emotional stress in college students.

Jing et al. (2008) have probably carried out the only research that I could find relating to music post task. They used relaxing music following 15 minutes of intense physical activity and found decreases in heart rate, RPE and interestingly urinary protein (indicative of post-exercise kidney function). It did not however show any difference in performance measures like jump height or measures like blood lactic acid. As with so many other areas, much more research is needed here.

Take Home Points 

  • Using music in activities that require a consistent pattern of movement (jogging or cycling) may help in improving performance and increase energy efficiency.
  • Music may have a distracting effect during exercise by changing your perception of fatigue.
  • Evidence is quite strongly in favour of improved performance for low to moderate exercise whilst listening to music but not for high intensity exercise.
  • Listening to high tempo music prior to performance does not seem to lead to improvement in performance but does increase heart rate and alertness. Whether that will help improve performance is debatable.
  • Research is emerging into the effects of music on recovery from competition and training but does show some promise.
  • Katy Perry, Chris Brown, et al. are only welcome in a spinning studio or gym. Not in public. In my humble opinion.



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