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Psycasm is the exploration of the world psychological. Every day phenomenon explained and manipulated to one's own advantage. Written by a slightly overambitious undergrad, Psycasm aims at exploring a whole range of social and cognitive processes in order to best understand how our minds, and those mechanisms that drive them, work.

My posts are presented as opinion and commentary and do not represent the views of LabSpaces Productions, LLC, my employer, or my educational institution.

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Sunday, September 26, 2010

Editor's Selection IconThis post was chosen as an Editor's Selection for

I'm a purist, and I don't know why. I see people jogging on the street with their Ipods and it feels like they're cheating. I honestly can't explain this irrationality. It might stem from the days when I used to go to the gym and I would be hill-climbing on an excercise bike while watching a room full of soft, barely sweating over-weight house-wives toddle on a treadmill while watching MTV.

My only response when trying to explain this view is 'own your pain, own your workout - don't remove yourself from the situation', in my mind, it's the present frame of reference that makes you mentally harder. Of course, not everyone wants to be 'harder' and not everyone has the same aims in working out.

And so I think it's time I confronted this bizarre, irrational little prejudice of mine. What benefits can listening to music bring when working out? Bishop, Karageorghis and Kinrade (2010) took a bunch of tennis players (who ranged in proficiency from local to international ranks) and gave them a virtual tennis task that was designed to measure Arousal and Reaction-Time. They varied the tempo and the intensity of the music across conditions. They found that faster tempo increased arousal (and was perceived as more pleasant), and higher intensity (i.e. volume) increased arousal and Reaction-Time. And Silence, my personal preference, was least beneficial of all - except for the slow-moderate music condition.

Ok, but so what? Fast music that's Loud makes us twitchy, it seems to me that this isn't going to help any particular athletes with the possible exception of China's National Ping-Pong team. Most of us Jog, or Skip, or Cycle. So Dyrlund and Wininger (2008) made people run on treadmills - not unlike lab rats - while listening to music rated by preference. Paying attention to the music increases your overall enjoyment of the excercise, and again, intensity rates correlates well with their performance (perceived exertion). Now given that participants could choose between most or least preferred music it's surprising that there's no given difference between levels of preference. Their measure of performance was weak (perceived exertion) but let's put that in context - we don't work out with our own heart-rate monitors - we just kind of infer how we feel. I guess this is why Gyms get away with pumping out the techno music - it makes us feel good about the level of our workout, and so long as it's loud enough, we actually do work harder.

Finally, Waterhouse, Hudson and Edwards (2009) took music and artificially sped it up and slowed it down (in 10% increments). They found that people's performance (measured in cycles/minute) increased as the tempo increased.

Note: Big error bars, but it's trending in the upward direction.

I wonder how big the difference would be if the music was

varied by more than 10%.

So, perhaps my predjudice is misplaced. Sure, sure, we all knew music makes workouts more enjoyable - but it appears it can actually deliver benefits. My only worry is how those overweight middle-age treadmill waddlers might perform without MTV... In the meantime I may have to reconsider my position on workouts and Ipods. I have spent many, many years with Taekwon-Do instructors pushing me without the benefit of the a pump-class setting. And perhaps my goal in workouts is not the same as everyone else and so that leaves me as a bit of a work-out snob. But it's not all my fault - a nice little maxim held by my whole Taekwon-Do school is:

"Every good instructor is a Sadist, and every good student is a masochist".


Bishop, D., Karageorghis, C., & Kinrade, N. (2009) TEffects of Musically-Induced Emotions on Choice Reaction Time Performance. The Sport Psychologist, 23, 1 - 19.

Drylund, A., & Wininger, S. (2008). The Effects of Music Preference and Excercise Intensity of Psychological Variables. Journal of Music Therapy, 2, 114 - 134.

Waterhouse J, Hudson P, & Edwards B (2010). Effects of music tempo upon submaximal cycling performance. Scandinavian journal of medicine & science in sports, 20 (4), 662-9 PMID: 19793214

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Jason Goldman
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Do they speculate at all as to the mechanism that underlies the performance increase?

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Well, they specify social explanations like increased motivations, arousal and affect. I guess that is a part-way explanation, but these papers were not addressing the validity of that model but were more interested in the outcomes (sports and music journals).
I'd love to see some neuroscience data, but that's going to be some tricky methodology...

Kelly Oakes
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That's pretty interesting.

I don't like listening to music when i'm running, it feels like cheating for me too - probably because i'm trying to mentally push myself as much as i'm trying to physically push myself though. (Also I like to be aware of my surroundings so I don't get run over - running in London when you don't live near a park can be a bit of a nightmare sometimes).

Brian Krueger, PhD
Columbia University Medical Center
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I used to listen to music at the gym, but now I started working out with my Fiancee and I can't really "check out" while I'm there anymore. I definitely think the death metal helped me focus on the lifts, but I like having a workout buddy more ;)

Dr. O
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I listen to pretty heavy stuff on when I go running - White Zombie heavy - which I rarely listen to for pure enjoyment. I kind of wonder if I tend to focus more on my running form with something that isn't necessarily my cup of tea. I also find it interesting that the pace of the music affects that I'm preggo and running a lot slower, I've started listening to more relaxing music, which definitely keeps me from pushing as hard.

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In real life it's a bit harder to disentangle effect from choice; I think the really interesting question is why you've choosen to move from White Zombie to something more relaxed? Is it because you feel you can't 'keep up' with the music and so you changed, or was a conscious decision made before you went jogging to downgrade your music? I guess

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I always have music on when I exercise. I find it is essential to keep my mind off the little things (pain, soreness, clothing not fitting comfortably, muscle spasms etc) and allows me to push myself far more than without.

It serves another purpose- when I am at the gym I don't want people talking to me. So even if I have it off, I have it on my head.
I don't want to be rude to other people so I can ignore everyone if it looks like I can't hear them.

I have had problems running on the roads with music and not hearing cars behind me, however.

When I compete in road races I don't use music because I prefer to be fully present. Also, many races do not allow music simply because the other runners can hear it.

White Zombie is one of my favorites (along with Metallica and Kid Rock).
I'll be seeing Rob Zombie perform live in a few days in fact. Am so looking forward to it!!!!


Guest Comment
This is really fascinating stuff! I work out with music about 50% of the time, especially during cardio and running. It doesn't surprise me AT ALL that this extra stimuli (superstimuli even?) pumps us up to perform better.

Sometimes it gives me the sensation that I am the star of my own movie, and the music serves as my soundtrack. I also agree with Jade Ed that it can help you ignore the minor pains and aches we feel, so we can persist past those obstacles.

I am definitely interested in hearing about any further research. Btw, I am also posting this article at

Thanks again,

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For all the SEED Folk -

My bad for not being more clear - the tests for cycling did reach significance (from memory) between a number of levels, including the highest and the lowest. The graph itself just appears a little misleading.


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