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  • Jack Wilson

Why Does Music Motivate? The Science Behind Music and Exercise

Respiration and Heart Rate

Researchers who are interested in the physiological effects of music on the body have paid particular attention to how music affects respiration and heart rate. The health implications of such a correlation could change how cardiac physicians approach the prevention and treatment of different types of heart disease. Unfortunately, different research studies show conflicting results. However, most of the studies agree that heart rate and respiration increase when an individual listens to music that has a faster beat per minute tempo than the individual’s normal heart rate, and heart rate and respiration decrease when an individual listens to music with a beat per minute tempo that is slower than the individual’s average heart rate. A few studies have found that music, no matter the tempo, will slightly increase the listener’s heart rate and respiration. One explanation that researchers give for this finding is that it is the emotional arousal caused by the music that is affecting physiological symptoms, rather than the beat of the music.

Physical Strength

The level at which an individual can complete tasks of physical strength can be influenced by whether they are listening to upbeat music, somber music, or are listening to music at all. In one research study conducted with 49 undergraduate college students, researchers measured grip strength within these three music conditions. The students who listened to the sedated music displayed statistically significant weaker grip strength than did the students who listened to upbeat music or no music at all. The researchers did not find a significant difference between upbeat music and silence. Sedative music decreases muscle tension. This makes it a poor listening choice while weightlifting, but may be beneficial during yoga or stretching. Mind and body are inexorably connected; so as peaceful music evokes peaceful emotions in the mind, the body can’t help but lose some of its tension.

Performance Endurance

When it comes to endurance in different physical activities, music does not appear to improve actual performance as much as it improves an individual’s perception of how well he or she completed a physical task. Also, participants who listened to music reported lower levels of exertion and task difficulty than individuals who did not listen to music. The music helped people to feel more successful. This emotion of positive self-perception of athletic efficacy may affect an individual’s willingness to consistently engage in physical activity, and therefore over time could affect one’s performance endurance. More research is needed to determine whether or not individuals who think they did well are more likely to engage in that activity again.

Aerobic Fitness

Combining music and aerobic fitness has become a standard. Research studies conducted on college students have shown that approximately 97% of students surveyed believe that music affects their ability to participate in aerobic activity. There was no statistically significant difference in surveys filled out by male participants versus those completed by female participants. More than 90% of the students identified music style, rhythm, and tempo as important factors, and more than 50% of students identified the lyrics and volume as being important. Therefore, finding the “right” music for a particular class may not just to be about finding an upbeat song, but may also depend on the characteristics of the individuals in the class. For example, the lyrics enjoyed by a group of second graders are unlikely to be equally enjoyed by a group of older adults. The emotion and meaning behind the music is important.


Music can influence exercise by causing slight variations in physiological characteristics like respiration, heart rate, and muscle tension. Overall, however, scientific research would suggest that the real benefit of music, when it comes to exercise, is the change in psychological characteristics. Music motivates individuals by making them feel more successful and by evoking positive emotions that help to buffer some of the negative symptoms associated with exercise.

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