The impact of music on exercise performance: looking at the science

That feeling of frustration you get when you arrive at the gym, or set off on a run, and realise you’ve forgotten your headphones is something we can all relate to – but is there method behind the madness?

Many of us use music as a way to boost motivation and enhance stamina when exercising, but what does science say? Is there a proven correlation between music and performance, or is it all on our minds?

Here, we lift the lid on the impact music can have on performance, and how this differs when considering variables like genre, volume, and tempo.

The facts and figures:

Over the decades, studies have consistently shown that heart rate does in fact respond to music tempo.

Research published in 1991 revealed a lower heart rate response for those on a treadmill listening to soft easy-listening music, compared to fast pop music. In 2006, a similar study found that a faster music beat resulted in faster running speeds.

In a specific study on tennis players, those listening to higher tempo (faster) music (>120 bpm) were found to have higher reaction speeds.

Another study revealed that those who had listened to the loudest music (80 dB) pre-activity experienced the most significant increase in strength performance.

All of these findings point to louder and higher-speed music having a positive impact on exercise performance, both before and during exercise.

But how does it all work?

Scientists have found that louder music is more easily identified by the inner ear, which means the music then has a better chance of triggering the pleasure centres in the brain.

Higher volume music helps the brain engage, meaning the body becomes more alert and emotions become more intensified. This then leads to improved focus during exercise and a surge in performance.

Cranking the volume up can also help us disengage from our surrounding environment more, helping push through feelings of fatigue and discomfort more effectively.

The scientific specifics around higher intensity music and better performance is a topic that remains less well researched at the moment. However, a potential theory is that higher intensity music can be more distracting and motivating, increasing heart rate and performance.

Try it out for yourself

If you haven’t done so already – or if you’re wanting to experiment with your musical choices – tune into a playlist during your next exercise session to evaluate the impact on how you feel and how you perform.

You never know, you might even hit a new PB! 

Some quick tips from us:

  • Put a tempo-matched playlist together to ensure you’re listening to higher intensity tunes when you require optimised performance. Put together some slower, calmer music for your warm-ups and cool downs to help moderate heart rate. 
  • Make sure the volume is up high enough to motivate you – but not so loud you can’t hear your Cardiac Coach!
  • Choose the artists and genres you like, it’s the best way to get pumped and improve your performance. It makes sense that the music you like listening to most will be what boosts your mood and motivation.

Words of wisdom:

“Music has healing power. It has the ability to take people out of themselves for a few hours.” – Elton John