Music and sport

Music hath charms to soothe the savage workout – or perhaps it doesn’t

Athletes seem to enjoy listening to music while they are training, whether it’s hot jazz or hard rock broadcast over a loudspeaker system in the gym or cooler tones brought direct to the ears by the earphones of a carry-along Walkman. Many of these athletes believe that the music aids in relaxation or helps them get into a rhythm necessary for a smooth workout. There’s also the belief that fast music can actually help individuals move faster during a training session, leading to a higher-quality workout.

 But is music really that beneficial? To determine the actual effects of up-beat music on performance, scientists at Southern Connecticut State University recently recruited 12 collegiate female basketball players to run on a treadmill to exhaustion at a heart rate of about 85-90 per cent of maximum on three different occasions. In one instance, the athletes listened to popular, up- beat rock music while running, in a second case they listened to ambient sounds from a nearby basketball game, and on a third occasion they listened to nothing at all. The up-beat music was expected to ‘pep up’ the athletes and make it easier for them to handle the rugged running.

However, perceived exertion and heart rate were the same in all three cases, indicating that the music didn’t make the exertions feel easier or lead to lower cardiovascular stress. However, the athletes WERE able to stay on the treadmills about four minutes longer while listening to up- beat music, compared to listening to a game or to nothing at all. This effect wasn’t quite statistically significant, although it probably would have been if a larger sample of athletes had been used.

Although up-beat music had no apparent physiological effect on the athletes, it did seem to promote longer exercise times, perhaps by making the athletes feel more energised or by diverting their attention from feelings of exhaustion. However, the Connecticut research contradicts work carried out a few years ago at the University of Newcastle in Australia, which indicated that music could ‘tune up’ the cardiovascular system but wouldn’t necessarily lead to more harmonious performances.

 The Newcastle research was a continuation of a decade-long exploration of the effects of music on physical activity. During that decade, investigations had shown that fast-tempo music speeds up supermarket shopping, increases the chewing rates of cafeteria patrons, improves the physical performance of brain-injured children, and raises activity levels in architectural drafting rooms. Unfortunately, few studies actually addressed the question of whether music enhances athletic performance.

In the Newcastle research, 20 university students listened to fast-tempo rock music (‘Underneath the Radar,’ recorded by a group called Underworld). While lending an ear to the fast paced music, the students visualized themselves performing sit-ups in a powerful manner, and they then tried to do as many sit-ups as possible in a brief 30-second time span. A second group of 20 students used only mental imagery (no music) prior to their 30-second sit-up test.

Imagery by itself hiked heart rate by about five beats per minute during the pre-sit-up preparatory period, but imagery plus music increased pulse rates by 20 beats per minute! The extra heart acceleration induced by rock music didn’t increase the number of sit-ups which the students could actually perform, however. Each preparatory scheme (visualization alone or visualization plus music) boosted the total number of sit-ups by about 15 per cent, compared to when no pre-sit-up strategy was utilised. This suggested that music added little to the powerful effect of mental imagery.

In a second test, no imagery was used. Instead, 30 subjects threw darts at a target on three occasions – without music, after listening to slow classical music for 90 seconds, and after chilling out with 90 seconds of fast rock music. In this second test, music actually lowered heart rates but had no positive effect on dart-throwing accuracy.

The Newcastle research suggests that music can have either a calming effect prior to physical exertion or, when combined with appropriate imagery, an arousing effect on the cardiovascular system. However, there’s little solid evidence that either the tranquilising or animating effects of music can promote superior performances – when athletes listen to the music BEFORE performing. The new Connecticut research, however, suggests that listening to music during training sessions can indeed raise workout quality. Athletes who listen to music during training are probably on the right (tape) track after all. (‘Effect of Up-Beat Music on Endurance Performance, Medicine and Science in Sports and Exercise, vol. 27(5), Supplement, #853, p. S151, 1995 and ‘The Impact of Music and Imagery on Physical Performance and Arousal: Studies of Coordination and Endurance, ‘ Journal of Sport Behavior, vol. 15(1), pp. 21-33, 1992)

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