Does music improve athletic performance?

“Music can be like a performance-enhancing drug” – Dr. Costas Karageorghis

In 2007, hundreds of runners ignored the New York Marathon’s new regulation, which banned runners from running while listening to music. These runners risked disqualification to run with music playing in their ears, but why? Music can certainly be a source of entertainment and may help regulate anxious feelings before a big race, but are there other ways music can improve athletic performance? Dr. Costas Karageorghis and other scientists have found that instead of only relieving boredom, music improves workout quality by increasing endurance, power, productivity, and strength. 

Dr. Karageorghis is a sports psychologist who has spent over 25 years studying how music can improve athletic performance. He found that music can be an impressive stimulant, as it reaches parts of the brain that are usually difficult to stimulate. Music can activate seven major brain regions at once, many of which are critical for athletic performance. One region is the parietal lobe, which contains the motor cortex. The motor cortex is responsible for helping us coordinate our legs and arms while running or helping us throw a ball straight. The temporal lobe—which regulates pitch, tone, and structure— also activates when music is played. In this part of the brain, the stress hormone cortisol is released; since music can activate the temporal lobe, it helps regulate stress by reducing cortisol levels. The frontal lobe and cerebellum, which help regulate emotion, are also activated by music. In the frontal lobe, music taps into the brain’s secretion of natural chemicals, like dopamine and natural opioids, to help block our perception of pain and fatigue. Blocking pain perception can increase athletes’ work capacity, allowing them to perform longer or even faster. Thus, music can strongly influence our athletic performance by distracting us from pain, improving stress levels, and making us more motivated to exercise.

Image 1: Parts of the brain activated when music is played.

Dr. Jessica Grahn—a cognitive neuroscientist and researcher on music’s effects on the brain and behavior—conducted studies using brain scanners to understand how different motor areas in the brain are affected by music. Dr. Grahn found that listening to steady rhythms can improve muscle control in individuals with dysfunction in specific regions of the brain, such as those with Parkinson’s disease. On the other hand, when individuals without dysfunction listen to music with steady beats that match movement, they can develop improved muscle control and build stronger muscle memories. 

Although generic music may be beneficial to an athlete’s performance, Dr. Karageorhis and Dr. Grahn found that the body responds best to steady rhythms or tempos synchronized with the athlete’s heart rate. Each athlete may have his or her tempo because the type of exercise and pace differs from athlete to athlete. Some studies show that the best tempo for cycling is between 125 to 140 beats per minute (bpm) while for running, the ideal tempo is between 123 and 131 bpm. These tempos are calibrated to different running strides or pedaling on a bicycle. Simply increasing the tempo, however, will not guarantee improved performance. Dr. Karageorhis says the most effective tempo is often around 140 bpm. For runners, Dr. Karageorhis created a playlist of songs with tempos perfect for warm-up, moderate-intensity running, and maximum intensity running (Spotify playlist). During Dr. Karageorghis’ workouts, he likes to listen to “Wanna be Startin’ Somethin’” by Michael Jackson because it has a tempo of 122 bpm, a driving rhythm, and uplifting lyrics. Additionally, motivational music can have physical and psychological effects on the athlete because music can give feelings of both pleasure and displeasure, changing the athlete’s thought process and mood.  Under certain circumstances, Dr. Karageorghis and Dr. Grahn found that music can improve an athlete’s performance. Music can access many parts of the brain that are critical for an athlete’s performance, improving muscle control, mood, and even fatigue perception. Nevertheless, Dr. Karageorghis has found that exercising with music constantly can cause desensitization or fewer benefits over time. He suggests working out with music for two sessions and then taking a break for one session. Of course, you will want to mix up your playlist every few weeks. After Dr. Karageorghis and Dr. Grahn’s work, it is evident that music is much more than simple entertainment.

Image 2: Dr. Costas Karageorghis’ book cover, Applying Music in Exercise and Sport.

– Allison Wu

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