Does Music Enhance Athletic Performance?

Even in ancient times, music was used to spur physical labor. The ancient Greek trireme—a warship named for its three banks of rowers—typically included a musician among its crew of 200. The music clearly coordinated labor with its rhythm, but it was also implicit that the sound of the instrument intensified the energy of the rowers.

For this reason the Greeks preferred the music of the aulos—a double-reeded wind instrument often described inexactly in English as a flute—instead of a drum. If rhythmic organization were all that were needed, a loud percussion instrument would have been superior, but the Greeks viewed the aulos with something approaching awe. Its sound inspired ecstatic and otherworldly states, and was thus employed in the orgiastic rites of Dionysus. Many even feared its influence, so much so that Plato and other authorities would have banned its use. Yet the aulos was considered invaluable on board ship for this very reason. It not only provided a rhythmic guide, but transformed body and soul.

Other instruments might be used in such settings, but here again, their capacities were often considered as quasi-magical. In the myth of Jason and the Argonauts, these sailors enlisted the service of Orpheus to accompany their rowing—the same musician whose enchanting lyre could bring a soul back from the dead.

I wish we knew more about the use of music in achieving the great construction and engineering achievements of antiquity. Did music help build the Egyptian pyramids? I can’t prove it, but I don’t believe it’s coincidence that many of the most innovative songs of ancient Egypt were discovered by archeologists in the village Deir el-Medina, home for  administrators and artisans involved in constructing tombs and temples in the Valley of the Kings more than three thousand years ago. These individuals would have known how powerful music could be—a mindset that always tends to propagate innovations in song.

Until quite recently, research into the role of music in achieving challenging physical tasks was more speculative than scientific. Even so, I don’t want to dismiss the importance of works such as Karl Bucher’s Arbeit und Rhythmus (1896), Thaddeus Bolton’s “Rhythm” (1894), The Influence of Music on Behavior by Charles Diserens (1926), Effort by Rudolf Laban and F.C. Lawrence (1947), and others—all the way up to Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi’s pathbreaking Flow (1975). There’s a tremendous amount of wisdom to be gleaned from these books. Even so, few in the sports world were interested in researching the power of music during those years.

I suspect that many sports teams are now investing time and money in developing their own musical tools—and the only reason we don’t hear more about this is because they view it is proprietary information too valuable to share.

This same period saw the rise of the fitness industry, and from the start it drew on music, although in ways that were more silly than systematic. Go to YouTube and watch the old episodes of the Jack LaLanne Show—the pioneering TV exercise series that started in San Francisco in 1951 and got national distribution in 1959—and wonder at the corny electric organ music in the background.

At first glance, the idea of organ music for a workout makes no sense. But recall that major league sports teams in those days hired organists to accompany baseball or basketball or hockey games. (For some reason, football was on a higher rung, getting an entire marching band for each team.) Then you realize that for our grandparents, the organ was somehow considered the quintessential sound of high-performance activity.

Did it have something to do with its role in church and seeking divine intervention? That question, alas, is well above my pay grade. In any event, the organ was the music of superior athletic achievement at the mid-point of the 20th century.

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The introduction of the home video player created a boom in fitness videos, and once again music was at the forefront of the movement. But the organ now disappeared, replaced by more contemporary sounds. I’m told that the biggest selling video of the early 1980s was Jane Fonda’s Workout, and music played a very prominent role in the program. In fact, the songs were now so loud that Fonda often had to shout to get heard over the music. But her home workout warriors didn’t seem to mind. When she released a workout recording, featuring tracks by Quincy Jones, Boz Scaggs, the Jackson and others, it sold in huge quantities at the premium price of $12.98, and eventually went double platinum (2 million plus sales).

Despite widespread belief in the power of music in athletics, very little scientific research was available to back this up until the 20th century—and even then progress was slow. In 1911, researcher Leonard Ayres noticed that cyclists moved faster when a band was playing, and slowed their pace during periods of silence—a simple observation, in retrospect, but signalling the arrival of more data-driven approaches to the subject. This was the age of efficiency experts and workplace engineering, and most of the relevant research was designed to increase worker output rather than win sports competitions. But the new prominence of measurement and comparison in real-life situations had a spillover effect on athletic training.

Since that time, more than one hundred studies have been conducted on the relationship between music and sports. This is an impressive body of research, rich in implication and worthy of attention from anyone involved in high-level athletics. Today we can turn to a wealth of empirical data, measuring and quantifying almost every conceivable performance parameter. We now know how music impacts blood pressure, body chemistry, brain rhythms, heart rate, body temperature, psychological attitude and a host of other factors. In many instances, very specific aspects of athletic performance have been analyzed—determining, for example, how songs influence grip strength or sprint speed or relaxation during breaks in workouts. We have even progressed to the point where we can construct playlists drawing on the varying capacities of different types of song.

USA Track & Field, the governing body regulating the sport, imposed a ban in 2006 on headsets and portable audio players at races “to prevent runners from having a competitive edge.”

How is this research being used? I can only speculate, but I suspect that many sports teams are now investing time and money in developing their own musical tools—and the only reason we don’t hear more about this is because they view this as proprietary information too valuable to share. But we can tell from the published studies of independent scientists and academics how rapidly our knowledge base is expanding.

Consider the research of Professor Costas I. Karageorghis, which indicates that the a tempo matching the heart rate of a skilled athlete is especially effective. Resting heart rate in this group is 50 beats per minute, rising with low intensity to 100-120 bpm, and reaching a maximum at around 140 bpm. Karageorghis believes that a song with a tempo over 140 bpm will be less effective in achieving optimal results. His research has also shown the value of music in building team cohesion, creating dissociative mindsets that may reduce pain or fatigue, and almost any other sports parameter you can imagine.

For those who want to skip the research and go straight to the music, they can rely on songs identified by the UK company PureGym, drawn from an analysis of more than 140,000 tracks on workout playlists. Or if you really need just one song, consider this track—which Ethiopian long-distance runner Haile Gebrselassie heard in his head while winning races. "It's nice music,” he told a journalist. “It's fast written, that's why I could break a world record, by that music.” You might argue with the song, but not with Gebrselassie’s results, which include two Olympic gold medals and 27 world records.

Finally, if you’re still skeptical, consider the fact that USA Track & Field, the governing body regulating the sport, imposed a ban in 2006 on headsets and portable audio players at races “to prevent runners from having a competitive edge.” That’s right, runners—don’t take steroids or bring your hip-hop playlist to the meet.

The runners protested, and some leeway was later allowed in “non-championship races.” But I note the peculiarity of a rule that forbade athletes from adding the weight of an audio device to their bodies in intensely competitive races. You would think that runners would already have ditched the sound equipment—after all, it’s just excess baggage . . . unless its value in enhancing performance had been tested and proven worthy in their private workouts.

But that’s not the only way music can get an athlete in trouble. Sports teams are increasingly running into legal problems by using music during practices—which can lead to copyright violations if a video of the practice shows up online. As strange as it sounds, a team practice can constitute a public performance, with all the legal hassles that entails. Teams and leagues may soon need to negotiate detailed and flexible licensing agreements with industry power brokers. The other alternative is giving up music at practice, and no one wants to go down that path.

We take so much of this musical activity for granted. But how did national anthems become so central to the Olympics? Why do baseball players need  their own special walk-up music when their time comes to bat?—a phenomenon that didn’t exist until the 1990s. Who decided that each World Cup competition needs an official song? Everywhere we look in the sports world, we see this reliance on music. Maybe I will write about some of these topics in the future.

The key point here is that rational arguments were never made for any of these practices. We feel their significance deep in our hearts and souls, at a level more convincing than rational argument. Kierkegaard once said that we would laugh at someone who gave us logical reasons to fall in love—because falling in love is such a profound experience that it operates beyond syllogisms or deductive exposition. The same may be true of the music we rely on to enhance the most intense activities of our life.

We now know scientific reasons for using music in sports and many other daily pursuits, but we hardly need to read the studies to grasp the importance songs hold in these contexts. We feel this connection in our bodies, and see its benefits in the final results.