Music in Sport and Exercise: Theory and Practice

This article has been inspired
by six years of doctoral research in which I found that the “right”
music can have a very positive impact on sport and exercise performance.
I am grateful to the Academy for cultivating my interest in the
area of psychophysical responses to music during my master’s
programme in 1991/92. I am also pleased to be invited to share
my findings with you, the coaches and fitness professionals.

How Does Music Aid Athletic

A review of this area (Karageorghis & Terry, 1997) based
on a meta-analytic study I conducted at the Academy, revealed
four main ways which music may aid performance in sport and exercise.
First, during submaximal repetitive exercise such as running,
music can narrow a performer’s attention and as a consequence,
divert attention away from sensations of fatigue. This is a technique
which many marathon runners and triathletes refer to as dissociation,
i.e., focusing on stimuli unrelated to the task such as the surroundings
or conducting mental arithmetic. Effective dissociation tends
to promote a positive mood state through the avoidance of thoughts
that relate to the fatigue component of mood.

Second, music alters arousal levels and can therefore be used as a form of stimulant prior
to competition or as a sedative to calm over-anxious athletes
(see Karageorghis, Drew, & Terry, 1996). One of the interventions
I often use involves the production of audio cassettes containing
stimulative music combined with verbal suggestions as a psych-up
strategy. Similarly, I use sedative music as a backdrop for relaxation
techniques that are administered via verbal instruction.

Third, music is beneficial
as a result of the similarities between rhythm and human movement;
hence, the synchronization of music with exercise consistently
demonstrates increased levels of work output among exercise participants
(see Karageorghis & Terry, 1997, for review). Fourth, in
relation to the previous point, the rhythmical qualities of music
also emulate patterns of physical skills; therefore, music can
enhance the acquisition of motor skills and create a better learning
environment. There is evidence from both gymnastics and swimming
in support of this (Chen, 1985; Jernberg, 1981).

Selecting the “Right”

Our recent work (Karageorghis, Terry, & Lane, 1997) indicates
that there are four key factors that influence the motivational
qualities of music. First, owing to the fact that people have
an underlying predisposition to react to rhythmical stimuli,
the Rhythmic Response to the music is the most salient factor.
Second, the melodic and harmonic aspects of music shape the listener’s
interpretation and influence mood state. I refer to this factor
as Musicality. Third, the Cultural Impact of music will influence
the listener’s response through socio-cultural upbringing and
previous exposure to music. Fourth, the Association factor which
relates to the extra-musical associations evoked by music, i.e.,
sound can promote sounds that inspire physical activity. The
Rhythmic Response and Musicality factors are internal to the
composition of music, whereas the Cultural Impact and Association
factors are external to the music relating to personal interpretation
of music (see Figure 1). Our research shows that the internal
factors are more important in predicting how a person will respond
to a piece of music than the external factors.

We have developed and validated a questionnaire to rate the motivational qualities of music which
is called the Brunel Music Rating Inventory (BMRI: Karageorghis
et al., 1997). For a piece of music to truly inspire the listener,
it must have strong rhythmic qualities that match the activity
at hand and also a tempo which matches the predicted heart rate.
The melody and harmony of the music should promote a positive
mood state; that is, they should energize the listener and increase
vigor. The music should also stem from the listener’s socio-cultural
background and comply with their preferences. Finally, it is
ideal that for the music to be associated with physical activity
either through the lyrics, e.g., Work Your Body!, or its association
with other media such as film or TV. A classic example of such
a track would be Survivor’s “Eye of the Tiger”, which
was a theme from the Rocky series.

There are three additional
considerations when selecting music: a) Variety in the music
tends to maintain athletes’ interest in the activity; b) the
volume of the music should not be obscured by the noise of the
exercise environment; and c) if synchronizing music with exercise,
the tempo must concur with the preferred work rate. For example,
if you are swimming using the breast stroke at a rate of 100
strokes per minute, it would be sensible to use music playing
at 100 beats per minute (bpm). Alternatively, breast stroking
at a rate of 60 strokes per minute a tempo of 120 bpm can be
used as the swimmer can take one stroke every two beats.

Music and Flow State
Our most recent research (Karageorghis & Terry, 1998) has
revealed an interesting link between music and the attainment
of flow state during aerobic dance exercise. Flow involves an
altered state of awareness during physical activity in which
the mind and body function on “auto-pilot” with minimal
conscious effort. Some coaches refer to this as being “in
the zone”; it is an almost trance-like or hypnotic state.
Flow has been associated with optimal psychological state and
represents complete enjoyment of and immersion in physical activity.
Our study involved 1,231 aerobic dance participants who were
asked to rate the motivational qualities of the music used during
a class on completion of their workout using the BMRI. They also
rated flow using the Flow State Scale, a 36 item questionnaire
developed by Jackson and Marsh (1996). The results revealed a
very significant association between ratings of music and ratings
of flow. We concluded that music may have a considerable effect
on enjoyment levels during exercise an selecting the “right”
music may be a key factor in maintaining adherence to exercise.

Music is an often untapped source of both motivation and inspiration
for sport and exercise participants. One important point to remember
is that musical preference is very personal indeed; that is the
reason for which I have avoided suggesting which music you should
prescribe for your athletes and exercise participants. That is
entirely your decision. However, you should now be aware of some
factors that make listening to music more rewarding in sport
and exercise settings. Happy listening!

Dr. Costas Karageorghis is
a BASES accredited scientific support and research sport and
exercise psychologist. He is a member of the British Olympic
Association Psychology Advisory Group and lectures in sport psychology
at Brunel University’s Department of Sport Sciences. Further,
Dr. Karageorghis is an alumnus of the USSA MSS program and acts
as the United Kingdom academic representative. E-mail:

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