Music and Exercise Inspirational or Soothing

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This article was edited and updated on December 19, 2021.

Music in our Society

How many little girls and boys take tap dancing as a child? I did — that's me at the far left in front.

You will find evidence of music in every human society — it has been a constant throughout mankind's history. Whether it be a small drum that beats out a repetitive but consistent rhythm; a 150-piece orchestra with the multiple and varied sounds of percussion, brass, strings, and woodwinds; a single individual singing a folk song; or the Morman Tabernacle Choir humming a hymn, we humans find comfort and inspiration from the sounds of music.

Most of us have some appreciation of music and, as we grow up, we are exposed to many varieties and styles. We may eventually choose a favourite type — from classical to jazz to pop — but almost everyone can say what their favourite song is. They can probably also remember at least one incident in their life where music inspired or moved them — whether it be in a church choir or listening to your country's national anthem or running a marathon.

Music is used to inspire, soothe, or motivate, including military marches and relaxation melodies. It has become an integral part of the Olympic Games as well as sports events and exercise classes. Unfortunately, sometimes it seems ubiquitous, especially when we're shopping in a store and the music is so loud we can't concentrate on shopping or hear the store clerk speak.

"Music produces a kind of pleasure which human nature cannot do without."
— Confucius

Main Effects of Music

Researchers have identified three human responses to music:

"The Seven Ladies of Avonlea," from Anne of Green Gables, an amateur production in Prince George, BC, in 1986. I'm one of the "ladies" — on the far left.

"I think I should have no other mortal wants, if I could always have plenty of music. It seems to infuse strength into my limbs, and ideas into my brain. Life seems to go on without effort, when I am filled with music."
— George Eliot (1819-1880) from The Mill on the Floss.

The Science Behind Music and Performance

In Costa I. Karageorghis's text, Applying Music in Exercise and Sport, he summarizes the science behind music and performance by listing the following research findings:

Ballet Class when I was a child. I'm in front on the right.

For most of us, we don't need the research to prove to us what music does to us — especially when we are dancing, singing, playing an instrument, or just moving to the rhythm. There is an indefinable power to music that allows us to relax and enjoy the moment.

Other studies, though small, have examined music and its relationship to long-duration exercise, energy efficiency, in enabling more complex tasks, and benefits of music during the post-exercise phase. These studies help coaches and fitness instructors to use music in the best way possible for their athletes or participants, respectively.

"Music expresses feeling and thought, without language;
it was below and before speech, and it is above and beyond all words."
— Robert G. Ingersoll (1833-1899), politician and orator

Components of Music

For many years, I worked with students in extracurricular choirs — both at the elementary and secondary levels. This group raised money to buy robes and lace collars. (Photo by Bob Ingraham)

There are many components of music — any one of them will affect the listener (either negatively or positively). Choosing the right music for fitness class or for athletic training requires considerable thought and consideration.

The following components of music have to be considered when choosing music for training purposes:

I sang barbershop quartet style for two years in Sweet Adeline's Women's Chorus — and here I am in my barbershop outfit. (Photo by Bob Ingraham)

"Music gives a soul to the universe, wings to the mind, flight to the imagination and life to everything."
— Plato

Music and Exercise Class

Music used in an exercise class can be synchronous — rhythmic aspects of music that act as a metronome to regulate movement patterns — or asynchronous. You can probably guess which one is most often used in cardiovascular exercise.

Group exercise instructors use both, one for building up and energizing, and the other for calming down and relaxing. Some forms of group exercise — such as yoga, pilates, and tai chi — will not use synchronous music as much as a fitness class. Instructors will also choose music which hopefully inspires or motivates and will keep partipants moving.

While generally music is effective and helpful in fitness class, one harmful result can be if the music is played too loudly. For more information about how music can be used in an exercise class, and how it can have a negative impact, see Music and Fitness Class: The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly.

Music in My Fitness Classes

In the 1990's, I was a member of a women's choir known as Spectrum. (Photo by Bob Ingraham)

Music has always been a part of my life. My parents were both singers — my father won "best tenor voice" in 1934 for the state of Nebraska, while my mother trained to be an operatic soprano (though she never became a professional). My three older siblings all sang, played musical instruments, and excelled at musical performance. I learned tap and ballet, and played the piano, the clarinet, and the flute. Later in life I took vocal lessons, sang with two different women's choirs, and performed as an "extra" in an Anne of Green Gables production.

Everyone in my family bought records and played them — my parents enjoyed classical music, opera, and male vocalists such as Mario Lanza and Harry Belafonte. My siblings and I chose more popular music — and my sisters and I played much popular music on the piano and sang entire songs together. I frequently played popular music on the piano by myself as well.

When I became a fitness instructor, it seemed a natural "fit" to incorporate music into my classes, even though at least one instructor with whom I trained thought I used it "too much". It just felt right to use the music for inspiration as well as a distraction from the sometimes repetitive nature of the activities — from cardiovascular exercises to strength training.

Here's how I use music during each section of the class:

I play a huge variety of music: from popular and jazz to classical and opera. Not just because I appreciate a large variety of music, but hopefully because with such a mix, everyone will enjoy at least some of it.

Group exercise using music is not new; it began in the late 1970's and continued from there. Some fitness instructors still stick to the concepts of fitness music from the 1970's; others have taken on newer ideas like LBT (legs, bums, tums), Zumba, BodyPump, Body-Combat, Aqua and Step Aerobics; but I have been more interested in creating a fitness/dance class that combines fitness and dance while also having music during other stages of the class which help to keep participants interested and engaged.

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I am a BCRPA-certified fitness instructor in Vancouver, BC. I teach four classes at the West End Community Centre in Vancouver, BC, mostly designed for the older adult. The Inevitable Disclaimer: Everything published here expresses only my opinion, based on my training and research. What you do with the information is entirely your own responsibility. I am not liable for any injury you suffer that seems to be related to anything you read here. Always consult your doctor before beginning an exercise program. For other articles, return to the table of contents.

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  1. These three dots behave exactly like a footnote. Click on them and you will get more information about the topic. ↩︎

  2. Ekkekakis, 2003; Rejeski, 1985; Tenenbaum, 2001 ↩︎

  3. Hutchinson et al, 2015; Karageorghis et al, 2009 ↩︎

  4. Elliott et al, 2004; Lin et al, 2009; Nakamura et al, 2010 ↩︎

  5. Karageorghis & Terry, 2009 ↩︎