Music has the power to make exercise feel less drudgerous. But why do some songs positively affect an individual’s exercise experience and lead to peak performance more than others?
Anecdotally, I know from decades of visiting fitness facilities a few times a week that being able to control the music I’m listening to during a workout boosts motivation, increases satisfaction, and creates a more positive emotional state whether I’m doing cardio or lifting weights.
Look around any fitness facility with music playing in the background, and you’ll notice that most people prefer to use earbuds, which block out facility-selected music and let gymgoers control what they hear during a workout.
However, until now, there hasn’t been much evidence-based research on why gymgoers tend to block out facility-selected music by wearing earbuds and seem to prefer having the ability to choose what they’re listening to during a workout.
Self-Selected Music vs. Facility-Selected Music
New research from Indiana University on the influence of music on gym users’ workout experiences compared the effect of self-selected songs—that each listener could independently control and tailor to “hit the spot” during a workout—versus facility-selected playlists that the gym user couldn’t change during an exercise session. These findings (Williams et al., 2023) were recently published in the International Journal of Sport Management and Marketing.
This study’s goal was to examine how the motivational qualities of self-selected music (SSM) compared to facility-selected music (FSM) affected gym users’ emotional state during an exercise session and how each person rated their overall satisfaction with the exercise experience after finishing a workout.
For this real-world study, first author Antonio Williams and colleagues recruited 183 study participants and had them work out at their own pace in an actual fitness facility (not an exercise laboratory) while listening to either SSM or FSM.
3 Ways Self-Selected Music Enhances Exercise Experiences
- Motivation: Hearing self-selected music during a workout increases motivation more than facility-selected music.
- Emotion: Self-chosen songs with robust motivational qualities positively affect gymgoers’ emotional state.
- Satisfaction: The degree of musical enjoyment a gym user experiences during self-paced exercise directly correlates with overall satisfaction ratings for that workout session.
The main takeaway from this study: Self-selected music boosts motivation more than facility-selected music. Williams et al. found that when gym users had autonomy and could control the music they were listening to during a workout, it enhanced their overall exercise experience in at least three significant ways listed above.
Notably, listening to music with stronger motivational qualities significantly increased gym users’ positive emotional state during a workout. On a continuum, the more pleasure and arousal a gymgoer experienced while listening to self-selected music, the greater their overall satisfaction with any given exercise experience.
How Do Beats Per Minute (BPM) Affect Self-Paced Workouts?
Williams et al.’s latest study (2023) establishes that when gymgoers can self-select what songs they hear during a workout, it boosts motivation, improves mood, and leads to feeling more satisfied with an exercise session. But what types of self-selected music enhance performance? Does the tempo of a song matter when self-selecting motivational songs for the gym?
Researchers in Norway recently conducted a study on the impact of hearing faster or slower music just before doing an extremely vigorous 30-second rowing challenge. For these short, all-out bursts of anaerobic exercise, the researchers found that listening to electronic dance music (EDM) with a fast tempo increased performance better than hearing slower-tempo music. These findings (Pusey et al., 2023) were published in the peer-reviewed journal Music & Science.
Interestingly, compared to not hearing any music before the rowing challenge, both fast- and slow-tempo music had ergogenic effects that made rowers feel less tired and triggered a positive stress response in their nervous system. However, music with faster BPM created higher states of arousal and reduced perceived exertion during an anaerobic exercise challenge.
“Regardless of whether the music was fast or slow, it had a positive preparatory effect on the performer compared to when they were not listening to music,” senior author Aron Laxdal said in a news release. Adding, “Those who had listened to fast music before [anaerobic] exercise were also the ones who put in the most effort during rowing.”
My lived experience corroborates these findings. Anecdotally, I’ve learned through trial and error that when my exercise session for the day includes high-intensity interval training (HIIT), self-selecting songs with a fast tempo works best.
However, during moderate-to-vigorous physical activity (MVPA) in an aerobic zone below my anaerobic threshold, the rhythm and beats per minute of self-selected music matter less than the emotional valence of a particular song. For example, I’ve found that songs with a slower tempo that resonate on a deep emotional level, such as Duran Duran’s “Ordinary World,” can give rise to sensory-motor synchronization and feel like rocket fuel during moderate-intensity cardio sessions.
For more evidence-based tips on making playlists that optimize your affective state while exercising check out, “8 Ways to Maximize Music’s Motivational Power” and “How Your Favorite Songs Can Trigger Chill-Producing Moments.”
Antonio S. Williams, Byungik Park, and Zack P. Pedersen. “The Influence of Music on Self-Paced Fitness Consumers’ Perceived Motivational Qualities and Optimal Level of Emotional State and Satisfaction With Exercise Experience.” International Journal of Sport Management and Marketing (First published online: May 03, 2023) DOI: 10.1504/IJSMM.2023.131950
Christopher Garry Pusey, Tommy Haugen, Rune Høigaard, Andreas Ivarsson, Andreas Waaler Røshol, and Aron Laxdal “Put Some Music on: The Effects of pre-Task Music Tempo on Arousal, Affective State, Perceived Exertion, and Anaerobic Performance.” Music & Science (First published online: May 21, 2023) DOI: 10.1177/20592043231174388