It is the best musical genre to add to your exercise playlist

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For many people, an essential part of any exercise program is the music that goes with it. Whether you are a runner, rower, or bodybuilder, chances are you have a selection of favorite songs and headphones to help you out.

The right choice of music can inspire, energize, and provide much needed distraction. Elite athletes of all disciplines are often seen deep in thought, their ears covered by stylish headphones, in the moments leading up to a big match or a big race. So what, in music, helps us push our bodies towards or through physical discomfort?

We have explored this question using a variety of scientific methods. So far we have mainly focused on various forms of popular music including rock, dance, hip-hop, and R&B, but recently we took a look at the benefits of classical music as a hearing aid to the exercise.

As a genre, it’s easy to see why classical music seems to be overlooked in terms of choice of workout soundtrack. It often lacks rhythmic “groove” and when there are lyrics they are not easy to sing along with.

Yet there is an inherent, timeless beauty attached to many pieces in the classical repertoire, which might justify their use. Think of the shimmering majesty of Beethoven’s Eroic Symphony or the poignant Madam Butterfly by Puccini.

So how can we harness the beauty of such music and use the sonic peaks and valleys to our advantage during a workout? First of all, we need to understand what can be the benefits of any music in the context of physical exercise.

The role of any workout music is to ease pain, lift your spirits, and possibly make the time go by a little faster. Scientists refer to the “dissociative effects” of music, which means that it helps distract the mind from internal symptoms of fatigue. Our group’s recent neuroimaging work has shown the propensity of music to reduce exercise awareness – essentially, the parts of the brain that communicate fatigue – communicate less when music is played.

And although music cannot reduce users’ perception of exertion at very high work intensity, it can influence mood-related areas of the brain to the point of self-exhaustion. Thus, an aesthetically pleasing piece, like the finale of William Tell’s Overture, will not affect What you feel that your lungs are burning on the treadmill, but this may influence How? ‘Or’ What you feel it. Essentially, pleasant music can color the interpretation of fatigue and enhance the exercise experience.

It doesn’t stop with feelings and perceptions. Music can also have an “ergogenic” or work-enhancing effect. Psychologist Mária Rendi used slow, fast movements from Beethoven’s Symphony No. 7 in A major (Op. 92) to examine how the tempo of the music influenced performance of 500-meter speed rowing. Its results indicated that both types of music resulted in faster sprint times compared to a control without music, with the faster tempo (144 beats per minute) resulting in a 2.0% performance improvement and the slower ( 76bpm), a 0.6% improvement.

Classic training

Some of our team often listen to classical music during a daily run. We find that classical music stimulates the imagination and generally increases the running experience, especially when enjoyed in tandem with an inspiring scenery.

But perhaps classical music has the most powerful effect when used before or immediately after exercise. Before exercise, its central function is to generate energy, evoke positive images and inspire movement. Songs like Vangelis’ Chariots of Fire, the title track from the eponymous film, with its thrilling underlying beat and familiar cinematic connection to fame, can work particularly well.

For a post-workout application, the music should be soothing and revitalizing in order to speed up the body’s return to a state of rest. The archetype of this piece is Erik Satie’s Gymnopedia No. 1, a timeless piano solo that envelops the listener and offers a sound massage to tired muscles.

To optimize your choice of classical music for exercise, it is important to think about the energy that will be expended during the different segments of a workout. The warm-up and stretching will be at a relatively low intensity and the session will then build gradually towards its thrilling zenith, with a period of warm-up and revitalization to end.

Music selection – of any genre – should ideally follow the path of energy expenditure during a workout (see list below for some suggestions). Likewise, a particular room might be reserved for segments that the user finds most difficult, such as high-intensity cardio.

Overall, each of us has to decide if classical music and exercise are a good match – musical tastes are very personal. But why not mix it up a bit? The variety of exercises keeps us fresh and invigorated, so consider a change in musical accompaniment to keep you moving. Swap rave music for Ravel and replace the breakbeat with a glorious explosion from Beethoven.

And if you want a little inspiration, here’s a reading list compiled by Brunel University research assistant in London, Luke Howard:

  1. Boléro, by Maurice Ravel, with an average tempo of 70bpm, is excellent for mental preparation before moving. The soft start, with a tempo close to resting heart rate, belies the transcendent power of this classic.
  2. Juba Dance, from Florence Price’s Symphony No. 1 in E minor, is an engaging symphonic piece that will gently raise the heart rate during a warm-up phase. It ends with an exhilarating crescendo, leaving you perfectly ready for what lies ahead.
  3. Part IV. Finale, Allegro Assai, Symphony No. 40 in G minor, by Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, is a lively musical work for the low to moderate intensity segments of your workout. It presents what is called a “Mannheim rocket”, a roller coaster melody, which will pump the heart and lungs.
  4. Prelude to Act 1 of Carmen by Georges Bizet, has a roaring tempo (128 bpm) that pulls you through all the demanding high intensity segments of your workout. The exquisite melodic and harmonic characteristics of this piece allow you to dissociate yourself from the pain.
  5. Concerto No.1 in E major, Op. 8, ‘La Primavera’ by
    Antonio Vivaldi, is ideal for warming up and keeping a spring in your stride as you gradually return to a state of rest. The beautifully orchestrated strings give this opus a pronounced recovering character.

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license.


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