Want to work out smarter? Trick your brain with music

What songs get you moving? For cognitive scientists, researchers and now music streaming apps, the answer is in your brain.

Spotify announced last week that it would offer workout playlists comprised of songs that automatically match a runner’s tempo, marking the latest step forward in our understanding of the relationship between music and physical activity. Cognitive scientists have studied the issue since the 1910s, but with the advent of Spotify and other steaming services, there is more data than ever before on what music people turn to for their daily activities.

A person’s reaction to music begins in the auditory cortex, which sends electrical signals to parts of the brain that control movement, including the supplementary motor area, cerebellum, basal ganglia and ventral premotor cortex, said neuroscientist Jessica Grahn. The songs that produce the most success for workouts are those that have a regular rhythm and tempo, particularly at 120 to 140 beats per minute (bpm), she said. Those songs also tend to have a beat in a low register. Songs that people like help them work out for longer, as do songs that are associated with particular memories.

“The quality of music that makes it distracting is whether it has an emotional engagement for the listener,” Grahn said. “If you’re thinking about the memories that are associated with this music, that also distracts you from these signals of pain that the exercise is inflicting on you.”

Computer scientist Shahriar Nirjon, working with a team at the University of Virginia, found that the tempo of songs played a role in producing a certain heart rate in study participants. They found that people who listened to calming music reported lower anxiety and heart rate; similarly, they could increase a person’s heart rate by playing songs at a faster tempo, he said.

These reactions and the ability to recognize the rhythm and beat of a song is something almost all people share, regardless of musical training, Grahn said. But the evolutionary reasons for those reactions are less well-understood. Some theorize that it arose from the way that hunter-gatherer cultures created music — by clapping, singing and drumming, all physical activities. And as humans evolved, their brains may have continued to link movement and rhythm.

“If we think about the circumstances that must have been present when people evolved music, there was no recorded music, no record players, no Walkmen, no iPods, and if you wanted to have music, you had to make it yourself,” Grahn said.

Today’s music culture in the U.S. largely separates performers and consumers, but it hasn’t always been that way — in early participatory social systems, everyone created music, Grahn said.

For some, that has never changed; some hunter-gatherer cultures that exist today still do not have separate words to distinguish movement from sound. Members of the Suyá hunter-gatherer tribe in the Amazon forest do not refer to dancing and singing separately, instead using the single word “ngere” to refer to both.

Music and memory are also strongly linked, researchers say. And, as Grahn said, recalling those memories can help people work out more effectively by distracting the listener from the pain of the activity.

Elias Roman, co-founder of the music curation app Songza, said he puts this theory into practice. “Nostalgia helps me not know I’m at the gym quite as painfully,” he said.

Context is key at Songza, where hundreds of hours of research, millions of dollars in funding and the work of several dozen staff curators have yielded thousands of activity-based playlists. Songza, which was founded in 2008, uses a combination of algorithm and human curation to play music that will best serve a listener’s day. The results are playlists with titles as specialized as “The Indie Crush Mixtape” and “Canada Rocks in French.”

As Jessica Suarez, an editor at Songza, began curating workout playlists, she read research on which songs help people exercise. She took note of one study by Costas Karageorghis, a sport psychologist at Brunel University in London, which showed people’s oxygen consumption decreased as they listened to music with a bpm that matched their workout pace. From audience research, Suarez also noticed several different types of listeners — “associators,” who relied on music to enhance their performance, and “dissociators,” who listened to music primarily as a form of distraction.

“That’s when I started thinking memory was probably a bigger part of working out music than people usually thought,” she said.

Suarez and other curators at Songza created hyper-specific workout playlists, most of which play songs with beats anywhere from 120 to 190 bpm. Many of those are also focused on evoking nostalgia, which is key for many listeners, including Roman, who works out to the “90s Aggro Anthems” playlist.

A combination of scientific research and user data could have important implications for further research. Music curators can help field-test people’s responses to music in certain contexts, Roman said. “I think you close the loop with evaluating that research by more signals, from more people, in more real time, than pure research would ever be able to get its hands on,” he said.

Now that you know how to curate your playlist, ready to hit the gym? To get you started, check out some of the songs that get the NewsHour staff up and running: