Can music make you a better athlete?

Can music improve athletic performance?  Can running faster or working out harder be as simple as boosting the volume on your favorite songs?

Costas Karageorghis, author of the book, “Applying Music in Exercise and Sport” has spent 25 years studying music and its effect on the brain. Music can be a stimulant or a sedative, he said.  It can enhance mood, improve muscle control and help the brain build key muscle memories. Here’s how:

It uses the whole brain

“When the brain is listening to music, it lights up like a Christmas tree,” Karageorghis said. “It’s an ideal stimuli because it reaches [parts of the brain] that can’t easily be reached.”

Listening to music activates several major brain areas at once, his research shows: the parietal lobe, which contains the motor cortex;  the occipital, or visual processing lobe, the brain’s center for  rhythm and coordination; the temporal lobe, which regulates pitch, tone and structure; and the frontal lobe and cerebellum, which regulate emotion.


These brain areas are critical to athletic performance. It is in the temporal lobe that cortisol — a stress hormone — is released. Music helps regulate stress by reducing cortisol levels, Karageorghis said. The motor cortex, which is located in the parietal lobe, regulates our body’s motor function, which helps determine how straight we throw a football or how well we coordinate our limbs when running, and allows us to fall into our own “rhythm” as we work.

Reyna Gordon, a neuroscientist with the Vanderbilt University Medical Center, says it’s unusual for so many parts of the brain to act in concert.

It helps regulate your emotions

Karageorghis’ research has focused on how music regulates mood and helps us filter out distractions. The key, he found, is to use music to tap into the brain’s secretion of dopamine and natural opioids — two naturally occurring chemicals that help block our perception of fatigue and pain.

Music can also enhance mood and increase confidence, he said.

For example, listening to Beyonce’s “Run the World” might send a positive message to the brain about performance, which might in turn boosts confidence. Conversely, the sad message in Pink’s “Sober” can help curb excess adrenaline and bring our anxiety levels back to neutral, post-workout or competition.

Nathan Keith Schrimsher, a 2016 Olympian competing for team USA in the modern pentathlon competition, listened to “One Day Too Late” during his last competition.

“It just put me into an attitude to not quit and to give everything I have to make my life matter,” he said.

Gordon’s research shows that music can also have a lasting effect on our emotions. When she exposed test subjects to sad music and then showed them a face expressing a certain emotion, the subjects were more likely to assume the face was frowning.

“Our brains want to make sense of the info coming in,” Gordon said. “People are able to recognize emotion in music from very short excerpts.”

It Makes You Want to Move

Karageorghis’ findings show that syncing the tempo of the music to an athlete’s heart rate can have powerful outcomes, such as improved stamina, speed and athletic performance .

“You want to try to match your music tempo to your desire to work,” Karageorghis said. “That doesn’t mean just increasing the tempo, however, because there is a ceiling effect. Anything over 140 beats per minute won’t make you go any faster.”

The sweet spot, he said, is around 120 bpm, which is the average heart rate during a light jog.  

Using this information, Karageorghis has crafted playlists that match heart rates from resting (around 50 bpm) through a warm-up (80 bpm) to low intensity (100-120 bpm) to mid-intensity (120-130 bpm) and finally to maximum (140 bpm) before reversing the process.


Jessica Grahn, a cognitive neuroscientist at Western University in London, Ontario, said the body responds best to steady rhythms. She found that among patients with Parkinson’s Disease, for example, having a steady beat that matches their movements seemed to improve muscle control.

It Helps with Muscle Memory

Finally, listening to songs with lyrics that mimic physical movement, Karageorghis said, can help an athlete’s brain form muscle memories. The Salt n’ Pepper song “Push it”, she said, is the perfect song for those practicing shot put, or any exercise that requires the athlete to physically push something. The brain forms pathways more effectively when it has a song to back up the physical goal.

“Based on my research, music can be like a performance-enhancing drug,” Karageorghis said. “It’s just that intoxicating.”  

What are your Olympians Listening To?

–Carli Lloyd, indoor volleyball, setter

“Music can help get me out of my own head and in my zone. It can make me relax, or pump me up. Music plays a huge role in my competition routine.”


Not Afraid–Eminem —

There Will Be Time–Mumford and Sons–

Broken Arrows–Avicii–

–Margaux Isaksen, modern pentathlon

“I’ll occasionally listen to music during fencing in competition but I’m past the point where music or anything will change my performance to help me. I just go out there and do the best I can, that’s all I can ask for.”


Pill in Ibiza–Mike Posner–

Operate–Illenium remix–

I Want You to Know–Zedd–

–Katie Zaferes, Triathlon

“Music is there to calm me down or pump me up. It fills my brain and blocks any unnecessary thoughts.”


Straight Out The Gate– Tech N9ne–

Let’s Go–Trick Daddy–

My House–Flo Rida–