Music-Based Interventions

The effects of music in sport and exercise contexts have  been  of  interest  to  researchers  for  over  100 years.  Recent  advances  in  digital  music  technology  and  the  facility  for  users  to  formulate  their own  playlists  have  dramatically  increased  the prevalence of music in both the sports training and health  club  environments.  Even  at  the  high  altar of international competition, the use of music has become  commonplace  as  athletes  seek  ever-more effective  means  of  optimizing  their  mental  and physical states. Interventions assume one of three types depending on when the music is delivered in relation to the task: pre-task, in-task, or post-task. Very little research attention has been given to the post-task  application  of  music  as  a  recuperative tool;  therefore,  this  entry  will  focus  on  pre-task and in-task music, which represent the mainstay of its use in the sport and exercise domain. The personal and situational factors that influence music selection will also be introduced.

Pre-Task Music

Research findings indicate that music used before a  physical  task  can  serve  as  a  potent  stimulant. This is especially so when the task itself requires a high degree of psychological and physical arousal; activities  such  as  weight  lifting  or  sprinting  that depend  on  the  use  of  every  major  muscle  group and  a  short,  intense  effort  are  particularly  good examples.  In  concert  with  the  available  research evidence, many athletes have used music as a pretask  intervention  prior  to  winning  Olympic  medals, an example being the swimmer Michael Phelps. Pre-task music may also serve to relax a performer prior  to  competition  as  was  demonstrated  by Olympic gold medalist runner Kelly Holmes at the 2004  Summer  Olympics  in  Athens.  Further  functions include the use of music as a trigger to invoke mental  images  that  are  relevant  to  the  task  or  to emphasize  a  particular  aspect  of  technique.  The  suggestions  borne  by  the  lyrical  content  of  music can be especially potent in this regard.

In-Task Music

There  is  now  a  wealth  of  research  evidence  documenting  the  effects  of  music  used  in  accompaniment  of  various  physical  tasks.  Its  principal psychological effects are the enhancement of positive feeling states and arousal and distraction from the unpleasant sensations associated with physical effort  and  fatigue.  It  is  thought  that  this  distraction effect takes place at a neural level: the nerve signals  bearing  auditory  information  (music)  taking  precedence  over  those  relating  to  exertion. However,  as  the  lactate  threshold  is  approached, which is, broadly speaking, the intensity at which one  can  no  longer  continue  to  exercise  and  keep one’s breath, the signals relating to effort become stronger  than  those  pertaining  to  the  music  and the distraction effect is reduced.

While  music  may  not  divert  attention  at  high exercise  intensities,  it  retains  the  capacity  to  elevate  feeling  states,  which  may  in  turn  alter  our interpretation  of  effort  and  fatigue.  Music  also exerts  behavioral  consequences  on  exercisers— namely,   an   increase   in   self-selected   exercise intensity or an extension of voluntary endurance. Research  has  shown  that  music  is  particularly effective  as  a  work  enhancer  when  movement  is synchronized  to  its  rhythmic  qualities.  This  may enhance  movement  efficiency  by  establishing  a more regular or metronomic work rate. This synchronous  use  of  music  is  especially  applicable  to repetitive endurance activities such as running or swimming.

Music Selection

The  benefits  of  music  depend  on  its  appropriateness for both the task at hand and the listener in question. In both sport and exercise, the goal generally is to enhance feelings of pleasure and arousal. However, in target sports such as shooting, golf, or archery the aim is typically to sedate rather than to stimulate; therefore, soft or slow music (less than 80  beats  per  minute  [bpm])  is  recommended.  In terms of heightening arousal, studies have shown that loud music with a fast tempo (over 120 bpm) and pronounced rhythmical features is particularly effective. Indeed, music is most preferred when its tempo  is  selected  with  the  intensity  of  the  exercise  in  mind.  A  range  of  125  to  140  bpm  would appear to describe the preference for music tempi across the entire range of exercise intensities (e.g., from walking to fast running). In simple terms, as one  works  harder,  one  prefers  faster  music  until the preference ceiling of ~140 bpm is reached. The relationship  between  preferred  tempo  and  heart rate (HR) as plotted on a graph is not linear but curvilinear in nature (see Figure 1).

Music   qualities   thought   to   promote   pleasure  include  the  melody  (tune)  and  the  series  of harmonies  used.  Harmony  refers  to  the  simultaneous  sounding  of  notes,  which  lends  music  its emotional “color.” Music may prove particularly effective  if  it  bears  associations  that  the  listener finds  personally  motivating.  Such  associations may  be  transferred  through  popular  culture, examples  being  found  in  the  theme  music  linked with  sporting  films  or  events.  To  be  maximally effective,  music  should  be  selected  with  the  age, gender, personality (e.g., introversion vs. extraversion), and sociocultural background of the listener in mind.

music-based-interventions-sports-psychologyFigure 1  Observed Relationship Between Exercise Heart Rate and Music-Tempo Preference

There  are  now  in  advance  of  100  published studies   demonstrating   the   psychological   and work-enhancing  effects  of  music  in  various  sport and  exercise  contexts.  It  is  entirely  possible  that carefully  selected  music  may  exert  longer-term effects  such  as  increased  adherence  to  exercise. Music  may  exert  a  compound  effect  when  used in  a  social  environment  because  it  can  influence esprit  de  corps  in  addition  to  altering  the  behavior of supporting crowds or group leaders. In the sporting  sphere,  music  has  become  part  and  parcel  of  many  athletes’  pre-event  routines  and  is  a potentially powerful tool for the forward-thinking sport psychologist.


  1. Karageorghis, C. I., Jones, L., Priest, D. L., Akers, R. I., Clarke, A., Perry, J. M., et al. (2011). Revisiting the exercise heart rate-music tempo preference relationship. Research Quarterly for Exercise and Sport, 82, 274–284.
  2. Karageorghis, C. I., Mouzourides, D. A., Priest, D. L., Sasso, T., Morrish, D., & Whalley, C. (2009). Psychophysical and ergogenic effects of synchronous music during treadmill walking. Journal of Sport & Exercise Psychology, 31, 18–36.
  3. Karageorghis, C. I., Priest, D. L., Terry, P. C., Chatzisarantis, N. L. D., & Lane, A. M. (2006). Development and validation of an instrument to assess the motivational qualities of music in exercise: The Brunel Music Rating Inventory-2. Journal of Sports Sciences, 24, 899–909.
  4. Karageorghis, C. I., & Terry, P. C. (2011). Inside sport psychology. Champaign, IL: Human Kinetics.


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