• Dr Lottie Miles

The Power of Music

Does music motivate you, distract you, or disrupt you?

Silence is deafening... or is it golden?

Do you always grab your headphones before a run, or are you that person who blasts heavy metal around the entire neighbourhood for an hour or two each day?

For some though, music is pretty inconsequential and even annoying when exercising. Have you thought much about why elite athletes don't run marathons with ear buds?

This post is going to look at:

  • What effect music has on you

  • How you can find your musical mojo

  • When music actually isn't helpful

The Effect of Music

1. Mood

One of music's greatest wonders is how it can instantly change our mood. Specific tracks, beats or lyrics can become associated with experiences, feelings, memories or even just a 'sense', such as the classic sounds of summer, or the bubbly beats of jazz. The right tune can put just about anyone in the mood to move.

2. Arousal

Music has a physical and psychological effect on you. It can be very relaxing, it can help with the rhythm of a movement, or it can have you singing into a hairbrush without a care in the world! A fast, bouncy track increases your heart rate, speeds up your breathing, your blood pressure increases, your reactions get quicker, and it even makes you move faster. All these effects boost your mental and physical arousal levels ('pump you up') which is often really important to motivate and prepare you for exercise.

3. Attention

Music can pull your thoughts away from the present. It blocks out the sounds and sensations such as your breathing, your heartbeat. It can help you forget the idea of being watched and even the pain or fatigue you feel in your muscles can dissipate with music.

Music has the power to change how you feel about exercise. So how can you maximise these effects of music to get the most out of your workouts?

Build a Musical Motivational Ritual

When you need a spark or a bit of extra motivation to do something less pleasurable like exercise, you can 'grease the wheels' by pairing an undesirable activity (exercise) with a desirable one (some cracking good music). Through repetition, one will become synonymous with the other. This is a Motivation Ritual.

Here's how you build a Motivation Ritual: Pick a few of tracks; no more than 10 songs that you just love listening to. Ideally these songs will be rousing and upbeat but the most important thing is that you really enjoy them, so 'easy listening' will work too.

Get this playlist prepared and ready to go now - it doesn't have to be long, even just a song or two will do. From now on, before you exercise or whilst you warm up, listen to this playlist. I usually put mine on in the car on the way to training, although more recently I play it whilst I have my pre-training coffee and banana in the kitchen!

I'll put my playlist at the bottom of this post to give you a bit of inspiration, but I'm sure you've already got a few songs in mind.

Motivation rituals are all about frequency and repetition - the more you do it, the more powerful the effect.

Soon, you'll find that listening to this playlist or even just a few of the songs will make you WANT to exercise - what power you now have over your motivation!

You can also train yourself to do other tasks with music; you can use a relaxing playlist to prepare you to sleep, or a fun playlist to help you get started with housework - it takes a bit of repetition, but you are essentially training your brain to do these things in the same way you train a dog to sit!

You might recognise motivational rituals in other activities too; like reading your kids a story before bed so they look forward to bedtime, or only allowing yourself a glass of wine when cooking supper - after a long day at work (or a dull one in furlough!) that glass of wine means you can't wait to get cooking!

Music: A distractive power or destructive force?

OK, so we've got you motivated, but what about whilst you're exercising?

There's little doubt that 'bopping' along to your favourite tracks is brilliant for your staying power. The psychologically arousing affect of music, combined with it's ability to increase your heart rate, blood pressure etc, is perfect for keeping you moving. A strong beat will also increase your cadence (speed) and help you keep a rhythm to movements, but the attentional side of music is also a very important factor.

Listening to music takes your attention 'outside of your body' - an external focus. Fortunately, you can only explicitly pay attention to one thing at a time (I'll come back to multi-tasking another day, for now you'll have to trust me!) This means music has the power to block out negative thoughts and take your mind off any feelings of pain and fatigue whilst you exercise.

If you notice you're feeling discomfort, fatigue etc, turn up the tunes and take a moment to sing, jig, sway or head bop... anything to get you back into the zone!

Research has shown that music actually lowers your perceptions of exertion during exercise whilst making the overall experience more enjoyable.

So, music really can help you stick to your exercise routines...


Music works because it takes your attention away from the task at hand. In other words, music is a distraction...

Irrelevant distractions are great if you are just focused on surviving the exercise bout, but distractions are very unhelpful if your goal is to perform as well as possible. This is why elite athletes almost never use music during races and matches. These performers need to pay attention to their levels of pain, exertion and fatigue so they can better strategise and adjust their pace. Furthermore, if a skill is tricky or complex, you certainly can't afford to waste any attentional resources on distractions like music - all your focus is required elsewhere.

Your Preferences Matter

Most research regarding music for exercise prescribes fast, bouncy tracks, but it's important for the music to have meaning for you (and the type of exercise you are doing). Meaningless or unknown tracks will do little for you, and if you prefer calmer music, that's what you should use, particularly for 'calmer' activities like yoga.

I also know exercisers who prefer a podcast or audiobook. Of course, these forms of audio might not create such an emotive or physically arousing effect beforehand, but a compelling story has very significant distractive power.

Finally, the environment can be important too - I know many people who would consider listening to music whilst out 'in nature' a sacrilege! For these people, the sights and sounds of their environment is more stimulating. Please also note that listening to music whilst using public roads and footpaths can also be very dangerous for you and others around you (because you're distracted!), so please be careful.


Music acts on three levels: it alters your mood, changes your arousal (up or down!) and redirects your attention.

Use music to get you pumped up and in the mood to move. Set up motivation rituals to make undesirable tasks something you look forward to - remember, frequency and repetition is important for the success of these rituals. You can also use music, podcasts or audiobooks as a distraction from the fatigue and exertion whilst you exercise. If you're concerned about performing well however, it's better to leave your ear buds at home or just use them for the warm up.


**My Musical Motivational Ritual**

I promised it so here you go... this is my Motivational Ritual playlist. Many of these songs have been on my playlist for over 10 years and they all put a spring in my step!

What do you think, do you have any great songs that work for you? I'd love to hear them! Don't forget to share this post with your friends and teammates too!

  1. Remember the Name - Fort Minor

  2. Tarantula - Pendulum

  3. Teenagers - My Chemical Romance

  4. My Songs Know What You Did In the Dark - Fall Out Boy

  5. The Middle - Jimmy Eat World (don't judge - I love this song!)

  6. Kickstarts - Example

  7. Wake Me Up - Avicii

  8. Last Resort - Papa Roach

  9. No One Knows - Queens of the Stone Age

  10. I Gotta Feeling - Black Eyed Peas


Next Week...

Next week I'll be writing an article to help you keep up the good habits you've formed during lockdown, whilst shaking off some of the 'less desirable' ones! Make sure you've subscribed to my blog (a form below this post) to get email notifications and summaries from Sport Mentality Blogs.

#sport #sportmentality #sport #sportpsych #sportpsychology #motivation #fitnessmotivation #mentaltoughness #strongmindset #strength


sport mentality

by dr Lottie miles