Why Music Motivates Us

If I showed up for a spin class and learned that the sound system was down, I'd go the front desk, ask for my money back, and head home.

Music is a huge motivator, which is one reason I'm willing to pay $35 for a workout class with a carefully selected list of inspiring tunes.

People use music to distract themselves from the pain and fatigue of a challenging workout. We also use it to boost mood, increase endurance, and motivation to push through an anaerobic state.

When designing a playlist, focus on tempo, rhythm response, and emotional response.


a.k.a. the pace of a song

  • Most people use fast songs with strong beats at 120 beats per minute (BPM) to motivate a challenging workout.

  • You can use tools like Tangerine or Beatunes to programmatically determine the BPMs of your entire iTunes library. Here's an example of song with 120 BPM:

  • If you're a runner, try using songs that match the cadence of your pace. BPMs ranging from 160-180 put you at a great fat burning zone.

  • Running at 180 BPM is a 7 minute mile. Even if you can't keep up with the rhythm, it's a great indicator of your goal pace. 

Rhythm Response

a.k.a. how much a song makes you want to move

  • This is different for everyone depending on your taste. Listen to all kinds of music and see which genre makes you boogie. 

Emotional Response

a.k.a how the song makes you feel

  • It's not just about selecting high-energy fast paced songs. Music can evoke emotions and memories that could enhance our fitness.

  • Have you ever listened to a motivational speech that made you want to jump up and down? Or screamed your guts out in the shower to your go-to break up song? I know I have. (ahem.. Kelly Clarkson, I love you.)

  • Working out to songs that relate to your current mood can enhance your physical exertion.

6 Reasons Why Music Encourages Us to Keep Moving

A recent study done by psychologist Costas Karageoghis of Brunel University discovered what and why music motivates us to move.

  1. Distraction

    Not many people actually enjoy working out. Music distracts us from the physical pain. Some people even claim to forget they're even working out when listening to music.

  2. Companionship

    Working out alone sucks. We feel less lonely (and more likely to lift that extra rep) when Beyonce is there with us.

  3. Perceived Exertion

    Sometimes we don't even realize how hard we're working when the beat drops and we go 100 percent. Try planning your intervals to correlate with big moments in the music. You might be surprised at how hard you can push yourself!

  4. Emotional Lyrics

    Music can evoke feelings of anger, sadness, excitement, anxiety, and much more. Workout to music that you can relate to and use it as a cathartic outlet.

  5. Coordination

    There's a reason spin, dance, and kickboxing use heavy beats. Music helps us remember our right from our left, and it's a super power when attempting fitness moves that seem impossible.

  6. Primal Association

    Back in the day (before synthesizers) people created music by moving. They clapped their hands, stamped their feet, and hit things to make fast sound.

    Perhaps it's evolutionarily ingrained in our heads- music therefore movement.

Music is powerful

"[Music is] a type of legal performance enhancing drug." - Costas Karageoghoris

Fitness companies don't take this lightly. In fact, they're spending up to $500,000 in salary on instructors like Stacey Grifith at Soul Cycle. 

In 2007, the Marine Corps Marathon banned runners from using portable music players. They claimed it had to do with safety rules but now the rule only applies to people vying for awards and money. Sounds like a performance enhancer problem to me.

Music is powerful. It motivates us to work harder, longer, faster, and stronger.