Choosing Music: Why It Works for Movement and Exercise

Music goes naturally with movement and dance. Actually, music and dance have probably gone together since the beginning of time – it’s only in the last few centuries that we have come to expect people to sit still while listening to music. That means music can be a great support for exercise and movement, both of which are important in caring for ourselves and for others. Why does music support movement and exercise so well? Here are a few clues: Entrainment. As discussed in the post on why music works for relaxation, we know that our bodies’ rhythms will tend to match the dominant stimuli in the environment. Just as slower tempos and rhythms will help our bodies to slow down, quicker tempos will help our bodies speed up. With exercise, we can even choose to move our bodies to the beat of the music, as in running in time to a song or doing aerobic exercises to the beat. The funny thing is when you move to the beat, it somehow seems like less work, allowing you to exercise longer. Motion in the music’s tonal structure. Of course, rhythm and tempo seem to be the obvious drivers of movement and dancing, but I bet you have never seen someone exercising to a metronome, beeping out a steady pulse. Even drumming music typically has some kind of audible tonal patterns – there is something about the tonal aspects of music that encourages movement. Music theorist Victor Zuckerkandl* believed that there is motion in the tonal aspects of the music, based on the relationships of notes to other notes. We can feel a melody moving away from and back towards tonic, or the resting pitch. We can hear how harmonies move through patterns of tension and release towards a final chord. That means melody and harmony support movement and exercise, too. (Check out this TED talk by Benjamin Zander and this video by Bobby McFerrin for demonstrations on how we hear tonal relationships in music. They’re powerful!) Lyrical affirmations. Even if your music isn’t at a great tempo for setting your pace, it can still encourage your movements and exercise through the lyrics. Researcher Costas Karageorghis pointed this out on a recent radio show about research on music and exercise. A song like “Stronger” by Kanye West can give you an emotional boost, even though it’s a bit on the slow side for exercise. Associations of style. On that same radio show, several people talked about choosing rock music or heavy metal for intense workouts. Others might choose New Age styles of music for yoga or Tai Chi sessions. We associate particular styles of music with certain kinds of movement and exercise, and thinking intentionally about these associations can help you choose music that fits the style of your workout.  Current research shows that background music can lower a person’s perception of the effort they are expending in exercise by about ten percent. That’s a huge difference! When has music helped you get moving or exercising more? Leave your story in the comments section below, then watch for tips on finding great music for movement and exercise in my next post!

*As discussed in Music-Centered Music Therapy by Kenneth Aigen.


  1. Kirsten on October 11, 2011 at 3:50 pm

    Do you have a link or reference to the study about the lowered perception of effort? I’d like to use that in a proposal I’m writing! Very cool.

    • soundscapemusictherapy on October 11, 2011 at 8:23 pm

      Hi Kirsten!

      I got that statistic from the NPR article I mentioned in the article. That piece links to citations for the researcher’s original work, but the articles are not available online. I hope that is helpful enough for your proposal. I agree – it’s very cool!

      • Kirsten on October 11, 2011 at 9:12 pm

        Oh, great, thanks! I will see if I can dig up the original work somewhere…

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