Music in Pilates Classes?

by Laura Sachs on Oct 01, 2003


Experienced Pilates instructors discuss melody and method.

Group fitness instructors know how powerful a driving beat is to a high-low, step or indoor cycling class. Music sets the pace and even triggers physiological responses like reductions in fatigue and stress levels (Sewak 2002). And then there’s the motivation factor. An indoor cycling class without a good music mix is, frankly, pretty boring.

Typically, music isn’t a component in Pilates classes. The reasoning: It’s already hard enough to make the initial mind-body connection without the added distraction. When Pilates classes were first introduced, beginning for most clubs and studios between 1998 and 2000, participants needed to hear and understand the directives and explanations. The focus was on maintaining breath control, alignment, stability and a neutral spine, not on rhythm and lyrics.

Today, Pilates classes are plentiful and popular, with no signs of letting up. Pilates mavens and intermediate participants are benefiting from music as an added feature in sessions. Is this an evolution or a dilution? Experienced Pilates instructors address how, why and when they push the “play” button on the CD player.

Enhance the Mind-Body Connection

Music has a powerful effect on humans. This effect involves (at least) five response mechanisms. At times, all of them are operating simultaneously, giving music its unique ability to affect both mind and body (Sewak 2002). You may or may not be aware of the following responses—it is fascinating that musical notes can elicit all of them:

The limbic response determines how we react emotionally to music.

The cortical response elicits thought and imagery.

The thalamic response manifests itself in “automatic” body movements that react to the rhythm of the music.

The corporeal response is the manner in which different body parts or systems react physically to the direct application of sound vibrations.

The psychosocial response is the spiritual and psychological reaction we have to music (Sewak 2002).

Research shows that music beats out all other art forms in producing a dynamic response in the central nervous system (Sewak 2002). Considering the current place Pilates holds in the fitness industry and the spirit of the movement itself, can the right music help participants connect on a deeper level with their breath, alignment and proprioception?

Elizabeth Larkam thinks so. Larkam, whose experience as a Pilates instructor spans 18 years, is director of Pilates & Beyond at Western Athletic Clubs in San Francisco. “Well-chosen sound scores enhance a Pilates class by creating a flowing, harmonious ‘sound carpet’ that supports smooth movement phrasing. This allows for integration of breath, attention and physical form. Music also inspires an instructor to speak musically, with attention to vocal phrasing, inflection and rhythm.”

Perfect Place and Time

Some instructors are using music in many different types of Pilates classes, including reformer, mat, magic circle and private sessions. Valentin, group exercise director at ClubSport Pleasanton in Pleasanton, California, teaches a reformer class she calls “Allegro Technique” set to music. “The students are fairly proficient on the machine and with the terminology,” she says. “The principles of Pilates are second nature to them. Only once in a while do I have to cue breathing, pelvic stabilization, straight legs or relaxed neck. I do not use music with beginners unless it’s just background music to relax them. If the music has an overpowering effect, participants won’t concentrate on the moves or their muscles.”

Music as milieu is a common theme. “I use music in the background during mat classes but not to keep tempo,” says Cathleen Murakami, director of Synergy Systems® Fitness Studio in Encinitas, California. “It is usually somewhat ‘trancy,’ but not too much so; otherwise, there is no energy. Music adds atmosphere and an energetic quality to the class. Some days I am more ‘stretchy’ and other days more tough.”

Larkam advocates adding music to individual studio sessions, roller and ring classes, mat work, reformer classes, Reebok Core Pilates and yoga-Pilates hybrid classes, among others.

A Style for Everyone

Everyone has a preference when it comes to music. Murakami has used ethnic mixes and drumbeats, but prefers music to be light on vocals, which she finds intrusive. Valentin prefers to use music with a beat when she teaches her “Allegro Technique” class. “As with all music, whatever motivates you will also motivate your participants,” she says. “Many Pilates enthusiasts are former dancers and love classical music. It works well to have a few pieces that create ‘comfy’ feelings. I stay away from popular or overused tunes like Pachelbel’s Canon. New Age works well as long as there is a beat. Some New Age music is too ethereal and goes off on a tangent.”

Classical music has a special place in Larkam’s classes as well. “I use it as background music . . . at a very low volume to establish a calm, harmonious environment conducive to centering and concentrating during individual sessions. Classical music is most effective for this purpose.” Larkam recommends works by Mozart, Dvorak, Debussy and Hayden. “String quartets, solos or duets for cello, woodwind, guitar or piano are frequently more appropriate in terms of scale than pieces for full orchestra.”

All the Right Moves: Choreography

Naturally, a group fitness instructor introducing music to a Pilates class might consider whether or not to choreograph the movements. It depends, however, on the nature of the session, the participants and the goal.

“Although I have choreographed Pilates Performance, a professional performing ensemble, to music for the past 2 1/2 years, I do not choreograph classes or private sessions,” says Larkam. “In my observation and experience, clients perform the exercises more correctly in terms of biomechanics when they have the opportunity to move at a pace and rhythm that allow for some individual variation. Although participants in a mat or [reformer] class move approximately together in response to verbal cues, individual timing variations are allowed and expected, given differences in motor learning, flexibility, strength and coordination.”

Leslee Bender, founder and director of the Pilates Coach in Reno, Nevada, uses music as “a nice background rhythm” but also choreographs moves to create a sense of flow. She believes choreography enhances the effectiveness of Pilates by motivating and focusing the students’ attention.

Valentin taught choreographed sequences to music for nearly 15 years in her signature “Body Lines Stretch/Strength” class, so choreographing her Pilates sequences to music was a logical transition. She shares a sample sequence using a double leg press during warm-up (music is “Cavatina” by Hapa):

  • to start: feet in second position with external rotation and on high half-toe

  • leg presses for 8 reps

  • heel cord (Achilles tendon) stretches for 8 reps

  • “treading” for 8 reps

  • the same sequence with feet in first position parallel, with internal rotation, all on high half-toe

“This sequence is very similar to a ballet barre class,” Valentin says. “It is highly choreographed and set according to the music’s verses and chorus. Sometimes there are no real choruses or verses; in this case, phrasing determines the speed and number of reps. Depending on the movement, you can choose from strong drums for any push-up segment to very balletic waltzes for side-bending stretches.”

Hold the Notes

Instructors shouldn’t get too comfortable with the idea of using music in Pilates classes. All sources interviewed for this article agree that music is a no-no for new students. “Do not use music if participants don’t have a clue about mind-body principles and Pilates,” Valentin strongly urges. “It is only with these concepts solidified in their movements that you can bring in another element to enhance the experience. It is quite a chore to have mind-body control—let’s not confuse the issue with some other influence.”

Larkam has very precise reasons why and how music may not be appropriate. “During a Pilates class or individual studio session, the client ought to maintain an inwardly directed focus,” she says. “This focus is facilitated by attention to deep rhythmic breathing and kinesthetic sensation. A skilled instructor provides vocal cues that support this experience. The instructions should be delivered in a harmonious and soothing voice with phrasing and inflection that support the movement dynamics.

“Any time music intrudes, demanding attention and competing with breathing focus and verbal cues, it detracts from motor learning and motor skill enhancement. Music can be a detriment if it is played at a volume that makes the instructions difficult to hear; if it is too fast for the skill level; if the rhythm is too dominant and overshadows the subtle breathing rhythms; or if the participants are drawn to focus on the lyrics rather than concentrate on their own movements.”

Discriminate and Focus

Music’s ability to instantly create an ambience is a powerful tool. It’s up to the instructor to use this tool wisely, always putting participants’ needs first. Music should enhance the Pilates experience, not diminish it. Verbal cues must always be easily audible, and subsequent movement should reflect a solid understanding. Any musical element that interferes with focus, safety, effectiveness or attention is a disservice.

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Sewak, R. 2002. Striking the right chord with the music you choose. IDEA Fitness Edge: Supplement to September 2002 IDEA Health & Fitness Source, 20 (8).

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About the Author

Laura Sachs

Laura Sachs IDEA Author/Presenter

Laura Sachs is the creator of the Fit Foody blog, E-MOTION® body-mind fitness video, relaxation and yoga walk programs. She is a mind-body expert with over 20 years experience in the health and fitness field. She has created fitness content for the Soma Management website and has been featured in Shape, Fit Yoga, Natural Health, IDEA Fitness Journal and American Fitness. Laura currently teaches at the Bay Club, the Jewish Community Center and the University of San Francisco. She is also a level three trainer with Heart Zones. Certifications: ACE and AFAA