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Striking the Right Chord With the Music You Choose

By Robert Sewak, PD on Aug 31, 2002

Most group fitness professionals can attest to the power of music in a group setting. But did you ever stop to consider how your music choices affect the people in your classes from a physiological perspective? Your participants probably have little say in the music they hear in your classes, yet they are influenced by these sounds. This puts a great deal of responsibility squarely on you as the person who selects the music. When you take on that responsibility, you should be aware of the myriad ways your choices will affect your listeners.

A Medley of Benefits

For quite some time, it has been well accepted that music can confer significant spiritual benefits through its ability to shift emotions. Even in ancient times, music was an integral force in many world religions, designed to inspire and motivate the masses. For two decades or more, music has been used as a calming influence in many hospitals and as a stress management tool for workers at major automobile-manufacturing firms in the United States.

Now, it is finally being acknowledged that music is a powerful stimulant for all kinds of physical responses as well. These responses are at play when babies fall asleep to lullabies, when a movie soundtrack makes an audience weep or when a marching band inspires parade watchers to move in step. These almost unconscious reactions to music are
universal: Who hasn’t had that uncontrollable desire to tap a toe in time to a song heard in the distance? And where would fitness instructors be without the power of music? The trick is using the right music at the right time for the right audience.

Actually, when you think about it, it’s pretty obvious: The physiological effects of music on listeners are directly related to the characteristics of the particular music being heard. For example, your participants will have a completely different physical response to highly dynamic, emotionally charged music characterized by fast tempos, complex rhythms, and melodies that range widely in pitch than they will to music that is subtle, simple, slow and dispassionate.

As a “music facilitator,” you also need to be sensitive to other resonant effects associated with the music you choose. These effects have nothing to do with the music itself but can be influenced by numerous nonmusical factors, including:

  • the number of people present when the music is played
  • the method of presentation (boom box or sound system)
  • the listeners’ receptivity (both individually and as a group)
  • the age and gender of the listeners
  • the time of day
Good Vibrations

Once music enters our ears, its sounds are converted into impulses that travel along the auditory nerves to the brain. At that point, these impulses are processed and given mental and emotional meaning, which influences a host of bodily functions, including metabolism, respiration, pulse, blood circulation, glandular secretions, and patterns of sleeping and waking.

Research into the effects of music on these kinds of bodily functions began in the late 1920s and continues today. Over time, investigators have concluded that music can reduce or delay fatigue, increase muscular endurance and influence the rate of respiration. As early as 1935, scientists exploring music’s effects on study participants determined that a simple change in tempo was the primary cause of a change in respiration rate.

No one musical composition can produce identical physiological changes in members of any sizable group. Keep in mind that the effects of music

  • are greater if the music has meaning to the listener
  • are enhanced if the listener is musically inclined and can imagine the
    actual physical performance process
  • differ for the same individual at different times
  • are cumulative over time
The Body Acting in Concert

Music’s effect on human beings involves (at least) five response mechanisms. At times, all these responses are operating simultaneously, giving music its unique power to affect both mind and body. Put briefly, here are the five primary response mechanisms:

1. The limbic response determines how we react emotionally to music;
this response has probably been studied the most.

2. The cortical response is realized on a cognitive level, where it elicits thought and imagery.

3. The thalamic response is manifested by “automatic” body movements that react to the rhythm of the music.

4. The corporeal response, or the ways different parts or systems of the body react physically to the direct application of sound vibrations, has been the focus of much recent research.

5. The psychosocial reaction, or the spiritual and psychological response, is recognized as playing a major role in health and well-being.

Various kinds of art can facilitate physical and emotional change in people, but research shows that music beats out all other art forms in producing a dynamic response in the central nervous system. Also bear in mind that music can easily be integrated into any environment; music is readily and immediately available on demand; and listeners cannot “shut it out” except by “shutting it off.”

The Spectrum of Sound

To be effective, music first has to appeal to people. Given the broad spectrum of musical choices at your disposal, the hard part is determining which selections will appeal to any one group. Even if your participants share a certain taste in music, no one selection will fit every situation and environment.

For example, at one end of the spectrum are generally slow rhythms and tempos (about 40-60 beats per minute [bpm]). These selections typically attract the attention of listeners by creating a hypnotic effect, which may quiet them emotionally, mentally and physically. Often, such pieces use unemotional, monotonal voicing and accompaniments that coincide rhythmically, interrupted occasionally by irregular accents and unexpected breaks in rhythm, to maintain control. Let’s call this type of musical selection “choice A.”

On the other end of the spectrum is “choice B,” music used as a vehicle for the dynamic expression of emotions. Selections of this type promote physical energy vocally and physically via tempos ranging from 76 to 104 bpm and faster. The melodies and rhythms employed are complex and irregular. A hallmark of this type of music is the creation of a dynamic energy—a sense of pressing forward—which builds anticipation and creates a feeling of going somewhere and/or getting something done.

Would you consider using “choice A” during a hard-core cardio workout or “choice B” during a mind-body class? Of course, these would be inappropriate choices because the music would be at odds with the type of workout. But although it may appear that choice A would always be a better selection for a gentler workout format, you also need to consider the particular audience. For example, using a New Age variation of choice A might be inappropriate if your class was filled with older adults who would prefer something more familiar and appealing to their age group.

As They Like It

Regardless of the tempo or style, if your participants are not attracted to the music you employ in your classes, it will not have the desired effect. So, when considering music, don’t choose it because you like it; choose it because your class members will like it!

Here are some general questions to ask yourself when deciding if a particular music selection is appropriate for your participants:

  • Is the beat too “driving” or “bassy”?
  • Is the sound purely electronic or “guitary”?
  • Does the music sound too moody
    or brooding?
  • Is the selection too repetitive and boring?
  • Does the tempo change too often, making the music feel unsettling?

If one of these descriptions fits, try a substitute. Instead of electronic or guitar-driven pieces, choose music that contains a mix of instruments; selections that feature horns and drums make people feel strong and dramatic. As a rule, “big” sounds with lots of instruments work better for large groups, whereas “small” sounds with fewer instruments work better with smaller groups. Replace sad or moody music with light and airy selections; they typically make listeners feel happy and energetic. And don’t limit your selections to today’s music. Many participants (not just older adults) prefer older songs, which give them a sense of well-being and familiarity.

An Overture for Success

When choosing music for your group fitness classes, you won’t go wrong if you follow these steps:

Before You Select the Music, Consider Its Purpose and Audience. Determine what the music will be used for. Will it be “wallpaper” heard off in the background, or a driving force to motivate and propel your participants? Is it appropriate for the specific activity planned? What is the makeup of the listener group? Will this selection appeal to those participants?

Try to Avoid Vocal Pieces Whenever Possible. Many fitness instructors and participants enjoy singing along to lyrics, but I feel that words are a distraction and can even leave listeners feeling disoriented. I recommend sticking with “instrumental-only” pieces.

Fill Your Morning Classes With Music. Early in the day, the mind is open and susceptible, so music heard at that time has a greater and longer-lasting effect. Because morning music penetrates deeper into the consciousness, it can
influence emotions all day long.

Knowing the emotional influence music can have, make sure you do the following:

“Age Match” Your Music According to Class Demographics. Always consider the age of your listeners, because people of a certain age typically enjoy the same types of music. Working out to a familiar tune can help minimize apprehension and anxiety for your participants; this is especially true for older adults and fitness newcomers.

Keep the Volume Comfortable for All Participants. While it is acceptable to ask participants if the music is too loud or too low, a better option is to check out the sound yourself by moving around the room before class begins. Don’t neglect to make adjustments as needed once class has started.

Keep Experimenting With New Music Choices. Don’t be afraid to try different sounds and styles. Your participants will appreciate the change and recognize that you are constantly striving to improve their fitness experience.

Seek Feedback Regularly. Once you’ve determined your music lineup, ask a colleague to listen to it and comment. Even after you’ve established a repertoire, ask participants if your lineup works better at different times of day or in different classes. Be sure to phrase your questions so you get a clear sense of what people like and don’t like!

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Robert Sewak, PD

Robert Sewak, PhD, studied music education, musicology and voice pathology at Bradley University in Peoria, Illinois, the North American Arts Institute in West Hartford, Connecticut, and Atlantic University in Virginia Beach, Virginia. With his wife Doris, he owns and operates THE (voice) ACADEMY in Delray Beach, Florida. Over the years, he has served as a music consultant for many companies, including Columbia Records Viacom Group and Warner Communications.

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