Many runners and gym-goers may have noticed that listening to music sometimes helps with running the last 400 meters or completing those final 20 reps. And now, researchers in Germany have found that controlling music while doing strenuous activity actually reduces the perceived effort.

The Seven Dwarfs told us to "whistle while you work," and prisoners chipping away at stones in quarries used to sing songs in rhythm with the striking of their tools. But why?

Though we may have suspected that music merely distracts us while doing physical work, researchers from the Max Planck Institute for Human Cognitive and Brain Sciences in Germany, along with other colleagues, have found that there is another effect of this music, one that lies in the muscles.

They published the results of their study in the journal PNAS.

To study the effects of music on physical work, the team, led by scientist Thomas Fritz, had 63 male and female volunteers work out under different conditions.

In one test, the participants used the fitness equipment while passively listening to music playing in the background.

But in other test, the researchers rigged the fitness machines so that they actually produced music when the participants used them. The faster the participants worked the machines, the more up-tempo the music would go and the more intricate it became.

This type of musical feedback is called "jymmin," which is a portmanteau of "gym" and "jammin," the researchers note.

Therapeutic effects of music

Share on Pinterest

During the series of tests, the scientists measured metabolic information, such as oxygen intake and muscle tension changes, and they also asked the participants about how much they felt they were exerting themselves.

The researchers found that the majority of the volunteers felt the strain of their workouts less intensely when they were producing the music themselves.

Additionally, the metabolic measurements showed that while they were making the music, the participants' muscles used less energy, making them more effective physiologically.

"This implies that the developed technology is more favorable as a new athletic sports technology, presumably because more emotionally driven motor control occurs with the musical ecstasy," says Dr. Fritz.

He describes the findings as a "breakthrough," noting that they help us unlock the power of music in a therapeutic context.

He continues:

"What is more, we believe that this insight has an important consequence in how we view the role of music in the creation of human society.

Let's consider the fact that a variety of rituals are associated with music. A down-modulating effect of musical activity on exertion could be a yet undiscovered reason for the development of music in humans: Making music makes physical exertion less exhausting."

The authors conclude their study by noting that their findings are timely because the scientific field involving the therapeutic power of music is "about to unfold."