The Effects of Music on Performance in Treadmill Running

Review of Research Literature:
The Effects of Music on Performance in Treadmill Running


This review of recent literature, from 1995 to 2006, compares the studies conducted in this time frame on the influence of music on treadmill running performance. These studies support the notion that music can serve as a psychological stimulus, enhancing the experience of exercise, and influence exercisers to push themselves harder and get a better workout (Macone, Baldari, Zelli, & Guidetti, 2006). Music also seems to be particularly effective in distracting the exerciser away from his/her perceived exertion and associated discomfort (Edworthy & Waring, 2006). This causes a longer duration in exercise time before one is persuaded to stop due to perception of negative bodily sensations (De Bourdeaudhuij, Crombez, Deforche, Vinaimont, Deobde, & Bouckaert, 2002). For those who are more likely to quit exercising due to discomfort rather than physical exhaustion, these findings will be helpful in promoting longer physical endurance and higher performance. However, each researcher conducted their tests in slightly different ways, each testing a small number of participants among a narrow age group and either high or low fitness levels. More consistency in the tests would have brought stronger conclusions.


Music has been known to influence mood (Macone et al., 2006), but does it also influence mental toughness in running duration and performance? If it does, this knowledge can be of great help to struggling exercisers. A key element in physical activity that promotes weight loss is to exercise for longer periods of time, which will result in an increase in energy expenditure and a decrease in excess body mass and fat (De Bourdeaudhuij et al., 2002). It has been found that variations in auditory stimulus intensity, tone and tempo have been shown to evoke dynamic psychological and physiological responses in individuals (Brownley, McMurray, & Hackney, 1995). Music may influence one’s responses to exercise in different ways including increasing relaxation, raising one’s level of arousal, and/or distracting one from the negative bodily sensations often experienced in exercise. In fact, research has revealed that obese children/adults fail to carry on with physical activity for  long periods of time and often quit early because of negative feelings such as pressure on their chest, a suffocating feeling, pounding of the heart, dizziness, knee pain, etc. (De Bourdeaudhuij et al., 2002). Since music can affect one’s senses, allowing the separation of thought from feeling, it should be expected to also alter the perception of unpleasant feelings. Music has been found to allow individuals to disregard central and peripheral cues of discomfort at times associated with exercise that may otherwise cause the perception of effort to increase (Szmedra & Bacharach, 1998). Due to these findings, music may be a helpful addition to one’s exercise routine.

A number of studies have been conducted to examine how music influences treadmill running among different population groups and under a variety of testing conditions. Following will be a discussion and analysis of these studies in a review of recent literature (1995-2006) that will look at the effects of music on time to exhaustion, perceived exertion and feeling, and other factors during treadmill running.

Music’s Influence on Time to Exhaustion

Macone et al. (2006) found that when participants were instructed to run to exhaustion, women spent significantly more time exercising with music than without, 29 minutes compared to 21, while men spent nearly the same time on the treadmill during both music and no music conditions, approximately 38 minutes. Macone et al. (2006) concluded that music would influence time to exhaustion in treadmill running in only certain types of exercisers. One problem with this study is that the music and no music tests were conducted one to two weeks apart allowing enough time for the increase or decrease of fitness levels in participants depending on their level of activity in between testing sessions (Macone et al., 2006). Also, this test was not inclusive as only a small number (16 male, 16 female) participated, within a small age bracket (20-30 year olds), and all of who were of moderate to upper fitness levels.

On the other hand, De Bourdeaudhuij et al. (2002) tested music’s effects as a distraction for thirty obese children when running to exhaustion and found that participants were able to run on average 40 seconds longer and reach a higher peak heart rate, VO2 peak, and VO2 peak/kg when listening to music as opposed to not. This showed that when no music was present, obese children perceived their level of exhaustion to be reached at a submaximal performance. These children reported afterwards that when they were distracted by music, they had less contemplation about whether or not to carry on. However, it should be noted that although a pattern was observed that these results failed reach significance. The study also gave no differentiation to whether the participant was male or female and tested an uneven gender ratio, 20 girls and 10 boys (De Bourdeaudhuij et al. 2002).

Brownley et al. (1995) studied music’s effects on 8 trained and 8 untrained runners in no music, slow music, and fast music conditions. Although not significant, it was found that both groups of runners ran slightly longer in the fast music condition and reported feeling exhausted sooner in the slow music condition (Brownley et al., 1995). In this study, subjects had to identify when they didn’t think they could continue on for another 60 seconds, so that a mouthpiece could be added to record the last 30 seconds of their test. Because of this arrangement it is doubtful that participants were actually able to actually reach a stage of exhaustion (Brownley et al., 1995). However, the fast music was influential in extending the subjects’ time to perceived exhaustion levels.

The above mentioned studies found a positive effect on time to exhaustion and superior peak performances when exercising to music, especially in women and obese children. It would have been better for each study to have included a larger sample group with an even male to female ratio, a variety of age groups, and a broader spectrum of fitness levels. The question remains to be answered as to why in Macone et al.’s study (2006) men’s running times were uninfluenced, while in the other tests such a distinction was not noticed or made.

Music’s Affect on Rate of Perceived Exertion (RPE) and Feeling

It has been theorized that the central nervous system possesses limited information processing and has selective attention. Therefore, if a pleasurable auditory stimulus, such as music, is presented to the brain via an afferent pathway, the unpleasant stimuli arising from either central or local factors may be partially inhibited in another afferent pathway (Szmedra & Bacharach, 1998). Therefore it proposed that listening to music during exercise will block unpleasant feedback from either central or peripheral factors to the central nervous system, allowing the runner to relax, perceive rate of exertion to be lower, and block out the undesirable effects of activity. This would therefore increase exercise enjoyment and time spent exercising (Szmedra & Bacharach, 1998).

To test this, Borg’s Rate of Perceived Exertion (RPE) scale and Hardy and Rejeski’s Feeling Scale were used in almost every study to subjectively measure how participants felt during the different testing conditions. RPE summarizes exertion levels between rest and maximum effort on a scale of 6-20. The feelings scale assesses the affective dimension of the exercise experience ranging from ‘very bad’ to ‘very good’ (-5 to +5). Numerous studies have demonstrated the suitability of these measures for assessing perceived effort for physical work (Edworthy & Waring, 2006).

Szmedra & Bacharach (1998) analyzed music’s affect on ten well-trained men running at the predetermined speed and time of 70% of their VO2 max for 15 minutes. They found that participants’ RPE was 10% lower when they listened to music, especially after minute 6 of exercise. Women in Macone et al.’s study (2006) who were instructed to run until exhaustion at a predetermined pace, reported having more fatigue after exercising to music, most likely because in the music condition they continued exercising for a longer time (Macone et al., 2006). These two studies determined that music has a lowering effect on RPE.

Although not statistically significant, in Brownley et al.’s study (1995), trained subjects’ RPE was lowest where there was no music, while untrained subjects’ RPE was lowest during the fast music condition. These results suggest that listening to fast, upbeat music during exercise may be beneficial for untrained runners but counterproductive for trained runners, as it may be a disruption their ability to maintain an internal focus (Brownley et al., 1995). In line with this, De Bourdeaudhuij et al. (2002) found the effect of music on endurance was strongest at the beginning of the obesity training when compared to second test that was taken than at the end of the training course, showing amount of training may influence the effectiveness of music.

However, Edworthy & Waring (2006) found no significant effects of RPE scores between their five testing conditions of fast/loud, fast/quiet, slow/loud, slow/quiet and no music, although a pattern was observed in which participants’ RPE were highest in the fast music and no music condition and lowest in the slow music conditions. The RPE for fast/loud music would be expected to be highest because this was the condition where participants exerted themselves the most. Conversely, even though the RPE for the no music (control) condition was also high, participants did not particularly exert themselves. This suggests that in the absence of external stimulation, participants’ focused more strongly on their own efforts and perceived them to be higher than they were (Edworthy & Waring, 2006). However, in this study participants’ fitness level, training and exercise experience were not taken into account, which may have been a factor on RPE responses. This may be why there was no significance found in RPE (Edworthy & Warring, 2006).

As Edworthy & Warring (2006) looked at Feeling Scores, it was found that the control (no music) condition had a significantly lower mean feeling score than any of their four music conditions. Participants reported a more positive affect during all of the music conditions than they did during the ‘no music’ condition and a more positive affective response during fast music conditions as opposed to slow. This shows that peoples’ level of arousal and enjoyment of the task were optimized by the use of music, preferably fast music (Edworthy & Warring, 2006).

 Brownley et al.’s study (1995) found that untrained subjects reported feeling more positive than the trained subjects while listening to fast music during both low and high intensity exercise. Trained subjects consistently reported Feeling values lowest during the fast music and highest during the no music condition. This again suggests that the use of music may be best for untrained exercisers as opposed to those who are more trained.

It appears that fast music over both slow and no music conditions can lower one’s RPE and increase positive feelings, especially in untrained runners. When one feels better and that they are exerting less effort they will continue to exercise more, thus using more total energy. However, it is hard to come to a definite conclusion due to the variety in the subject’s tested and in the variety of methods. Additionally, RPE and the Feelings Scale are subjective measurements and may have been influenced a variety of factors in the day, the subject’s physical state and/or the subject’s general mental toughness.

Music’s Influence on Treadmill Speed

In the majority of the studies in this analysis, a set speed/workload was predetermined according to individual’s fitness levels as determined  by VO2 max (Szmedra & Bacharach, 1998; Brownley et al. 1995), a percentage of their HR Reserve values (Macone et al., 2006), or according to an incremental treadmill protocol test (De Bourdeaudhuji et al., 2002). However, in Edworthy & Waring’s study, (2006) participants were told to run/walk at a speed they felt comfortable with and could adjust the speed throughout the experiment (the actual speed was kept hidden). Participants performed five 10-minute exercise sessions on a treadmill, on different days, in which the music was either fast/load, fast/quiet, slow/load, slow/quiet or absent.  Analysis revealed that fast/load music and slow/quiet music caused an increase in treadmill speed over time, with the fast/loud condition causing the greatest speed increase. Heart rate was higher in the fast music conditions than in the slow (167.57 bpm, 158.76 bpm), as participants were exercising more energetically.

This shows that the tempo of music can influence the speed of running and that faster music may cause one to expend more energy in an exercise session. This makes sense due to the synchronous nature of running. Tempo would be expected to affect performance, as runners will try to find a pace that fits with the music. This pace is likely to be faster with fast music than with slow music.

Edworthy & Warring (2006) allowed participants to choose their own treadmill speed in this study because they reasoned that since each would have different levels of fitness, a fixed speed would not be acceptable for everyone. However, this left room for participants to have different workloads, which in turn may have affected their reactions to the stimuli tested. For example, participants who were exercising sub-optimally may have reacted differently to loud/fast music than those who were already working at full capacity (Edworthy & Waring, 2006).

Effect of Tempo and Volume of Music

Three of these tests were performed under the two different conditions of exercising with music and without music. Szmedra & Bacharach (1998) played a popular medley of classical music, but it was not mentioned whether it had a fast or slow tempo. Macone et al. (2006) used the familiar song, “Struggle for Pleasure” by Wim Mertens (140 bpm) with no lyrics. Uniquely, De Bourdeaudhuji et al. (2002) allowed subjects to bring in their own music to run to and was the only tester to play the music over a loudspeaker rather than using headphones. However, since the type of music was self-selected, it is unknown which variables in were critical in obtaining results. Possibilities include the emotional significance and/or tempo of the music (slow vs. fast) (De Bourdeaudhuji et al. 2002).

Both Edworthy & Waring (2006) and Brownley et al. (1995) took it a step further and studied the effects of no music, slow music, and fast music. Brownley et al.’s (1995) sedative music was derived from commercially-marketed stress management selection. Beats per minute were not mentioned. The fast music included contemporary pop, rock, and movie sound track selections within a tempo range of 154-162 bpm. Brownley et al.’s subjects listened to the same sedative music tape, but were given a choice between two fast music tapes in order to incorporate some degree of individual preference for music style. Volume was self-regulated (Brownley et al., 1995). Brownley et al. (1995) found that untrained subjects reported more positive affect compared to trained subjects while listening to fast music during low and high intensity exercises, suggesting again that listening to fast, upbeat music during exercise may be beneficial for trained runners, but counterproductive for trained runners.

Edworthy & Waring (2006) additionally included a test for the effect of volume on exercise performance. Music selections consisted of two jazz pieces by the same artist, one fast (200 bpm), and one slow (70 bpm), which were unfamiliar to participants and were each played through headphones at two levels of loudness (80 dB and 60 dB). In line with previous findings, participants enjoyed what they were doing more when they were listening to music of any sort compared to when they were not. There was a trend towards reporting fast music in a more positive light than slow music, although this was not significant (Edworthy & Waring, 2006).

The effect of volume was found to dependent on the tempo of the music. There was a large effect of volume in the fast music conditions, but for the slow music conditions the effects of volume were not significant. Heart rate increased if the volume of fast music increased, but not if the volume of slow music increased. Therefore, the added benefits of playing music loudly are only present when the music is fast. In terms of aesthetics alone, the loud/fast and the quiet/slow versions of the stimuli were the most aesthetically correct and, it can therefore be assumed most pleasing, creating the most enjoyable experience (Edworthy & Waring, 2006).

It was therefore concluded that including fast/loud music in the exercise program of untrained individuals should produce a corresponding increase in physiological responses and enhance optimal exercising (Edworthy & Waring, 2006). The inclusion of slow, quiet music should be considered for individuals if they wish to reduce physiological responses, which may help individuals prolong exercise endurance. Additionally, slow, quiet music could be utilized by individuals who need to maintain a lower heart rate due to medical conditions or have been advised to exercise at a moderate pace (Edworthy & Waring, 2006).

One issue that was not considered in the majority of these studies was that of preference. Listening to music appears to improve people’s enjoyment of the task, but certain types of music appear to aid performance better than others (Edworthy & Waring, 2006; Macone et al., 2006).


Each of these research studies supports the notion that a psychological stimulus can enhance the experience of exercise. Specifically, music as an attentional distraction has a positive effect on perseverance and performance, in obese youngsters and women (De Bourdeaudhuij et al., 2002; Macone et al., 2006). Listening to fast, upbeat music during exercise may be beneficial for untrained runners, but counterproductive for trained runners (Brownley et al., 1995). The speed of the music can affect the speed at which the participant runs: faster music produces faster speeds, particularly, fast/loud music, which will increase heart rate and metabolic expenditure (Edworthy & Waring, 2006). Additionally, perceived exertion appears to be lower when participants exercise to music. This has been interpreted within an information-processing framework which assumes that the exerciser has a limited attention capacity; thus, by turning their attention away from exercise through some distracter (such as music), they are less able to attend to other influences (such as perceived exertion). Music, therefore, seems to be particularly effective in distracting the exerciser away from his or her perceived exertion and associated discomfort (Edworthy & Waring, 2006). This causes a longer duration in exercise time before one is persuaded to stop due to perception of negative bodily sensations (De Bourdeaudhuij et al., 2002).

This evidence shows that music may help exercises push themselves harder and get a better workout (Macone et al., 2006). For those who are more likely to quit exercising due to discomfort rather than physical exhaustion, these findings will be helpful in promoting longer physical endurance and higher performance, which will increase exercise adoption and adherence in exercise programs as well as in obesity treatments (De Bourdeaudhuij et al., 2002). Music offers individuals a way to improve their exercise programs and eventually their quality of life (Edworthy & Waring, 2006).

It is suggested that the influence of music may be different for various modes, durations and intensities of exercise (Szmedra & Bacharach, 1998). Additionally, previous experience listing to music while treadmill running was not accounted for in these studies, and is a factor which may have influenced results. The small number of participants in each study, the extremities of training levels, the different ways these tests were conducted, and the mentioned questionable protocols in these studies may have weakened conclusions. However, listening to music while treadmill running seems to very pleasurable to many exercisers and may be a wise and effective addition to one’s exercise routine.



Brownley K., McMurray, R., & Hackney, A. (1995). Effects of music on physiological and affective responses to graded treadmill exercise in trained and untrained runners. International Journal of Psychophysiology: Official Journal of the International Organization of Psychophysiology, 19(3), 193-201.

De Bourdeaudhuij, I., Crombez, G., Deforche, B., Vinaimont, F., Debode, P., & Bouckaert, J. (2002). Effects of distraction on treadmill running time in severely obese children and adolescents. International Journal of Obesity and Related Metabolic Disorders: Journal of the International Association for the Study Of Obesity, 26(8), 1023-1029.

Edworthy, J., & Waring, H. (2006). The effects of music tempo and loudness level on treadmill exercise. Ergonomics, 49(15), 1597-1610.

Macone, D., Baldari, C., Zelli, A., & Guidetti, L. (2006). Music and physical activity in psychological well-being. Perceptual & Motor Skills, 103(1), 285-295.

Szmedra, L., & Bacharach, D. (1998). Effect of music on perceived exertion, plasma lactate, norepinephrine and cardiovascular hemodynamics during treadmill running. International Journal of Sports Medicine, 19(1), 32-37.