Exercise increases our enjoyment of music, possibly through increased arousal

A study published in the journal Psychology of music tested whether movement affects the way people experience music. The researchers found that participants liked unfamiliar music more after running on a treadmill for 12 minutes, regardless of music style.

Previous research has shown that listening to music while exercising improves performance. But study author Michael J. Hove and his team wondered if this relationship could go either way. Does exercise affect listening to music?

“I became interested in how exercise changes the experience of listening to music through what would happen to me after playing hockey – music would sound great to me after a hockey game; after I got home, I often sat in my car and listened to the end of the song,” said Hove, an associate professor at Fitchburg State University. “I couldn’t turn it off. As a psychologist who studies music, I was aware of the extensive literature on how listening to music can improve exercise performance, but there was almost no research in the opposite direction (how exercise affects listening to music).”

Physical activity has known therapeutic effects. For example, research studies have shown that exercise can increase mood, arousal and concentrations of dopamine — a neurotransmitter that is part of the brain’s reward system. Notably, these three factors are also involved in musical enjoyment. With this evidence in mind, Hove and his team proposed that exercise can increase a person’s enjoyment of music, possibly through mood, arousal or dopamine concentrations.

A sample of 20 college students, ages 19 to 25, participated in a study. The experiment involved two one-hour lab sessions held one week apart – a practice session and a control session. During both sessions, participants listened to 48 unfamiliar song clips from various genres (e.g., rock, indie, electronic) and rated their enjoyment of each clip and their level of excitement (on a scale from “calm” to “very excited”).

On the training day, the participants listened and rated half of the song clips before running on a treadmill for 12 minutes. After the exercise, they listened to the remaining song clips and rated them. The procedure was similar on the control day, except that participants rated the song clips before and after listening to a podcast (control task). Participants also rated their feelings and emotions before and after the exercise and control tasks and took a test that measured their eye blink rates as an indicator of dopamine function. The students heard each song twice and the order of the songs was compensated over the practice and control days.

The researchers averaged each student’s musical enjoyment across the songs and tested whether these means changed from pre-test to post-test (before and after the exercise or control task). They found that the students’ musical enjoyment increased significantly after exercise, but not when they listened to the podcast. This was true regardless of the energy of the song, suggesting that the practice increased their enjoyment of the music, whether the song was upbeat or soft.

The participants showed a stronger increase in positive mood and a stronger increase in arousal after the exercise compared to listening to the podcast. And while change in mood was not linked to change in music enjoyment on exercise day or podcast day, change in arousal was significantly linked to changes in music enjoyment for both days.

In other words, students who rated themselves as more “excited” after the exercise or listening to the podcast tended to experience the music as more enjoyable. As the study authors noted, these findings are consistent with evidence suggesting that arousal plays a role in how people experience and enjoy music.

“We measured several factors that could potentially be related to changes in musical enjoyment, and the factor that showed the most obvious link to increased musical enjoyment was heightened arousal,” Hove told PsyPost.

Interestingly, exercise did not appear to affect the participants’ dopamine function, as measured by their blink rates. Changes in music enjoyment were positively associated with eye blink rates, but the relationship was not statistically significant. The authors said future studies with larger samples and a more direct measure of dopamine could shed more light on dopamine’s possible role in the relationship between exercise and music enjoyment.

The overall findings suggest that exercise increases musical enjoyment, not by elevating mood, but by increasing arousal. Because listening to music and exercising are two treatments for depression, Hove and colleagues suggest that combining the two practices could provide optimal benefits. “While music and exercise will not replace established treatments such as psychotherapy or pharmacology,” the researchers wrote in their study, “they do provide a free, accessible, non-invasive way to increase pleasure. Side effects may include reduced stress, improved cognition, health and happiness.”

The study, “Physical Exercise Increases Perceived Musical Pleasure: Modulating Roles of Arousal, Mood, or Dopamine?”, is written by Michael J. Hove, Steven A. Martinez and Samantha R. Shorrock.

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