Yes, The Sound Quality Of Your Music Might Impact Your Athletic Performance

Photographed by Beth Sacca.
I was running in Central Park wondering how I’d possibly write a story about using music for fitness motivation while jogging to Taylor Swift’s Fearless album — the most sullen and balladic of her repertoire. Through cheap, wired headphones, no less. I am a living, (heavily) breathing contradiction of all the studies that have been done to uncover best listening practices for athletic performance. One such study recently found that, yes, sound quality does marginally impact your workouts, and, yes, I’m doing it all wrong.
Sonos, the wireless speaker and home systems brand, just released a study on the way sound quality impacts exercise performance. One of the study’s researchers, exercise physiologist Tom Brownlee, PhD, explained to Refinery29 that participants did three High Intensity Interval Training (HIIT) sessions, one with no music, one with “low quality music” from a common Bluetooth speaker, and one with “high quality” sound (or so the study deemed) from two Sonos One speakers. The playlists stayed the same, and included “Throttle – Money Maker (Club Edit)” and a remix of “Dirty Sexy Money” by David Guetta and Afrojack. The participants were hooked up to wearable tech and surveyed after the sweat sessions to examine how the sound quality would affect their physiological and psychological performance. Participants rated their perceived exertion and had their heart rates measured. Brownlee said "high quality" sound changed “the exerciser's perception of the fatigue" to be less taxing. They also found that “total work done” during the “high-quality” sound sessions was 2% greater than the exercise done with low-quality sound. It was 4 percent greater than when no music was playing.
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“Two percent might sound like not a lot, but it’s about marginal gains,” Brownlee said. “When you add up all the tiny, 1% changes you make every day and add all of those tiny interventions up, that can be a 10% gain total over time.” This is in line with the the theory of British Cycling coach Dave Brailsford, who took his team from sub-par cyclists to Olympic gold medalists using the theory that “the aggregation of marginal gains" would improve athletic performance over time, as habit expert and author James Clear reported in his book Atomic Habits.
“We’ve added an extra layer to the research that’s been done,” Brownlee says. “We’ve known for decades that music is beneficial for this kind of exercise, but there’s room for greater research into the quality of that music. These are like the extra sprinkles on the cake.”
It should be noted that the “quality” of a sound is a subjective form of measurement. The study admits: "While quality of music is subjective and made up of various elements specific to each individual, in general terms most people can decipher high-quality from low-quality sound." It's significant that the study was done by the speaker brand Sonos, and they consider noise from those speakers the "high quality" sound in the study. So, it's important to consider that bias as you take in the information. The study has not yet been peer-reviewed. Still, the results are interesting.
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The study was part of a larger global “Brilliant Sound” survey that asked people to examine the way music impacts their life in different ways. Daniel Müllensiefen, head of the global survey explained that “music can trigger responses in the reward system of the brain which is also known as the limbic system.”
“This part of the brain is regulating our emotions and our mood,” he explained to Refinery29 in an email. In conjunction with our memories, the brain can connect certain types of music to emotions, Müllensiefen says. So, you might feel happy when you listen to Pharrell Williams, and sad when you listen to Pearl Jam, but it mostly depends on your own. experiences. And there’s no hard and fast rule about what kind of music is more beneficial.
“It depends on the genres of music you are familiar with and appreciate and what task you would use the music with,” Müllensiefen says. “For example, for writing and or revising exams, most people work better with instrumental music in the background that doesn’t have too many dynamic changes… In contrast, music with more dynamic changes and more energy, like heavy rock, could be more suitable for working out.”
Still, there’s no type of music proven to work best universally for all kinds of people in all types of situations. So, maybe it’s not crazy that I’m trying to run my best mile time as Taylor Swift sings, "Could've loved you all my life if you hadn't left me waiting in the cold.” OK, it’s a little crazy.
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