That mix of positive emotions, physical exhilaration and community experience that music provides also has its own name. Coined to describe the sudden feeling of “oneness” we experience when we hear a song that speaks to us, “kama muta” is Sanskrit for “moved by love”. Researchers know it is felt by people all over the world, regardless of race, geography, background or age. Music literally crosses borders to bring us together – so it’s no surprise it’s the soul of every good workout.
Brain imaging allows us to see what happens when we hear music we enjoy. Parts of the brain linked to reward, motivation, emotion and memory become active, and hormones such as dopamine, serotonin and oxytocin are released. These help us feel pleasure, wellbeing, happiness and love, elevating our mood as we work out and literally making us want to come back for more.
Conversely, when we hear music we perceive to be sad or that we associate with a negative experience, we can feel unhappiness or even grief. This leads to increases in levels of the stress hormone cortisone, which can make us quite simply want to up and leave.
It’s likely that music affects our hypothalamus (the region of the brain governing hormone release and emotions) and our brainstem (which controls heart rate, blood pressure, body temperature, and muscle tension). Researchers have found that dance music with faster beats and stimulating sounds increases how much cortisol, noradrenaline and growth hormone we make – all helping us to feel more awake, pumped and ready for action. By contrast, calming music, with softer sounds and a slower beat, has been shown to reduce cortisol and noradrenaline levels, helping us feel more relaxed.
Alongside the individual feelings we experience there’s also the influence from shared experience (such as when we’re working out together) – something we call “the group effect”. We now know that when we move together in rhythm we become more aware and compassionate toward each other. We perceive more similarities between ourselves and others in the room and because of this we’re happier sharing our personal space.
Music also amplifies emotions we pick up from the people around us. Researchers at the University of London showed people pictures of happy and sad faces when listening to music that was also categorized as happy or sad, and asked them to rate their emotions: happy music made the happy faces seem happier, while sad music made sad or neutral faces seem more negative.
So, next time you work out and the music helps to make the world feel just a little bit better, you’ll know it’s kama muta – the amazing chemistry of your brain and body – helping to make this happen. Enjoy every minute of it!
Dr Bryony L Ross is a UK-based scientist who specialises in physiology, toxicology, risk assessment and scientific communication. She is also a Les Mills trainer, presenter and instructor who teaches BODYPUMP™, RPM™, CXWORX™, LES MILLS GRIT™, LES MILLS SPRINT™, LES MILLS TONE™, LES MILLS BARRE™ and BODYBALANCE™/BODYFLOW®.