Beat it: the physical side-effects of music

Some songs make your heart sing, others make your tummy tingle. Find out why.

A set of squats in silence? No thanks. Cycling without a soundtrack? Boring! Burpees without a beat? BAHHH. Whatever the workout, if you try it without music you’ll find the enjoyment factor instantly plummets. Music is undoubtedly key to any good workout – and there’s plenty of evidence to show how music makes exercise more enjoyable and effective, while keeping us motivated for longer.

However, new research indicates that if your workout beats are too predictable, you could be missing out on the energizing joy that will take your workout to the next level.

This fascinating study suggests that musical uncertainty and surprise are what shape our emotional response. What’s more, there’s an intricate interplay between music and bodily sensations. And the degree of tempo change sparks physical feelings in different parts of our body.

We’ve all been there, in that mid-workout moment when the beat drops and the sudden change in the music pushes the excitement, hype and intensity through the roof. This is because, when chord sequences follow an unexpected pattern, people are more likely to feel sensations in their hearts. This suggests unexpected patterns spark feelings of energy, excitement and enthusiasm.

Conversely, the research shows that when the chord sequence follows a more anticipated pattern, we are more likely to feel it in the gut. This type of predictable and unsurprising chord sequence prompts feelings of relief and calmness, reducing any feelings of anxiety, helping us feel satisfied and at ease.

The findings came after a team of musicians and researchers used analytical and statistical software to break down almost 900 songs featured in the US Billboard Hot 100 chart. They then created 92 different but common four-chord sequences and began exploring how different variations of surprise and uncertainty were received.

Such different emotional and physical responses highlight the value of choosing different types of music to align with different ways to move.

How to make a good workout playlist

Glen Ostergaard is a Les Mills Program Director who leads the creation of some of the world’s most popular workouts to music. He says the best workout music can be felt internally – in your heart – not just through your ears.

Good music for lifting weights

"When it comes to lifting weights, finding the right tempo is key. You want to find a beat that raises the energy, but it's not too explosive or jarring. There needs to be a melodic feel so you can lose yourself in the music."

Good music for cardio

“While fast high-energy music with a high number of beats per minute is great for sparking energy, if you want sustained motivation, you need to feel like the music takes you on a journey. The BPM should be high but with plenty of change and variety.”

Good music for Pilates and yoga

“You don’t want music that is too hyped-up or dramatic – calmer sounds help nurture that mind/body connection. The best mind/body music stays steady for longer so you have more time to feel at ease with the sound and the move, which creates a holistic feeling.”

The art and science behind the most motivating music

Anyone with a Spotify account can create a workout playlist that they might like, but shaping music that can inspire and motivate the masses demands a specific talent. “Some people can draw, some people can sing, some people are really fast, some people are really strong, and some people really feel music,” explains Rachael Newsham.

Like Glen, Rachael spends hours and hours listening to music and working with music specialists every quarter to identify the perfect sounds for the new workout releases. "We trial different music and moves together to see how it can stir the soul (or elicit no response at all). We look at the emotions on people's faces and see how they move. Then we refine and finesse to ensure the musical experience hits right every time."

Why does music make movement feel so good? And what goes on in our brains when we move to the beat? Find out

Les Mills is dedicated to creating workouts with the best music. This involves partnering with the world’s leading recording companies to license music and working directly with artists to create bespoke music for workouts.

You can experience the power of truly motivating music when you give any LES MILLS™ workout a go.