Exercise enhances our enjoyment of music, possibly through increased arousal

A study published in the journal Psychology of Music tested whether exercise influences the way people experience music. The researchers found that participants rated unfamiliar music as more enjoyable after running for 12 minutes on a treadmill, regardless of the style of music.

Past research has shown that listening to music while exercising improves performance. Purpose study author Michael J. Hove and his team wondered whether this relationship might go both ways. Does exercise affect music listening?

“I became interested in how exercise changes the experience of music listening because of what would happen to me after playing hockey — music would sound amazing to me after a hockey game; after I’d arrive home, I’d often sit in my car and listen 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 knew the extensive literature on how music listening can improve exercise performance, but there was almost no research looking at it in the opposite direction (how exercise affects music listening).”

Physical activity has well-known therapeutic effects. For example, research studies have found 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 pleasure. With this evidence in mind, Hove and his team proposed that exercising may enhance a person’s enjoyment of music, possibly through mood, arousal, or dopamine concentrations.

A sample of 20 university students between the ages of 19 and 25 took part in a study. The experiment involved two one-hour lab sessions held one week apart — an exercise session and a control session. During both sessions, participants listened to 48 unfamiliar song clips from various genres (eg, rock, indie, electronic) and rated their enjoyment of each clip and their level of arousal (on a scale from “calm” to “very excited”).

On the exercise day, participants listened to and rated half of the song clips before running on a treadmill for 12 minutes. After the exercise, they listened to and rated the remaining song clips. 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 song order was counterbalanced across the exercise and control days.

The researchers averaged each student’s music enjoyment ratings over the songs and tested whether these averages changed from pre- to post-test (before and after the exercise or control task). They found that the students’ music enjoyment ratings increased significantly after exercising, but did not increase after listening to the podcast. This was true regardless of the song’s energy, suggesting that the exercise enhanced their enjoyment of the music whether the song was upbeat or mellow.

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

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

“We measured several factors that could potentially relate to changes in musical enjoyment, and the factor that showed the clearest link to increased musical enjoyment was increased arousal,” Hove told PsyPost.

Interestingly, exercising was not found to influence the participants’ dopamine function, as measured by their eye-blink rates. Changes in music enjoyment were positively associated with eye-blink rates, but the relationship was not statistically significant. The authors said that future studies with larger samples and a more direct measure of dopamine might shed more light on the potential role of dopamine in the relationship between exercise and music enjoyment.

The overall findings suggest that exercise increases music pleasure, not by enhancing mood, but by increasing arousal. Since music listening and exercise are two treatments for depression, Hove and his colleagues suggest that combining the two practices might provide optimal benefits. “While music and exercise aren’t going to supplant established treatments like 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: Modulatory roles of arousal, mood, or dopamine?”, was authored by Michael J. Hove, Steven A. Martinez, and Samantha R. Shorrock.

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