Most people would agree that music makes exercise better, but could there be more to the relationship between exercise and music than simple entertainment? Research led by Thomas Fritz at the Max Planck Institute for Human Cognitive and Brain Science in Germany investigated how music lightens the load during a workout. His team found that passive music consumption does not make much of a difference for gym-goers, but when music is created as part of the exercise, it not only feels easier, it is easier.

The study was comprised of 63 male and female volunteers who were divided into two groups. One group passively listened to music in the background while using fitness equipment. The other group, however, exercised using fitness machines that responded to use by producing music. As they exercised faster, the music became more intricate and up-tempo. This type of feedback is referred to as jymmin—a moniker that fuses the words “gym” and “jammin.”

During the exercise tests, the researchers measured the participants’ oxygen intake and muscle tension changes. The participants also reported how much they felt they were exerting themselves. Interestingly, the metabolic data revealed that the participants’ muscles actually used less energy when they were producing music. Additionally, the participants themselves reported that they felt the strain of the workout less acutely while making music. This suggests that people can get more out of exercise—both physically and mentally—when creating music.

Fritz suggests that these findings could have implications for how music is used in a therapeutic context. He also explains that the results are in insight that “has an important consequence in how we view the role of music in the creation of human society. Let’s consider the fact that a variety of rituals are associated with music. A down-modulating effect of musical activity on exertion could be a yet undiscovered reason for the development of music in humans.”

This research is published in the journal PNAS.

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