Music Speed and Exercise
If you’re like us, you try to exercise to improve your health and fitness. Maybe you’ve tried one of our least favorite exercises: the dreaded plank. In this form of torture, you face down and balance on your toes and elbows, keeping your trunk rigid and horizontal, suspended above the ground for a specified period of time (Dave can manage 60 seconds).
It’s so excruciating that we’re always trying to figure out how to make the time pass quicker while we do planks. For years, researchers and marketers have known that playing music in waiting rooms can make visitors feel like time is passing faster. So listening to music while you do planks would probably make them (slightly) more bearable.
But what hasn’t been known until much more recently is what kind of music is best. At the gym where Dave works out, a variety of popular hits are piped in — everything from heavy metal to slow ballads.
A study led by Sylvie Droit-Volet suggests that if Dave wants his 60 seconds of torture to pass by as quickly as possible, he should wait for a slow ballad to come on before he attempts a plank. You might think that a livelier hard-rock or dance tune would make the time pass faster, but this study suggests that you would be wrong. Here’s why.
Droit-Volet and her colleagues recruited 40 volunteers to listen to music clips for the study. No, they didn’t have to do planks while they listened, but they did make judgments about the length of each clip they heard.
First the volunteers were trained by listening to clips of non-musical white noise, either 0.5 seconds or 1.7 seconds in length. For the purposes of this study, they were taught that the 0.5-second clips were “short” and the 1.7-second clips were “long.” Once they could reliably distinguish between short and long clips of white noise, the real study began.
Now the volunteers listened to a set of piano music clips. But instead of only hearing 0.5-second or 1.7-second clips, they heard clips lasting between 0.5 seconds and 1.7 seconds: 0.5, 0.7, 0.9, 1.1, 1.3, 1.5, and 1.7 seconds. They had to say whether each clip was “short” or “long.”
Some of the music was played slowly, and some of it was played fast, but what the researchers were interested in was the amount of time that had passed while the clip played, not how fast the music was played. Consider these two clips:
The first clip is faster, but both clips take the same amount of time to play.
For 0.5-second clips and 1.7-second clips, the results were predictable: Listeners agreed that the 0.5-second clips were “short” and the 1.7-second clips were “long”, no matter how fast the music was played. But the results became more interesting at intermediate lengths. Here’s a graph summarizing the responses for 1.1-second clips:
Take a look at the first two columns of the graph, “Original fast” and “Original slow.” As you can see, more than half the time the volunteers said that fast clips were “long,” even though they were exactly halfway between the 1.7-second “long” duration and the 0.5-second “short” duration they had been trained to recognize. For slow clips, the respondents said the 1.1-second clips were “short” nearly all of the time!
As a control, the volunteers also listened to all of the audio files backward (like playing your old vinyl records backwards). Despite the fact that these clips sounded very strange, the same pattern emerged: When the music was fast, the listeners were significantly more likely to rate the same-length clip as “long” compared to slow music, even when played backward.
The listeners found this backward music much less pleasant than forwards-playing music, but even unpleasant backward slow music made the time seem to pass faster than fast music, whether played forward or backward.
Maybe it’s not so much the speed of the music that makes time seem to pass more slowly but the complexity. After all, faster music could be seen as “more complicated” because more notes are played in a given interval of time.
To control for this, Droit-Volet’s team conducted a second experiment, where listeners heard orchestral and piano versions of the clips, and were again asked to rate the length of each clip. This time, there was no significant difference between ratings for the piano clips and orchestral clips of the same length. Complexity didn’t affect the apparent length of each clip, only the speed at which the music was played.
Interestingly, Dave has found this distinction to work for him in the gym when doing planks: If slow music is playing, the planks seem to go by more quickly than when a fast rock or dance tune is on.
This research doesn’t really address whether slow music would help for all types or workouts, though. Fast music is definitely more arousing than slow music, and increased arousal might be just the thing to help you finish a long run or bike ride. And while pleasantness didn’t affect the perception of time in this study, it seems likely that listening to unpleasant music for periods of time lasting longer than 1.7 seconds might not be such a great idea if you want time to pass by quickly!
Droit-Volet S., Ramos D., Bueno J.L.O. & Bigand E. (2013). Music, emotion, and time perception: the influence of subjective emotional valence and arousal?, Frontiers in Psychology, 4 DOI: http://dx.doi.org/10.3389/fpsyg.2013.00417
Munger, D. (2018). Music Speed and Exercise. Psych Central. Retrieved on February 22, 2020, from https://psychcentral.com/blog/music-speed-and-exercise/