Is Lack of Rhythm Ruining Your Work Out?

Baker, F. & Taylor, N. (2012). The effects of live patterned sensory enhancement on group exercise participation and mood in older adults in rehabilitation. Journal of Music Therapy, 49(2). 180-204.

Clair, A. & Hamburg, J. (2003). The effects of movement with music program on measure of balance and gait speed in healthy older adults. Journal of Music Therapy, 40(3). 212-226.

Exercise is a personal passion of mine. Dare I say, it even contends with my passion for music. Whether it’s outdoors or inside at the gym, I truly enjoy all aspects of being active. However, it wasn’t until this weekend after attending a not so great workout class that I began to closely examine the ways my two passions, music and exercise, overlap and drive one another.

I regularly attend a Saturday morning exercise class at my gym. It’s a hardcore, iron pumping, no-nonsense class that challenges me in a way that I love. However, this week was different. I found myself feeling disjointed, unable to sustain certain movements and fatigued sooner than usual. I left the class feeling frustrated and totally unsatisfied. These thoughts plagued me the rest of the day. Why did the workout seem so hard? Why did I feel so “off” while exercising? Then, like a lightning bolt it suddenly hit me. It was the music. My music therapist brain went into high gear and I began to analyze how the music was facilitated within the class and the exact purpose it presented. While the instructor had used music within the class, the music functioned merely as background noise rather than a structured driving force for lifts and exercises. What’s the difference? For this, I referred to some related research.

Over the last 2 decades there has been a growing body of research that illustrates the remarkable effects of rhythm on the central nervous system and the ability for rhythm to sync movement patterns. Rhythm drives movement into its same rapid and precise frequencies and entrains our muscles to move to the beat. It’s these perceptual and physiological properties that allow for rhythm to influence the control of movement. Think about times you’ve found yourself unconsciously tapping your foot to the rhythm of background music at the doctor’s office. For me, it’s sitting in Atlanta traffic, unconsciously tapping my finger on the steering wheel to the sound of my blinker light. That’s entrainment!

However, it doesn’t stop there. Through rhythm, music has the ability to enhance movement speed, intensity and duration. It’s through the manipulation of music’s complex structures of rhythm, melody, harmony and dynamics that neuroscientists like Thaut and music therapy researchers & clinicians like Clair, Gfeller, Hamburg and many others are discovering interventions to improve efficiency, accuracy and acquisition of functional motor patterns. Thaut provides a detailed breakdown of musical properties and their translation of motor control: Rhythm and tempo support the timing and repetition of movement patterns while ascending and descending melodic lines indicate upward and downward actions. Harmony can affect the size of movement. Changes in dynamics (loud & soft) cue adduction, abduction, and strength in muscle activation, while alterations in pitch facilitate muscle contraction and relaxation. This pairing of musical elements to match spatial, temporal and force components of functional movement is known as pattern sensory enhancement (PSE).

So, how does all this transfer to my poor performance in my weekend workout class? Had the instructor had the background knowledge of PSE, exercise movements might have been programmed to the elements of the workout music. Weight lifting exercises would have followed the melodic contour of the music with squatting exercises performed during times when the melody was a lower pitch and overhead lifts performed as the melody rose and intensity grew. Additionally sustained movements would have been cued through growing dynamics within the music and releases designated once music had reached a dynamic climax. With that said, I hardly claim to present these ideas as my own. Many exercise programs have utilized these principles, however it takes a skilled instructor to facilitate these concepts. Even for professionals, it takes great practice to create optimal opportunities for muscle activation and overall greater efficiency of motor movement.

While you probably won’t see a music therapist on staff at your local gym, these principles have significant implications in the therapeutic setting for individuals acquiring motor skills, maintaining motor function, or rehabilitating skills affected by trauma. When board certified music therapists collaborate with other allied health professionals, a greater understanding of the relationship between music, movement, and it’s ability to enhance exercise programs is achieved.  Music therapists not only utilized PSE to effectively pair movement with music but more uniquely, music therapists are equipped to manipulate the music itself to address the specific needs of the client. In a study conducted in 2012 by Baker & Taylor participants report significant motivational gains, overall enjoyment and meaning in exercise tasks despite no significance in gross motor achievement between PSE group exercise and non-musical exercise.

As a music therapy intern, I interpret this research as an incredible starting point for our field. It represents an exciting opportunity to further investigation strategies in which PSE can be utilized to facilitate greater motor functionality. Perhaps maybe it can even enhance my own personal workout routine.

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