Photo by Ed Yourdon.
I wonder if, before Rocky was released in 1976, there existed such an obvious relationship between music and motivation? Despite one’s own personal age and memory of seeing the film for the first time, that now indelible bugle call to alarm that drives Rocky out of bed and into the cold for a day-long training session has become as much a part of the film’s mystique as it has a part of physical training history. The song, officially called “Gonna Fly Now” and composed by Bill Conti, is embedded in American pop culture —its ever-familiar military-esque opening solo and ’80s electro synthesized beat has continued to be used as a reference to any character who must push themselves to the limit physically to overcome great odds.
It’s not all just pop culture history and Hollywood inspiration, though. At least not according to a study done in 2008 at Brunel University’s School of Sport and Education. The study was part of a 20-year inquiry into the motivational qualities of music in sport and exercise. Not surprisingly, it concluded that, “carefully selected music can significantly increase a person’s physical endurance and make the experience of cardiovascular exercise far more positive.”
Well, in a word or two: No shit.
That said, what strikes me as most curious from the findings is the phrasing “carefully selected.” Carefully selected by whom? And how careful must that person be?
Thirty participants were monitored while running on a treadmill to pre-selected music with a specific upbeat tempo. (I also found it comical that the notable artists listed were Queen, Madonna, and The Red Hot Chili Peppers. To each his own, I guess.) More importantly, however, is that the athletes “were asked to keep in strict time with the beat” of the music. In my mind, this changes the intention of the study entirely, and not much worth discussing is learned. The second the participants were instructed to employ their headsets as the instructional guide to pace, the study was no longer about the inspirational qualities of a high-tempo rhythm. Instead, it became an examination of an innate human subconsciousness that relates physical exertion to external audio cadence. This is something music historians have been observing for centuries, whether it was in the marching songs of foot soldiers from the Civil War or the call-and-response field hymns of African American slaves who toiled in the Southern cotton and tobacco fields.
The 2008 findings at Brunel University also argue that “music can help exercisers to feel more positive even when they are working out at a very high intensity – [one] close to physical exhaustion.” This seems to be the much more qualitative portion of the study and then one that, in going back to the effects of “Gonna Fly Now” on the amateur athlete viewer, is a much more interesting topic. Placing cadence aside, how does music work to inspire during physical training? It is most likely one of two very opposite influences: Intense focus by association or mental diversion by way of dissociation. Do we perform in a way similar to the trainer we remember in the Nike campaign we have seen on TV because she too is training to music? In this instance it pulls the athlete into the moment of intensity, emulating a heroic Hollywood protagonist or professional athlete. Or does music act as a mental dislocator—pulling the athlete’s mind away from the task at hand and placing him in another memory where his body drives onward as his mind focuses elsewhere?
These abstract qualities of music on the physical athlete are what I was hoping the study would investigate. While Dr. Karageorghis’s, who headed the study, research fell short in understanding the power of music as an inspirational tool, his team was able to conclude music’s power “to make a considerable impact in the fight against public inactivity.” Dr. Karageorghi continued: “The effects of music on mood and emotions open up the possibility that it can be used to improve compliance to exercise and therefore help people achieve their long-term health and fitness goals.”
Amen to that.