Science of Exercise Music with Professor Costas Karageorghis

Behind every favorite artist, song, or lyric, is a story you've never heard. Music is highly personal, and our experiences with it shape our memories, thoughts, and desires. So much goes into every note and lyric behind the scenes, which is why we’re bringing you Voices Behind the Music to share untold music business tales. Our guests range from artists, producers, and managers to tech creators and more, each sharing their unique past experiences, current projects, and visions for the future. Voices Behind The Music is presented by Feed Media Group, the leading B2B music licensing platform.

Hosted by Jeff Yasuda, CEO, Feed Media Group.



Professor Costas Karageorghis’ expertise is in the psychological, psychophysical and neurophysiological effects of music in exercise and sport. His scientific output includes over 200 scholarly articles, 12 chapters in edited texts and the text 'Inside Sport Psychology' (Human Kinetics). He has recently published a second text, 'Applying Music in Exercise and Sport' (Human Kinetics), as well as an associated study guide.



Podcast Transcript

[00:00:00] Jeff: Innovators in the music industry are thinking deeply about what's next and how to be a part of it. On Voices Behind the Music, you'll hear from some of the most influential voices in music about how the industry is changing and what the future might unfold. 

Today, we are here with professor Costas Karageorghis, the leading researcher at the intersection of fitness, psychology and music. Professor Karageorghis is the professor of sport and exercise psychology at Brunel University, London. Today's podcast is especially exciting for me, because Costas has spent over 20 years researching the effect of music on exercise. 

In fact, we've already teamed up with Costas and released a white paper this year in January entitled "The ABC of Music in Exercise: Effect Behavior and Cognition", in which Costas releases a goldmine of scientific data, reinforcing that music influences exercise in profound ways. 

He shares data that the right music at the right time pumps people up before a workout, distracts people from fatigue while boosting efficiency, and improves the mood after exercise. And you can find this white paper in the free guide section at FeedFM.

These are concepts that may seem intuitively obvious, but Costas has the data to back it up and we'll talk about this later today. He is the author of two textbooks on human kenetics, has written extensively, meaning literally hundreds of papers and articles in sport and exercise psychology. 

He's put his findings into practice having coached multiple championship university teams and is an accomplished jazz piano player. So we are thrilled to have this Renaissance man researcher and overall rad dude to the podcast today. Professor Karageorghis, welcome to Voices Behind the Music.

[00:02:06] Costas: You'll have to translate that rad dude. I'm not sure that's in my lexicon, Jeff. 

[00:02:13] Jeff: Well, it's a good thing. But thanks so much for being here and for starters, tell us what are you working on right now?

[00:02:20] Costas: Right now, I'm doing some really exciting work on how music influences oxygenation in the brain. And essentially, and just in the last few years, modern technologies have given us real insight as to how music affects the brain during exercise. And there's one particular technology that I'm really interested, which is known as functional near infrared spectroscopy. 

I know that's a bit of a mouthful, but essentially the technique entails shining infrared lights through the skull, into the brain. And it allows us to see areas of the brain that are oxygenated and deoxygenated, meaning that we can tell just how hard the brain is working through various types of tasks. 

I have this theory and I don't want to say too much about it publicly, that essentially the presence of music influences the oxygenation curve in the brain. And given that this has never been examined, it's a central question that I'm examining. 

[00:03:20] Jeff: What do you mean by oxygenation curve?

[00:03:23] Costas: Essentially what I mean is that the presence of music extends the time before certain areas of the brain dip from being oxygenated and let's say nourished, to being deoxygenated. And thus leading the human organism towards fatigue. 

[00:03:44] Jeff: Do you think that music affects the way we breathe, which in essence changes the rate at which deoxygenation occurs? Or is it the actual music itself that potentially changes something in the brain?

[00:03:59] Costas: I think what is happening is that music is influencing our emotional or affective response. And so pleasure for longer. Feeling that pleasure often means that the brain has to work a little less hard. It needs slightly less oxygen as a consequence. 

[00:04:20] Jeff: That is amazing, amazing stuff. And are you putting this into practice with some of the athletes that you work with? Or tell me about, if you could, about the testing process. What happens in your lab?

[00:04:32] Costas: Yeah. In this particular area, I think that practice has been coming before theory and before scientific investigation for many years. And that is because since time immemorial we've realized the power of music. Be that a mother singing to an infant to calm it, or soldiers using rousing music to enter battle as the Spartans did, or be it someone whistling a tune to dissociate from the pains in their life. We know intuitively that music has an effect on us.

But really what I've been trying to do particularly in recent years is to understand why that is. To take an under the bonnet approach. To look inside the brain using various technologies, to really see what is happening at a mechanistic level.

To answer your question directly, my lab at Brunel University, London, we have of course conducted many, many behavioral type studies where for example, we work people to exhaustion and see how they perform with one type of music versus another, versus control. All we changed the type of music application.

So the music might be before a task, what we call a pre-task application. It might be during a task, either synchronously, whether it's conscious synchronization with the music. Asynchronously, whether music is playing in the background. On other occasions, we've used music as a recuperative tool after exercise to see whether it speeds up or it expedites recovery processes.

A lot of those behavioral type studies do show positive findings, but of course the central problem in any kind of music research is that you cannot use what is known as double blinding. Where in the participant is blind to the intervention, and the researcher is blind also. And therein lies a limitation that pervades all scientific work in this field. To reach some sort of objective truth as to how music influences the human organism and the human brain, we use techniques such as electroencephalography, where we measure electrical activity in the brain. 

We use a functional magnetic resonance imaging, which is a great technique because it gives us great insight into what's happening deep inside the brain. So the other forms of neuroimaging are quite superficial. But as well as that, we're able to use other scientific techniques, such as electromyography to understand what is happening in the muscle while we listen to music. 

And on occasion, of course, we've used such techniques in parallel. For example, we've used electroencephalography and electromyography together. And one novel and really interesting finding to emerge from that line of work, was that the presence of music during exercise change the firing of clusters of neurons. 

The synchronization, desynchronization and resynchronization of key clusters of neurons in the brain associated with the movement, were altered. Wherein the frequency or the rates of the firing was lessened, so it was less frequent. But the neurons fired, they did so with amplitude. And the messages that we were picking up in the brain were actually echoed in the muscle. That gives us tremendous insight. And when you talk about hitting a flow state, being in the zone we know intuitively that that sometimes happens. But using such scientific approaches really helps us to understand why that happens. 

[00:08:17] Jeff: That is amazing stuff. And one of the things that we spend a lot of time thinking about is the concept of personalization. And as you know, we have a lot of clients and partners in the fitness segment and sort of the holy grail is to provide the right music to the right person at the right time.

And I'm wondering if the rate which, your example the muscles contracted or responded in an elevated state, is different as you change songs or has any personal characteristic?

[00:08:53] Costas: That is a really insightful question, Jeff. And I'm afraid the answer is not necessarily simple because there are universal properties of music and there are psychoacoustic properties that causes to respond in certain ways. And those ways of responding can be universal. So it was long thought, for example, that if you had a preference for a given piece of music, it would lower your perceived exertion during exercise.

And I believed this too very early in my career when I started out 30 years ago. But having done many, many studies into this and with different forms of music, I've come to learn that any type of music will reduce perceived exertion. You don't necessarily have to have a preference for it. 

The margins of gains are accentuated you have a particular preference for the music. So if it stems from your social cultural background, if it's the sort of music that your peers listen to, maybe it was even the sort of music that your parents listened to, and it's music that you have a relationship and association with, then it's affects a magnified somewhat. So if I were to quantify this for you, in terms of perceived exertion alone, which is one variable that we look at a great deal. On average, music will reduce perceived exertion by about 10%. That only works at low to moderate intensities of exercise. 

Any piece of music will lower perceived exertion by about 8%. And a preferred piece of music will lower perceived exertion by 12%. So you can see that there is some variability there. Now there are universal properties such as the rhythmic accentuation, whether the music is syncopated or unsyncopated, the tempo of the music, the harmonic structure. Of course, music with major happy type harmony will have the tendency to elevate affective or emotional state. And music with a minor tonality will have the opposite effect. 

Interestingly, although this tends to be a universal in Western culture, there are many Eastern cultures in which the use of the minor tonality, particularly at a high tempo is associated with deeply pleasurable and meditative states. There are variations, and there is conditioning that takes place through culture. So although some aspects of this are universal, such as tempo, such as volume, there are other aspects wherein there are subtle differences such as the major, minor modality.

But also if we think about a major components of music being the lyrical content, if most people who are English speaking, listen to Spanish or music, they associate that with romance and love. But of course, somebody who speaks those languages understand the nuance and may have entirely different associations. Similarly, if we take Latin American music and Cuban music in particular, such as salsa Which is highly syncopated. If you use salsa music with an exercise class in England, you will see people that sixes and nine struggling to keep up with the tempo.

But if you go and watch an exercise class in Miami, everybody's in perfect sync with it because essentially they've grown up with that type of music.

[00:12:33] Jeff: That is amazing. So there is a cultural bias to music and how it an individual.

Can you talk a little bit about trends that you are seeing with music and fitness? Do you talk to fitness companies, you know, meaning like the Tonals and the Mirrors of the world, and in some ways, do you ever work with them consulting about the use of music and fitness to have that perception?

Are you seeing any trends that we should know about?

[00:13:00] Costas: So I talk to fitness companies almost every week, and also agencies that license music. So there is a deep interest in the science of music in exercise. In fact, The science of music and exercise is an adventure happening all around us right now. It is an area that is really proliferating and gaining a lot of interest.

Interestingly, when I started out, people thought I was really foolish and they tried to discourage me from pursuing line of work and said it would never amount to much. I'd never make a career out of it. But I knew back then when I saw the power of what people like Jane Fonda were doing, and the popularity of the Sony Walkman, that things were set to change, particularly with new technologies and personal listening devices becoming ever more ergonomic. 

So in terms of my interactions with the industry, Some of the key points relate to the personalization of music programs and understanding a range of personal variables and how they feed into selection. Centuries ago, the celebrated Roman philosopher Lucreatis said that one man's meat is another man's poison. And if we translate that into modern day parlance, one person's music is another person's noise. 

And so clearly for any technological company, they need to be savvy the variables that feed in people's music preferences, the intersection between a modality, a type of exercise, the intensity of that exercise, and a range of personal factors. And how to marry different facets in order to optimize a music program. 

So it is about that seeking, the peaks and troughs of a workout, marrying the music to the clients, optimizing the qualities of the music, the mode and intensity of exercise. When to use music, when not to use music, music can be used to enhance group cohesion, particularly an exercise class. How people with different types of personality can optimize their use of music. 

[00:15:22] Jeff: That is fascinating stuff. Again, to just go back on this personalization element, I mean, part of what we do at Feed, and we actually have to do this by law because there are some specific rules around the frequency of let's say, a particular album. We play it more than a certain amount songs in a prescribed period, to be compliance with the internet radio statute in the United States.

But what is really fascinating is the next phase that we're starting to think about, and no one is really doing this to my knowledge except maybe you, but is to actually on a personalized level, specific songs for a specific individual can create improved performance. You know, does a particular song work for one individual, in other words, have them always listen to that song before, you know, before a game or whatever. 

[00:16:18] Costas: Yeah, I'd say a couple of things in response to that. First it's certainly something that we've been researching maybe for the last 10 or 12 years. 

 One of the projects that I've been working on recently, concerns creating bespoke pieces of music for individuals. Wherein, I analyze their music library. I run a series of personality tests. I also test in the lab how they respond to different pieces of music under different circumstances. And on occasion I've even had the opportunity work with their favorite artist in the studio to come up with a track. 

I did just start for the Olympian, Dai Green, who was Great Britain's field captain at the 2012 Olympic games. His agency linked me with his favorite artist, Red Light, and we came up with a track called talk to the drum. Hopefully, your listeners can find it and have a listen themselves. Dai used that on route to the Olympic games in the cauldron of Olympic competition as well. So that's where the future might lie. Bespoke music. 

[00:17:27] Jeff: Love it. That is an awesome story. 

[00:17:29] Costas: But I want to add a really important caveat to that. And this is something we've known about since the late sixties, early seventies with the work of the very famous psycho musicologists, Daniel Berlin, is that there is an inverted year relationship between exposure to a given piece of music and the degree to which you like it. So as a tracking company, you need to know where you are on that inverted U, because if you're tracking likes on the way up to peak liking then clearly you are encouraging and you are feeding an individual pieces of music in a very positive way. 

One that is likely to feed into their performance and pardon the pun there. But if you catch them on download of the inverted U, of course you can be having the converse effect and you are causing boredom and irritation through overexposure.

[00:18:27] Jeff: Wow. Okay. Okay. Well, and that kind of gets to another interesting topic, which is around kind of the degradation of a song, right? How long is a song interesting or still exciting for an individual? How long do I like this? It Amazes me that some tunes are able to last 52 weeks at number one or whatever, because there's just a natural decay. But you're saying that you're able to actually monitor decay for each and at the individual level.

[00:19:00] Costas: You can monitor decay at the individual level, but I have to say to respond directly to your question, It's not just about the individual. Because there are inherent qualities music that determine their shelf life. So if you take typical bubblegum pop, maybe of the sort that is produced by an artist such as Megan Trainer. Megan's music is immediately appealing and strikes a chord with people, but it's difficult to listen to it in perpetuity. 

If you take a group such as Queen for example, there is such subtlety, such intricacy, such artistry in their music that you can listen to it repeatedly and always hear something different. Much of this has to do with artistry, with aesthetic, with harmonic progression, rhythmic complexity, and these are also factors that we give a lot of attention to in our area of research. 

[00:19:58] Jeff: That is a segue to talk about your love of jazz. a lover of jazz as well, and you know, one of my desert island albums is of course, Kind of Blue by Miles Davis. But jazz, it pains me to say this, but there are times in my journey that I have described jazz as a dying art form.

It could be because it is in my view, the antithesis of the bubble gum pop, you Megan Trainer reference that you just made, it's highly complex. It requires in many cases, a degree of training to understand the complexity. And, for many it's not very approachable. Would you say that complexity is that fundamental driver of shelf life?

[00:20:52] Costas: Gosh, you've caught me talking about a topic now that I really love. How long have we got? 

[00:20:59] Jeff: As long as you want.

[00:21:00] Costas: You cited Miles Davis, Blue. That is the archetypal jazz album. And if anyone were to use an entree into the jazz world, I think that would be it.

[00:21:10] Jeff: I totally agree.

[00:21:12] Costas: Now, this notion of complexity is a salient one. And of course there is a great deal of complexity in jazz. It's complex in terms of its harmonic structure due to the extensions of codes that are used. It's complex in the way that chords progress. In many instances, that harmonic structure is pulled apart and distorted and then brought back and people can find that challenging. There is speed play. Jazz can speed up and it can slow down. So you have accelerandos, ralontandos, people play with the time. There are huge amounts of syncopation or offbeat fields where sometimes playing in a jazz quartet, you hardly know where you are because it's syncopated. 

And it has this strong improvisational quality that often plays with melodic themes to a degree that are inverted or repeated in different keys, or there are some slight shifts made in intervals within the music. So you have a lot of variables that are changing simultaneously in jazz. And that of course creates huge complexity. Jazz is not the optimal music for an exercise context. It's very difficult to find a solid beat in jazz. It takes a great deal of processing. 

And so if you're working out at a high intensity, the afferent nervous system, the nervous system that delivers messages from your working muscles in your vital organs to the central processor, is loading that central processor. And to then have to process a very complex art form simultaneously, is very difficult indeed. 

Generally speaking, jazz and exercise, they don't mix very well. In my life they've certainly happened separately, but it is for me, the ultimate form of music. It's so indulgent, so beautiful. It has so many different textures. I never tire of it. And of course, every time it is performed, you take any standard such as take five or take the A train or kind of blue or whatever it might be, it's always different. Always changes, always metamorphosizing. And for that reason, it's been a long running love affair for me, for you. And for many others. 

[00:23:39] Jeff: Now are you, are you still playing? Are still gigging?

[00:23:42] Costas: Very much so, very much so. Albeit the haitus generale of the pandemic, put pay to hooking up with my fellow musicians and playing out live. It's just beginning to gather momentum. Yep. We still have a COVID issue in London so I'm still erring on the side of caution, but, I hope over next year we can get back into the groove quite literally. 

[00:24:09] Jeff: And are you playing more, are you playing standards? Are you doing original? Are you writing at all or?

[00:24:16] Costas: Most of what I do would be maybe taking a standard, picking it apart, doing it in quite an unusual ways, maybe with we call Courteille chords or outlandish scales in different rhythmic patterns, and such. Sometimes pulling it apart and then bringing it back together or taking songs from the pop culture.

Bill Withers is one of my favorite artists and then pulling those apart and bringing them back. Jazz provides the perfect vehicle for that exploration, and I have to say every time I do find the time to play it leaves me with a warm glow. It really does.

[00:24:57] Jeff: I love it. I love it. Well, this has been amazing. I want to ask you a couple of sort of nutty questions here that I asked all of my guests. The one that creates a lot of difficulty to share is what was the first album that you purchased?

[00:25:15] Costas: The artist and the one that I bought that really stayed with me was Thriller by Michael Jackson. That was a really interesting album and one that I really got into and found myself listening to repeatedly and then playing and then trying to play it in different ways. Yeah, probably Thriller Michael Jackson, going back into the early 1980. 

[00:25:34] Jeff: Awesome. And then what about your favorite concert that you've attended?

[00:25:40] Costas: My favorite concert has to be one with late Chick Corea. I know he passed away sadly, recently. But I went to see him play at the Barbican in East London with Gary Burton, the vibes player when I was a young undergraduate. I just remember sitting there and how much that blew me away and how much that inspired me. memory stayed with me forever. So Chick is really in the sweet spot of the sort of music that I enjoy listening to.

[00:26:09] Jeff: Awesome. And then the last question. In your travels, you've probably met some very, very exciting and interesting people. And can you share any star struck moments?

[00:26:20] Costas: Just over a decade ago, I was asked by the international management group to work on a big project that involved live music for a half marathon. So positioning bounds around a half marathon course to inspire and entertain the runners and the crowds. And we organize this huge event in East London around the O2 Arena in Greenwich called Run to the Beat.

And I was looking for artists to hire, to play on the various band stands. And I was scratching my head thinking, who might we get on the main stage? And I'd heard about this up and coming rap stuff from Southwest London called Tiny Temper. He didn't have much of a reputation then, but yeah, I was getting the vibe that he was up and coming. We got him on the main stage and he literally drew thousands of people to this event.

It was a sports event, not a music event and people were just going nuts. A few weeks later he had his first number one hit in the billboard charts. Yeah, sometimes I try and take the credit for discovering Tiny Temper though. He had his momentum, but it was just fortuitous, I think that we got him for that event a little bit before he became massively famous. 

[00:27:38] Jeff: Maybe you've got a second job opportunity as an ANR, a person for one of the labels. 

[00:27:45] Costas: And a humble guy and I'm really glad that he's been so successful through the years. 

[00:27:51] Jeff: Well, terrific. Professor Costas Karageorghis, thank you so much for being on the show. You are a lovely, humble guy too. And we were so lucky to have you on the show and my goodness, I hope we can have you again.

[00:28:04] Costas: That would be a pleasure. Thank you for the invite and see you soon. 

[00:28:08] Jeff: Thanks for listening to Voices Behind the Music, a Growth Network Podcast production presented by Feed Media Group. We're on a mission to make it easy, fast, and legal for businesses to use music to power the most engaging customer experiences. Make sure to subscribe to the podcast wherever you get yours and learn more about us at



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