Music For Exercise And Beyond

We often listen to music as we exercise, but why? Among other things, it distracts us from feeling tired or noticing small aches and pains. It provides a rhythm which our bodies try to match, thereby pushing us to go further, longer, or with greater intensity-enhancing our performance. It gives us the impetus to get moving.

When using music for exercise, you may have already noticed that:

  • Songs you like work best
  • You need different music for different activities
  • Depending on the exercise, you need pieces with a wide variety of speeds, or tempos
  • Your preferences vary from day to day
  • You may need to vary the music so that it continues to motivate you
  • Singing along or belting out the lyrics while you exercise can be a good outlet.

Your music choices are personal, tied to your moods and goals, your language, culture and background. While hip hop and rock seem to be on many playlists, you may not like those genres or you might want more variety.

So let’s look at how you can expand your playlist to meet your changing needs. Spotify is a good place to start, since it is free and has a huge range of musical possibilities from which to choose. You can begin by searching for “exercise playlists” or perhaps something more specific like “Irish exercise music” or “classical exercise music.” You can also Google “exercise music” or search on Pandora. I have also looked at YouTube exercise videos, Amazon exercise and music videos, and iTunes. Without a doubt there are many more sites and the options keep growing.

How else can music help us? Using music can help us with depression and pain management, and it can improve our feeling of being in control. We can use it to help us sleep or to get us into a trance-like state where we can rest. This leads us into the field of music therapy which we will investigate at another time.

Start with the breath

Here is an exercise for calming that I find very helpful:

Start by finding a time and place where you can be uninterrupted for awhile. Get into a comfortable seated position where your spine is in good alignment and you can breathe freely. You can sit on a chair with your legs apart, or sit cross-legged on a cushion on the floor. Using whatever techniques you may have already learned, take some deep diaphragm breaths until you are fully aware of your breath. When you are ready, make a low sighing sound on your next exhale, and let the pitch get lower as you breathe out. Repeat. On your next exhalation settle on a pitch, sing it, and stay on that pitch until you run out of air. Inhale, then exhale and continue to produce the same pitch until you again run out of air. Repeat.

At this point you can sing your note while you listen to a chant, or you can begin to chant, hum or sing something of your choice: a religious chant, an affirmation, or a favorite song. If you are in a group, you can have a sing-along. Or you can listen to something peaceful that is at a relatively slow tempo.  There are chants available in many religious traditions and languages, or you may want warm, soothing music written for plucked instruments such as the lute, guitar, or oud. Perhaps you might prefer the Beethoven Romances for violin and orchestra or something for piano like Erik Satie’s Gymnopedies.  The collections entitled Bedtime Beats and Cello Adagios might give you some more ideas, and the inner movements of symphonies and concerti can also be good options.

Movement to music

You can choose from a wide variety of dance music including Minuets, Bourees, allemandes, waltzes, Irish reels and jigs, tangos and many more.

You can practice Eurhythmics or Dalcroze and create or improvise a dance.

Making Music

Join a drum circle. It’s easy to find one!

Participate in Music for People and improvise with others.

Experiment with body percussion.

Make DIY instruments and play around with them.

Try playing a wind instrument. There are all kinds of wind instruments, from kazoos and recorders to oboes and clarinets. Does playing the instrument help your breathing?

Bobby McFerrin’s music has a lot of vocal improvisation in it. Try making up an additional vocal part or singing along with different vocal lines in his recordings. Or hum one note, a drone, as you listen to a song. Change the note when it feels like it clashes, or hold it and see what happens.

Active Listening

Draw while you listen to a symphony. Does the character of a piece suggest to you that you use certain colors or types of strokes such as long lines, dots or jagged motions? Do different instruments also suggest different colors or shapes?

Write while you listen. What is the story that occurs while the piece unfolds?

Bartok arranged many Rumanian folk dances. What titles would you give each of those pieces, and what happens in the story?

Questions to explore:

Many of your choices for music and activities are very much dependent on the goals for the session. So once you know the age and demographic makeup of your audience, determining the goals must come first!

What music would you choose for work with the breath, for movement to music, for group music making and for active listening if your group is

K-6, 7-9, 10-12; college, 20-30, 30-40; 40-50, 50-60, or 60-70 and older?

Who works with these age groups and could advise you?

How would you adjust for a K-8, 9-12 special needs class or group?

How about for patients of different ages? How about a religious group? A refugee group?

June 2014, updated May 2, 2016

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