Why do you get out of bed each morning? Not the expected responses — to go to work, take care of the kids, coffee, etc.. An answer you probably didn’t expect is chemistry. Indeed, if not for dopamine, we wouldn’t feel motivated to do much of anything, ever.
You probably hear about this “molecule of motivation” often: how to get more of it and the good feelings resulting from it. While this neurotransmitter functions on several levels—aiding in digestion, helping out our immune system and reducing insulin production—for our purpose, dopamine is a primary agent of reward. When we accomplish something, the ecstatic rush coursing through our body is thanks to this special chemical.
While too much of a good thing is possible — (for instance, addictive drugs increase dopamine neuronal activity) — let’s take a look at one addiction that isn’t going to hurt you: music. In fact, if you’re in need of a boost in your workout regimen, choosing the right music might be one of the most important components of getting started.
The Emotion of Motivation
Before diving into how music moves us, let’s take a brief look at motivation. Humans have a biological imperative to constantly move forward. Sometimes it takes a tragedy to get us going, while another trigger is sheer boredom: we need to change it up. Even an illusion can motivate us, like Don Quixote fighting the windmills he believed to be ferocious beasts. If you’re reading this, you’re most likely wondering how to get motivated to do something related to wellness, like exercise (or take your program to another level).
Being motivated implies following through with a plan. Every task needs motivation, though menial duties like eating or brushing your teeth don’t require much. We normally reserve the word motivation for projects that take effort or go against the grain, requiring a lot of frontal lobe effort in our brain. Most importantly, our primitive subcortical brain (a.k.a. our reptilian brain) structures need to be activated as well. These ancient structures are where our basic emotions emerge from, signaling our sympathetic nervous system to fight, fly or freeze.
Motivation requires more emotional commitment than intellectual acknowledgement. How often do we know we should be doing something, yet persist in previous patterns? But dopamine doesn’t consider behavior to be ‘good’ or ‘bad.’ If you’re accustomed to hitting up happy hour instead of HIIT, your behavior will be rewarded. However, if you’re trying to form healthier patterns, music is your stimulating best friend.
Feeling the Beat in Your Daily Life
One of music’s energizing effects comes from its ability to engage our sympathetic nervous system. The activation of this system readies the body for action whenever we face a challenge in our environment. Auditory signals and abrupt sounds that suddenly increase in frequency or volume trigger alerting responses and increase physiological arousal.
Let’s take that thought with us to the bedroom and how music can affect your day. Though counterintuitive to those that enjoy hitting snooze, it is important to set your alarm clock with soothing noises. The first sound you hear each day influences your mood, alertness, energy level and behavior. For instance, a harsh alarm jolting you out of sleep elevates your cortisol levels for hours—which is not the motivation we are looking for. That midday crash might not be from too much coffee after all, but from your body coming down from that initial rush from a harsh wake-up call.
How Music Aids in Motion
When we think of motivating music, we imagine intense rhythms and loud instruments. Our primal, instinctual systems want to fight, not flee, which is how we psyche ourselves up for a group fitness class or a long run. There’s good reason that your favorite high-energy classes are playing upbeat tunes: rhythms can induce an internal pulse that humans continually anticipate. Anticipation is an important component of motivation; for example, our brain begins releasing dopamine before the downbeat of a song—one reason why music suddenly stopping is so jarring.
When listening to rhythmic music we remain in constant engagement, anticipating the next downbeat while having the urge to move to it. This process is called entrainment. Interestingly, the degenerative disorder, Parkinson’s disease, results from the death of dopamine-generating cells in the human brain. Music with a steady beat can aid Parkinson’s patients in moving. Music doesn’t repair the faulty neurons, but it does help patients overcome the symptoms by transporting the brain to a higher level of integration and motivation. Videos feature patients, usually unable to control their motor neurons, elegantly dance when a rhythmic song is played, making music not only motivational but therapeutic as well.
The increase of dopamine allows the patient to entrain their motions, providing a stream of intention and motivation that enables them to move without thinking about it.
This sonic motivation is no different than how music affects all of us. Music lifts us from our stagnant psychological habits and helps our brain fire in ways it normally would not.
How it Works to Give You Energy
Costas Karageorghis, one of the world’s leading experts on the psychology of exercise music, writes that music is “a type of legal performance-enhancing drug.”
Music distracts us from pain and fatigue, elevates mood, increases endurance and focus, reduces perceived effort, and may even promote metabolic efficiency. When listening to music, we run farther, bike longer and swim faster.
While personal history plays a role—musical preferences will often motivate you more than unfamiliar styles—a good instructor that chooses the right tunes has a consequential effect on your workout.
Nothing motivates us like the intense kick drum of a house track or a searing electric guitar. McGill University professor Robert Zatorre’s studies have shown physical evidence that angry-sounding music creates physiological changes through increased activity of our sympathetic nervous system. Neuroimaging research showed increased activation in our amygdala—our brain’s center for emotional reactivity—when hearing such intense music as well. Driving, thunderous music provokes a primitive essence.
And that essence provokes movement. Our ancestors didn’t have this special thing called exercise. Their lives were full of movement. Different times call for different responses, however. If motivation is what you’re seeking, loading up your playlist with upbeat, pulsing music is not only going to get you moving, but keep you moving longer and stronger than before. The science is on your side.
Here are four tracks from artists who capture the qualities of music that motivates, as described in this article.
All of these tracks (except for Eccodek) are from Black Swan Sounds.