(a) Heart pounding, (b) out of breath, (c) muscles tired, (d) altered perception of time. One of these experiences is NOT what I would typically associate with exercise… until recently, that is. Any guesses which?
I’d just finished an evening run, and was driving back home from the trail with some of my favorite music playing. But whooooooaaaa, nelly, did it sound slow!
Like, nigh unbearably slow. I’m talking goofily exaggerated slow-motion movie scene slow. Which was odd, because I was pretty certain the song in question was usually at a solid “andante” tempo. Suddenly it sounded like it was being sung by Treebeard the Ent, or Flash the DMV Sloth from Zootopia.
Full disclosure – I’m still pretty new to this whole “physical activity” thing.
So you may have noticed this strange phenomenon long ago. But this was a novel experience for me.
Why did some songs sound slower after exercising?
My only thought: “This can’t be the music. It must be my brain.”
Turns out, it probably was! A few google searches later, and I’m reading research articles about music, the brain, and exercise.
For us Music Therapists, the neurological effects of music on the brain are familiar territory – though still always exciting to learn more about!
But adding exercise into the mix? Apparently things get weird.
Here are some potential reasons for this bizarre Tempo Time Warp:
1. There is a tight link between motor activity and temporal processing.
A 2012 study (Hagura, Et al.) examined why professional ball players often experience the ball “slowing down” before hitting it. The findings – as well as other existing literature – indicate a tight link between action preparation and the areas of the brain devoted to coding the passage of time. These same areas of the brain are responsible for anticipating the amount of time an upcoming motion will take. Thus, the motor system plans accordingly. For this very reason, the Academy of Neurologic Music Therapy places an emphasis on tempo and rhythm in facilitating movement interventions, such that the brain is given a “start” and “end” point between each beat of a song to provide an efficient neural map to aid motor planning!
If our brain’s processing of time (e.g. tempo of music) can inform and invigorate our movements, it makes sense that – maybe – it can work in reverse too. Vigorous movement (e.g. exercise) could, perhaps, inform or even alter our perception of time in music.
2. The Musical “Sweet Spot”
According to an interview between Business Insider and one Dr. Costas Karageorghis – author of “Applying Music in Exercise and Sport” – “It seems that as exercise intensity increases, the human organism prefers a higher tempo […] However, there is a ceiling effect in terms of music tempo preference at around ~140 bpm and any increase in tempo beyond this does not result in correspondingly enhanced aesthetic responses or greater subjective motivation.”
Because people tend to prefer faster, more stimulating music when exercising at a high intensity, the need for more stimulation “may translate to a perception that the music tempo is decreasing.”
Essentially, this means that congruence between activity level and musical elements (especially tempo) matters. It would feel strange to watch a car chase in an action movie while listening to Chopin’s Raindrop Prelude, or to pair a lullaby with a football highlights reel. As Music Therapists, we call this the “Iso Principle” – matching the music to the current physical or emotional state of the client before gradually shifting. And apparently, if the music we listen to while exercising is incongruous with our activity level – outside of our tempo “sweet spot,” that is – it may even sound slower than normal!
Furthermore, if our rate of movement continues to increase as we work harder in exercise (i.e. running at a faster pace), and yet the music stays at a steady tempo, it can feel as though the tempo is decreasing.
3. Think fast!
It turns out, our brains may even process things at a faster rate when we exercise, so the speed of external stimuli such as music feels as though it is decreasing. Dr. Karageorghis explains, “During low-to-moderate intensity exercise, the brain is oxygenated and so processing speeds can be increased as a consequence, especially in older adults.”
However, the reverse is true at higher intensities of exercise, such that processing of external stimuli such as music is actually limited.
4. “Everything hurts and I’m dying.”
The perception of time is also subjective, changing based on our experiences and what we’re doing. We know this as we get older, because my, how the years fly. When we’re ten years old, a full year is a significant chunk of our life, and thus time feels as though it moves more slowly than when we’re older. You’ve certainly heard the phrase “time flies when you’re having fun!” The opposite seems to hold true as well, doesn’t it? When you’re longing intensely for something, time can really slow down.
During intense exercise, then, the pain of physical exertion may cause a longing for relief, and thus a “slowing down” of time.
So it sounds like a lot of factors play into the Tempo Time Warp!
In any case, this is just another reminder of how intricate and complex – and just downright fascinating! – our brains’ responses to music in conjunction with other activities of life can be.
– Kevin Middlebrooks, LPMT, MT-BC, NMT
Read more about this topic from Lindsay Dodgson at Business Insider here: https://www.businessinsider.com/why-music-appears-to-slow-down-when-you-exercise-2017-9?r=UK&IR=T
Hagura, N., Kanai, R., Orgs, G., & Haggard, P. (2012). Ready steady slow: Action preparation slows the subjective passage of time. Proceedings of the Royal Society B: Biological Sciences,279(1746). doi:https://doi.org/10.1098/rspb.2012.1339
The Academy of Neurologic Music Therapy: https://nmtacademy.co/