• Counting Beats: Exercise Music and BPM

    Posted on September 3, 2013 by Jessica Ryan in Exercise and Sports.


    Before you read today’s blog post, I want you to take a couple of minutes to listen to Edvard Grieg’s “In the Hall of the Mountain King.” As you listen, think about how energizing you find the music.

    Now let’s discuss what you thought as you heard the piece. You probably found the quiet, slow opening somewhat subdued, but I’m guessing that as the main theme got louder and faster you felt the music’s energy level drastically increase. Grieg masterfully used a surge in tempo from about 110 beats per minute (BPM) to over 190 BPM to make one repeated theme go from sounding tentative to being downright exhilarating.

    ""As you may recall from last week’s blog post, BPM relates to the most important factor in exercise music selection: rhythm response. There are two major schools of thought when it comes to choosing a BPM range for your exercise music. The first approach says you should opt for a BPM range that approximates your heart rate, and the second approach suggests that you select a BPM range that corresponds with the pacing of your movements.[i]

    When choosing BPM to go along with your pulse, you first need to calculate your maximum heart rate. According to the American Heart Association, you can calculate your maximum heart rate by subtracting your age from 220.[ii] So if you’re 25 years old, you have a maximum heart rate of about 195. Next you should think about your goals and intended exercise intensity, as measured by your target heart rate (often 50-85% of your maximum heart rate[iii]). Then you can start picking music for your workout playlist. In research from 2011, Dr. Costas Karageorghis discovered that people aiming for a target heart rate between 40-90% of their maximum heart rate preferred to work out to music at a tempo between 125 and 140 BPM.[iv] Songs within this range include Georges Bizet’s “Les Toreadors” from Carmen (which begins around 132 BPM) and “O Fortuna” from Carl Orff’s Carmina Burana (around 138 BPM once it gets going). This BPM range applies primarily when people don’t try to align their movements with the music—in other words, when they use exercise music asynchronously.

    On the other hand, if you plan to synchronize your movements with a playlist, first estimate your rate of motion and then pick songs with similar tempi. For instance, if you are a runner you can easily determine your rate of motion, or cadence, by simply counting the number of steps you take in a minute. You probably have a cadence somewhere between 150 and 170 steps per minute if you run recreationally and a cadence of at least 180 if you’re an elite runner.[v] So you should listen to something like Gioachino Rossini’s “William Tell Overture-Finale,” which has a BPM of about 160, if you have a cadence near 160. Those of you lucky enough to have the cadence of an elite runner should listen to pieces like “The Crimson Gump” (approximately 180 BPM) from Alan Silvestri’s soundtrack to Forrest Gump.

    So is it better to use music synchronously or asynchronously during exercise? More research studies examine the asynchronous use of music than the synchronous use of music, and few studies compare these two approaches. The available research suggests that asynchronous and synchronous music deliver similar benefits, like distraction from pain and fatigue, better attitudes toward working out, and the ability to work out harder and/or longer; however, working out to synchronized music may provide extra advantages, like even greater ease and fluidity of motion during exercise.[vi] Since the jury’s still out as to which approach is better, I suggest you try both methods and discover what works for you. In the coming weeks we’ll try to help you out by providing playlists of both synchronous and asynchronous exercise music. We’ll also have a variety of BPM in our synchronous playlists to make sure that people doing all types of exercises can find something that works for them.

    One question remains. How do you calculate a song’s BPM? Luckily, a multitude of BPM calculators exist online. Here’s one calculator to get you started: Tap for Beats Per Minute BPM. Use this calculator as you listen to some of your exercise music this week, and share the names and BPM of your favorite workout songs in the comment section below!


    [i] Peterson, Dan.  “Music Benefits Exercise, Studies Show.”  LiveScience.  LiveScience, 21 Oct. 2009.  Web.  6 Mar. 2013.

    [ii] “Target Heart Rates.”  American Heart Association.  American Heart Association,  n.d.  Web.  28 Mar. 2013.

    [iii] Ibid.

    [iv] Karageorghis, Costas I., and David-Lee Priest.  “Music in the exercise domain: a review and synthesis (Part II).”  International Review of Sport and Exercise Psychology  5.1  (2012) : 67-84.  Web.  20 Feb. 2013.

    [v] Phillips, Matt.  “Heel Striking, Overstriding, and Cadence.”  Runners Connect.  Runners Connect,  n.d.  Web.  25 Apr. 2013.   

    [vi] Karageorghis, Costas I., and David-Lee Priest.  “Music in the exercise domain: a review and synthesis (Part II).”  International Review of Sport and Exercise Psychology  5.1  (2012) : 67-84.  Web.  20 Feb. 2013.

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2 Responses so far.

  1. Kate says:

    What an informative and interesting blog post. Looking forward to the next one!

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