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“You cannot wear headphones during competitions. We wanted to do a study that reflected the reality of those who play sport,” Aron Laxdal (left) says. Here he is in the studio with Andreas Waaler Røshol.
“You cannot wear headphones during competitions. We wanted to do a study that reflected the reality of those who play sport,” Aron Laxdal (left) says. Here he is in the studio with Andreas Waaler Røshol.

Listening to music before a competition can boost your performance

If you want to perform your best as an athlete, it may help to first put on a pair of headphones. 

If you exercise regularly, you have probably noticed that you increase the effort if you have music playing in the background. Researchers know this as the ergogenic effect: The right music makes you feel less tired and produces a positive stress response in the body.

“It is well known that music can improve performance when exercising. But athletes can't wear headphones during competitions. We wanted to understand what happens if you listen to music before a competition, not during," Aron Laxdal says. He is an associate professor at the University of Agder (UiA).

To get to the bottom of this, he and his colleagues needed 40 young soldiers and two versions of a self-composed techno track.

Needed music that was unknown

“We recruited subjects to take part in the experiment from military recruits. It was a conscious choice because they are about the same age, have more or less the same taste in music, and are relatively well-trained,” Laxdal says.

It was important for the researchers to control things that might affect the results. Therefore, the choice of music used was also crucial. 

“If someone has a particular relationship with Eye of the Tiger, they will perform especially well when they’ve heard it. Others might have a negative relationship with the song, and that can also affect performance,” he says.

The researchers needed to find a piece of music that none of the participants had heard before. The solution was a bachelor student in electronic music from UiA's Faculty of Fine Arts.

Specially composed music

“As far as we know, this is the first time someone has used self-composed music to investigate the effect it has before competitions,” Andreas Waaler Røshol says. 

He is an assistant professor at UiA and heads the electronic music bachelor's programme at the university. Røshol tasked his students with creating a piece of music that would be suitable for training, and that could be adjusted in tempo.

“The challenge was to create a piece of music that fits the study but still has qualities equivalent to something that could be on the subjects’ playlist,” he says.

The best solution came from student Martin Brudevoll Vosseteig. His techno track was designed in such a way that is could be played both faster and slower without compromising the quality of the music. 

“It strengthens our research that we were able to design the music to such a large extent. We wanted music that the target group would understand, without vocals, and that would make people want to exercise,” Røshol says.

Previous research at UiA shows that your body physically responds to electronic dance music (EDM) whether you want to or not. 

Better prepared with music

In a series of experiments, the 40 young soldiers - 23 men and 17 women - either listened to the fast version, the slow version, or no music at all. 

Afterward, they were asked how they felt. Finally, they completed a 30-second session on the rowing machine.

The researchers measured the effect of the music in two areas.

One area was mental state. This concerns how the participants felt. The second area concerns about how prepared the participants were to perform, how 'eager' they were.

“The participants scored higher in both areas after listening to the music. Regardless of whether the music was fast or slow, it had a positive preparatory effect on the performer compared to when they were not listening to music,” Laxdal says. 

Those who had listened to fast music before the exercise were also the ones who put in the most effort during rowing.

“This shows that those who listen to music before competitions can get more psychological benefits,” he says.


Pusey et al. Put Some Music on: The Effects of pre-Task Music Tempo on Arousal, Affective State, Perceived Exertion, and Anaerobic Performance, Music & Science, vol. 6, 2023. DOI: 10.1177/20592043231174388

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