Music To Make You Move: Help NPR Create The Ultimate Workout Mix

Jan 5, 2012
Originally published on January 14, 2012 10:49 am

You know it because countless magazines have screamed it at you from the checkout line. Because the gym you walk past every morning is waiving its initiation fee. The holidays are over. It's time to get in shape. So pull on your gym shorts and tighten the laces on your running shoes.

Oh yeah, and don't forget your headphones. You're going to need some motivation, and nothing gets the job done like music. Need proof? We just happen to have some, courtesy of neuroscientist Robert Zatorre, who spoke with Morning Edition's Linda Wertheimer.

"Music has some kind of privileged access to the motor system," says Zatorre, who studied the link between music and exercise. "When you are perceiving very rhythmic sounds, particularly those that are used in music, these sounds engage the areas in networks of the brain that allow us to move and in particular synchronize different muscle groups."

"What's critical in the experiments that we've done is the rhythmic organization," Zatorre says. "Whether that's dancing or doing calisthenics or doing aerobics, it's all the same mechanism. It's this privileged link between the auditory system and the motor system."

He hardly needed to tell us. NPR Music has been conducting its own brand of (slightly less than scientific) research on the ways music can motivate exercise for years (as you can tell from the photo of Robin Hilton above). In our Sweatin' To NPR section, you'll find more than a dozen workout mixes tailored to specific pursuits: Gospel songs to help treat your body like a temple, genuine big-band jazzercise, hard-rock moves for would-be guitar heroes and more.

Over the next few weeks, Morning Edition is going to add to our list: athletes, celebrities and NPR personalities will all offer suggestions for their go-to workout tunes.

And we want you to get in on the action. Tell us which song drives you to run faster or jump higher. Then tell us why it works for you. If you're like me, sometimes it's enough to just hit play on the latest Planet Money podcast and let the treadmill carry you away to jog-land, but what we're looking for here is the soundtrack to your most intense workout ever. Leave your pick in the comments, then stay tuned: we'll compile your picks along with the ones featured on Morning Edition for an ultimate workout playlist.

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What songs make you move? MORNING EDITION is asking that question because this is a new year, and many of us are making resolutions about leading more active, healthier lives. So if you're thinking about working out, about running, about strength training or even moving more quickly through your daily chores - your housework, for instance - could music help with that? Robert Zatorre is a neuroscientist who studied the link between music and the motor systems of the brain which control movement.

Professor Zatorre, thank you very much for joining us.

DR. ROBERT ZATORRE: It's my pleasure.

WERTHEIMER: So tell me: Do you think that music makes a difference when we're moving?

ZATORRE: Yes, indeed. Music has some kind of privileged access to the motor system. When you are perceiving very rhythmic sounds, particularly those that are used in music, these sounds engage the areas and networks of the brain that allow us to move, and in particular, synchronize different muscle groups.

WERTHEIMER: At gyms, they seem to play music at deafening levels. Apart from possible damage to the ears, do people react to music if it's louder?

ZATORRE: The fact that it's loud makes it, of course, very salient, so you can't ignore it. And if it's very, very loud, you would also feel the vibrations. But over all, I would say that you don't really need it to be that loud, because what's critical in the experiments we've done is the rhythmic organization.

WERTHEIMER: So the question can you dance to it is a relevant question.

ZATORRE: Yes, indeed. The link between music and dance is a very powerful one. And, in fact, in evolution, dance and music were inseparable from the beginning. So whether it's dancing or doing calisthenics or doing aerobics, it's all the same mechanism. It's this privileged link between the auditory system and the motor system.

WERTHEIMER: One of the things that we have learned when asking people about music they like to use to work out is that often it's music that they don't especially like, but they like the rhythm of the music. I can imagine walking to John Philip Sousa. I mean, I like it all right, but not my favorite.

ZATORRE: Right. That's a good example, because another use of music is for marching. And armies discovered this many centuries ago when they decided to institute marching bands, not because necessarily they're so into the music, per se, but they recognized the very valuable effect of music in coordinating the music of a group of marching soldiers and on synchronizing those movements so that they're marching faster than they might otherwise walk.

WERTHEIMER: I wonder if you listen to music when you workout?

ZATORRE: Well, that would presuppose that I actually workout, which is...


ZATORRE: The sports that I like to do are bicycling in the summer and cross-country skiing in the winter. Now, when I'm bicycling, I really don't listen to music, even though I've seen people do that a lot.

I have tried cross-country skiing with my iPod, and that's sort of fun. But the problem with it is that if you're going on a flat surface, you can get into a real rhythm and then the music can be great. But then you'll encounter a hill with a lot of trees, and the music might make you want to move at exactly the wrong time so that you'll plow into the trees. So I'm not sure I would recommend it.


WERTHEIMER: Robert Zatorre is a cognitive neuroscientist at McGill University in Montreal.

Thank you.

ZATORRE: Thank you very much, Linda.


WERTHEIMER: Over the next few weeks, we'll be creating the ultimate NPR workout mix. We'll be asking athletes, actors, many others what songs get them moving in the new year. You can share your suggestions, get some of our picks for great workout songs at


WERTHEIMER: This is NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.