How our bodies and minds respond to music isn’t limited to how we move on the dancefloor. The right track could also hold the secret to success for sports stars.

Imagine you’re running and listening to music. It’s a bit of a slog but you’re getting through it. Then the next track starts playing; one of your favourites. It perks you up. Your stride falls in step with the beat. Your energy lifts. You stop worrying about the fatigue and focus on the finish line. You’re in the zone.

If you thought the song made a difference, you may be right.

Professor Frank Millward, from The Australian National University (ANU) School of Music, has long been interested in how our bodies and brains respond to music.

These responses can help us begin to answer a lot of questions. Why do two notes conjure images of sharks or a feeling that something bad is about to happen? How do we develop our taste in music? Does light have a sound? And why do so many people still like The Beatles?  

Professor Frank Millward. Photo: Tracey Nearmy/ANU

Some of that comes down to how we interpret sound and music visually, Millward says. 

“When people hear music, sometimes they’ve got their eyes closed, but mainly they have their eyes open, and there is a tendency that when we see something, we try to connect it to what we hear.

“For example, cliches may become embedded in our memories because of things we see at the cinema. We see a shaft of light come in a window and we hear a sound. Now, we know that the shaft of light doesn’t make that sound. But we accept that a shaft of light coming through a window into a dark room can make a ‘whoosh’ sound. 

“There are things we take for granted that have a sound that actually don’t have a sound.”

Terror in two notes

Sonic mnemonics can also trigger emotional responses.

Take, for example, the theme from Jaws. Whether you’ve seen the actual movie or not, the notes from that music are so widely used as a soundtrack for footage of sharks, or in tense, suspenseful situations, that we’ve come to associate that sound with suspense or terror.

“Those two notes have an emotional impact. It still flicks a switch,” Millward says.

This happens because we build connections with sounds in our heads, and when it gets triggered in another sound, usually we respond to it in a similar way, Millward explains.

“Now, if you responded to it in the first instance with ambiguity, you’ll respond to it again with ambiguity. In other words, you code the sounds in your head. Now, what happens is that sometimes you respond to things positively. So that’s how you get taste in music.”

Why we like what we like is complicated, Millward says, but it usually goes back in time.

“There’s lots of theories about this and one is that it goes back to a time when you were most influential and enthusiastic about absorbing new things, which is when you were a young person or a teenager.  

“So they say that your tastes, unless you educate yourself beyond that, are formed by what you loved and the sounds that you associated with particular things in your life when you were young.

“That’s why people still like The Beatles, because they grew up with The Beatles and had lots of things that indoctrinated them into those sounds.

“And the way pop music works, for example, is that people go back and copy these sounds and they have hits much later in life, in the 90s or 2000s or 2010s. But they are using elements The Beatles used, which are particular kinds of actions and chords and sounds that have already been embedded in some people’s memories.”

Sound of success

The effect of music and sound on our bodies isn’t limited to our emotions; it can also be physical.

“In different circumstances, music can be used to replenish or recharge,” Millward says.

“If you’re thinking about lowering your pulse and being in a state of calm and relaxed, it’s a matter of manipulating anxiety and music has the power to do exactly that – undermine anxiety.

“Music on the other side of the fence can actually do the opposite – wake you up or pump you up.”

Millward, who also works as a consultant for Resonance Sonic Branding, has explored several topics in this area, including performance and emotion, and music rhythm and the human body.

“That has to do with a number of things, mainly our pulse and the way in which our heart rate responds to external rhythms and how that has an opportunity to affect us,” he says of the latter.

Ahead of the 2020 Tokyo Olympic Games, Millward, through his role with Resonance, was the consulting academic on a project with Samsung and Optus called Performance Enhancing Music, which created personalised audio tracks for athletes in an attempt to boost their performance.

The tracks integrated isochronic tones – regular beats of a single tone – with specific beats per minute and intense personalisation including personal mantras and affirmations, and were tailored to each athlete’s musical taste.

The music was designed to create the desired mental and physical response to help the athletes, which included swimmer Mack Horton, skateboarder Poppy Starr Olsen, soccer star Steph Catley and paralympic triathlete Nic Beveridge, perform at their best. (You can check out the playlist here.)

While not all of us can have music tailored to enhance our performance, we can still tap into the connections we build with sound and music to influence our bodies. It might be the beats per minute in a particular song, or selecting music that conjures a certain emotional response.

“Some people might need to be pumped up and need an anthem or a certain anger or aggression. But some other people might need to be calm,” Millward says.

So the next time you’re heading out for a run, listen to your body, as well as your playlist, and see if you can land on the perfect track. And if you want to motivate yourself to swim fast, try listening to the theme from Jaws.

Top image: Maridav/

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