Working to the beat

October 16, 2013

Scientists from the Max Planck Institute for Human Cognitive and Brain Sciences and other research facilities have contributed significantly towards a first explanation for the development of music. Contrary to what was previously suspected, music does not simply distract us when physically working hard by making the work seem a lot easier, but actually the music reduces the effort. This new insight permits on the one hand a conclusion to man's historical development of music, and on the other hand provides an important impulse for the expansion of the therapeutical use of music.

Certain genres of music like Blues and Gospel are, in their formation, directly linked to hard physical work. When the slaves toiled in the cotton fields, they sang. When chained prisoners chipped stones in the quarries, they sang, and incorporated the sounds of work into their music. When sportsmen and women want to achieve peak performance they often let themselves be driven by music and occasionally also fans singing and chanting.

It has been suspected for a long time now that there must be a correlation between music and bodily exertion, but such a connection with music making has not yet been researched in more depth from a neuroscientific perspective. Up until now we assumed that being active with music would relieve the severely stressed from the self awareness of one's own body - proprioception - so that the bodily response to the stress would be simply less clearly perceived. Scientist Tom Fritz is dubious about this simple explanation: "Does this effect of music actually result from the distraction of proprioceptive reactions?"

To be able to clarify the question, the scientists developed series of tests in which three different fitness machines were used. In one of the first tests, there were always three participants using the fitness equipment and at the same time passively listening to music. In the second condition, the researchers had prepared the machines so that once the participants began to use them, music would start. During their training, participants would thereby make music interactively. During all conditions the scientists measured metabolic data such as oxygen intake and changes to muscle tension, and they questioned the participants about their sense of exertion.

The questioning revealed that the majority of the participants felt the strain less severely while they were producing the music. Coincidently, the measurements revealed that during the music making the muscles used less energy and were therefore more effective physiologically. "This implies that the developed technology is more favourable as a new athletic sports technology, presumably because more emotionally driven motor control occurs with the musical ecstasy", says scientist Thomas Fritz.

The trial therefore showed that the participants perceived the exertions at a higher output to be less, and in doing so they still had a more effective muscle activity. "These findings are a breakthrough because they decisively help to understand the therapeutic power of music", explains Thomas Fritz. "What is more, we believe that this insight has an important consequence in how we view the role of music in the creation of human society. Let's consider the fact that a variety of rituals are associated with music. A down-modulating effect of musical activity on exertion could be a yet undiscovered reason for the development of music in humans: Making music makes physical exertion less exhausting".
-end-
Original publication:

Thomas Fritz, Samyogita Hardikar, Matthias Demoucron, Margot Niessen, Michiel Demey, Olivier Giot, Li Yongming, John Dylan Haynes, Arno Villringer, Marc Leman
Musical agency reduces perceived exertion during strenuous physical performance.
PNAS, 14 October 2013 (doi: 10.1073/pnas.1217252110)

Max-Planck-Gesellschaft

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