Expert Q&A with psychology professor David Gilden

Professor David Gilden asked his class why they think people listen to music while exercising. He said most of them said it is because the music serves as a distraction from their workout.

Photo Credit: Silvana Di Ravenna

Longhorn Life sat down with psychology Professor David Gilden to pick his brain about the relationship between music, the body and exercise.

Longhorn Life: What are the benefits of listening to music during exercise?

David Gilden: I asked 40 students in my class to answer that question and 35 said it just served as a distraction. It's not the music that's important to them; it's that distraction from the work. I think that accounts for a lot of it. I was an exercise instructor and music is a big part of creating an exercise program, especially if you're involved in long cardiovascular sessions for 45 minutes or an hour.

LL: Do you think there's more to it than that?

DG: It also feels good, which is a profound thing. Look at how music permeates our culture. I think what it really does is it allows us to experience rhythm. When you are moving with music you are experiencing a uniquely human thing. Rhythm comes from our experience of causation in the environment. We feel linked to the environment by time scales just one or two seconds long. It's like you offering an immediate response when I say something to you. If your response is too slow, we'll lose our connection.

LL: Can you explain why it feels good?

DG: Animals learn causation through dopamine signals. Things become connected to a sense of pleasure. Over time, that sort of neural chemistry created this connection to rhythm. And you can tell there's a link between rhythm and causation. It's really primitive, but it has to be.

LL: And this is true for everyone?

DG: Everybody can appreciate music. There are some people who are tone deaf, but they're rare. Music is so pleasurable that people will pay to go to a concert and experience it.

LL: How do you think all of this translates to exercise?

DG: Exercise is just like dancing to music, but much more focused.