The Resonant Human: The Science of How Tempo Affects Us

A central conceit of Suggestopedia is the use of music in the classroom, particularly Baroque music played at a “largo” tempo of about 60 bpm, which he claimed aided memory retention. Playing music at or below the tempo of a healthy resting human heart, so the theory goes, relaxes children, thereby improving their ability to learn.

Some have debated the science behind Lozanov’s claims, but UNESCO (The United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization) found no fault in his results. In 1978, their report on Suggestopedia declared: “There is consensus that Suggestopedia is a generally superior teaching method for many subjects and for many types of students, compared with traditional methods.”

Image courtesy of Flickr user Paco Vila

Image courtesy of Flickr user Paco Vila

For improving physical performance, Dr. Costas Karageorghis of England’s Brunel University suggests music with tempos of 120 bpm to 140 bpm during exercise, when our hearts beat in a similar range.

In the 2006 paper he co-authored with Peter C. Terry, “Psychophysical Effects of Music in Sport and Exercise: An Update on Theory, Research and Application”, Karageorghis found that 400m runners recorded faster times when their movements were synchronized with music.

Non-athletes exercising in sync to music benefit just as much, Karageorghis adds in an interview for Welsh sprinter Colin Jackson’s Raise Your Game website:

“[Music] can reduce our perception of effort by as much as 10%. So, for example, a 66 minute cycle can feel like a 60 minute cycle with music.” By syncing with music faster than our preferred tempo, we can basically trick our bodies into working harder for longer.

Scientists are still uncertain as to which part or parts of the brain control musical activity—let alone where our perception of tempo occurs and why our bodies prefer certain tempos to others.

A romantic yet unconfirmed notion revolves around our heartbeats: 60 bpm – 80 bpm in relatively healthy adults, or exactly half of the range of tempos we naturally exhibit during basic locomotion and exercise. Perhaps we are twice as fast to act on instinct as we are to act with what is truly in our heart.

At least now we know exactly what it means to say music has “a good beat to dance to”.

Blake Madden is a musician and author who lives in Seattle.

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