Arousal And Motivation Through Music


Hey I'm Neil, a Platform Assistant here at Sensum. I was interested to see how motivational the music on my Ipod really was to me when I was out running, so I thought I'd run a test using our kit! My suspicion was that rock music would prove the best genre for getting psyched up, we shall see!

I ran the same course three times over three different days, listening to different genres of music, (rock, pop and classical,) whilst hooked up to a Sensum unit (that was paired to the Nexus in my backpack,) as to measure my GSR as I ran...

Analysis of Data

For the first of the three runs the tracks were broadly rock music (with the exception of Geto Boys, which is hip hop) The six artists were; Horselips, Rage Against the Machine, Geto Boys, Alt-J, The White Stripes and KISS. There is a steady curve in the chart (the tonic) with only small interruptions (the phasic,) so Fig 1suggests I was becoming less and less engaged throughout.

Fig 1. Emotional engagement (taken from microsiemen readings) on the X axis and the time of the run on the Y axis.

The most articulated phasic interruption is early on, at the beginning of the Horselips' Trouble with a Capital T (Fig 1,) one of my favorites. The peak dosn't sustain the duration of the track of course and it seems to be referring to the initial sensation at hearing the opening chords. There are smaller phasic interruptions at the points where other tracks begin and others scattered throughout, due to external factors such as traffic etc.

The Geto Boys track made for the biggest downward curve in engagement, again this was the only track that didn't fall under the rock genre umbrella. (This more laid back hip hop track is really quite thoughtful in it's lyrics and the easy tempo makes for relaxing listening.) The GSR readings drop most quickly at this point in the run, suggesting less and less stress, and eventually level off and return to the prior trajectory at the point of the Alt J track Something Good. The run ends with the readings looking a little spikey, (due to heavy traffic to think about as I was nearing the finish I suspect,) but still rounding off the downward curve, again, suggesting less and less mental stress. Running is the best form of therapy as they say!

Fig 2. Screenshot of the CX Platform

The second of the three runs was broadly pop music; the five artists were; James Brown, Lady Gaga, The Beatles, Rihanna and Daft Punk. The data in its entirety read as follows; in Fig 3.

Fig 3.

The second (pop music) run is vastly different to the fist (rock) run.

It would seem it took me a little while to settle, as my engagement from the start up until the second track begins was a little erratic, and not in keeping with rest of the graphing. I found this to be the case again during my third run, which was classical music. I suspect these jitters are to do with acclimatizing to the run.

Running is of course quite a subjective experience but I would suspect the opening anxious minutes of the second run, are not dissimilar to how many runners would feel at the start of their exercise- anxious to get going. (I'm interpreting the erratic GSR reading as well as recalling my own state of mind, when I refer to the opening 5 minute spell, as a little antsy.)

At 13mins 20 secs the Rihanna track Cheers began and again we have a noticeable interruption in the tonic incline. It was actually beginning to decline a little up until this point as my engagement with The Beatle'sWhile My Guitar Gently Weeps begins to wane at approximately 11mins. I would have expected my engagement to increase at the Rihanna track as I do have an affinity with this particular song and it proved to be the case.

I clearly had a much more active mind during the second run, apparently a little scatted early on but then increasingly gathered and involved in the music. (This second run took place on a Friday, and I'm sure anticipation of the weekend came into play here!)

Fig 4.

The final run of the three was while listening to classical music, the tracks were Peer Gynt Suite, Beethoven's 5th Symphony in C minor, The Four Seasons, Adagio for Strings, The Valkrie and Nocturne No 2. Fig. 5.

Fig 5.

NB I didn't listen to each track in its entirety due to the length of classical music tracks (having wanted to get at least 5 or 6 tracks into the run, like the previous two runs.)

The GSR data for this run was the most interesting, and evidently in keeping with the idea that classical music is stimulating, even elevates thinking! Again the opening minutes are the most erratic but from Beethoven's 5th Symphony onward the GSR readings are remarkably smooth and charts extremely close to the top of the range for the remaining duration of the run.

Clearly I was most engaged with the classical tracks and it would seem when engagement increasesmotivation follows in kind. (I did consciously feel the most motivated during this run.)


Certainly a larger and broader sample would be required to gain a better understanding of how music effects our emotional arousal and what's more, a better, more scientific understanding of the relationship between arousal and motivation is needed. The best known work on the subject is the Yerkes- Dodson law that group arousal and motivation essentially one and the same. Fig. 6. (I have, also, included references to academics who have been describing arousal as motivation in the context of learning theories (as opposed to sports physiology.))

Fig 6, The Yerkes- Dodson Law


I think for the first (rock music) run I had heard those particular tracks many times, and similar with the second run (pop music.) I was less familiar with the tracks in the classical run which made for somewhat of an uneven playing field.

Due to traffic and traffic lights (I had to wait on) during the course of my run it wasn't possible to obtain exact times in which the course was completed (uninterrupted.) Ideally if I was undertaking this a second time it would be on a proper running track or a course outside of the city.

Also the first day was quite overcast compared to the next two days which may have affected my mood and motivation also.

Conclusion and Next Steps

When inspecting the raw data I could see that my resting levels of sweat each time measured at 697 (Rock,) 707 (Pop,) and 693 (Classical.) All the runs started within a range of 13 microsiemens of each other. They peaked at dramatically different levels however; 819 (Rock,) 903 (Pop) and 830 (classical.) The difference in terms of peak engagement was 84, so in terms of actual motivation through arousal- Pop music was the preferred genre of music (a range of 196 between resting and peak levels.) Personally I'd regard Pop music as the the most uplifting genre and my physiology has confirmed this, uniquely to me of course as taste is, after all, entirely subjective.

One might suggest that sweatiness will naturally increase as the run goes on, thereby rendering the data useless. This clearly isn't the case however as microsweat levels decreased dramatically in the first (rock) run and then at differing points over the next two runs. This is of course further backed up by the aforementioned raw data.

In saying that however, I would draw the conclusion (based on the extremely small sample) that it doesn't necessarily matter what you're listening to, as long as you like it; thereby providing a welcome distraction to the exercise itself, though the same music will eventually become stale and less appealing in terms of motivation when it is played over and over!

Thanks for reading!

Neil Clerkin

Sensum Platform Assistant

Yerkes RM, Dodson JD (1908). "The relation of strength of stimulus to rapidity of habit-formation". Journal of Comparative Neurology and Psychology 18: 459–482.doi:10.1002/cne.920180503

Berlyne, D. (1960). Conflict, Arousal, and Curiosity. New York: McGraw-Hill.

Eysenck, M. (1982). Attention and Arousal. NY: Springer-Verlag.

Mandler, G. (1984). Mind and Body. NY: Norton.