Motivational music won’t improve your game, but it will push you to be more daring

FRANKFURT, Germany — No, it’s not the pre-game playlist that makes athletes great, but motivational music does foster more confidence in risk-taking, according to a new study.

We often see athletes touting their pump-up playlists online and listening to motivational music before and during sporting events. Researchers from the Max Planck Institute found motivational music increases an athlete’s desire to try something riskier, but in the end, it doesn’t improve their overall athletic performance.

Woman listening to music before workout
A new study finds that listening to motivational music while working out or participating in a sporting event doesn’t improve an athlete’s performance, but it does foster more risk-taking,

There is anecdotal evidence that motivational music can help athletes get in the right mindset before an event — the famous Maori war dance performed by New Zealand’s national rugby team is one prominent example — but little had been done to fully document and study the full effect of music on athletes.

“While the role of music in evoking emotional responses and its use for mood regulation have been a subject of considerable scientific interest, the question of how listening to music relates to changes in self-evaluative cognitions has rarely been discussed,” says study co-author Dr. Paul Elvers, a postdoc researcher at the Max Planck Institute for Empirical Aesthetics, in a news release. “This is surprising, given that self-evaluative cognitions and attitudes such as self-esteem, self-confidence and self-efficacy are considered to be sensitive to external stimuli such as music.”

In the study, 150 participants between the ages of 18 and 33 — about 70% were female — were divided into groups of three and given a simple task: shooting a ball into a basket. Each group also filled out a questionnaire while listening to music the researchers selected, music the participants selected, or no music at all. To help measure risk-taking behavior, the researchers allowed participants to choose how far away their basket would be.

The researchers found the music selections didn’t have any effect on the performance of the task or on self-evaluative cognition, but the overall effect of motivational music was especially prevalent in men and participants who were allowed to select their own music. The study team noticed that participants who listened to self-curated playlists, particularly men, set the basket farther away from them in the test.

The study also found that motivational music can improve the self-esteem of athletes who are already performing well, though it had no such effect on low-performing athletes.

“We gathered evidence of the ability of music to increase risk-taking behavior, but more research is needed to improve the robustness of this finding. Additional research is also needed to address the potential mechanisms that may account for the finding. We believe that music’s ability to induce pleasure as well as its function with respect to self-enhancement serve as promising candidates for future investigations,” Dr. Elvers concludes.

The full study was published in November in the journal Frontiers in Psychology.

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