Picking Music for Group Exercise Classes
Music is a huge component of group exercise. Many members come back to classes just for an instructor’s music alone. Have you ever taken a class where you just didn’t jive with the music, genre, tempo, or cueing to the beat? It’s like nails on a chalkboard, and it can be the difference between full classes and sparse ones.
The Importance of Music in Your Exercise Class
Researchers Costas Karageorghis, Ph.D., from London’s Brunel University School of Sport and Education and Carl Foster, Ph.D., of the University of Wisconsin, state that music can, “reduce the perception of effort significantly and increase endurance by as much as 15%.”
They’ve identified three reasons that might influence exercise performance:
- The propensity to move in time with synchronous sounds.
- The tendency for music to increase excitement.
- The ability for music to divert the exerciser’s attention from discomfort while working out.
“Research further supports the notion that synchronous music tends to drive exercise intensity (i.e., the faster the beat, the higher the intensity). Researchers also clearly identified the effect of increased arousal related to the tempo of the music, thereby making intense exercise seem less stressful.” Foster calls the phenomenon, “entertainment synchronization,” or the desire to move in time with the beat. “You want to step at the rate the music is playing or you want to pedal a cycle at the rate of the dominant beat of the music.” Shirley Archer, IDEA Instructor of the year 2009, states, “loud music increases heart rate and blood pressure, while soft music lowers both,” independent of subjective musical preferences. This study adds to the growing body of research documenting the effects of music on mood and physiology.
Dr. Len Kravitz, program coordinator of exercise science and researcher at the University of New Mexico at Albuquerque, says there are four primary reasons that music affects human performance so positively (Harmon and Kravitz, 2007)8:
• Reduced feelings of fatigue
• Increased psychological arousal • Improved motor coordination
• Enhanced relaxation response
Music safety tops the list of importance because you won’t get very far in the industry if your music selection doesn’t fit with the types of classes you teach. If
your music is fast, and you teach sculpting classes, there’s a chance your members will try keeping up with the beat and risk their form. Conversely, if your music is too slow without hard-driving beats, members will struggle to get a good workout in a kickboxing class. There are ranges of “Beats Per Minute” appropriate for every class out there today. Some classes will just use music as background inspiration, and in those cases, when BPMs aren’t important, select music based on the outcome you wish to achieve.
If the goal is to push members to their limits in a Tabata class, then fast-tempo, hard-driving beats would be a great choice. If it’s a yoga-flow class, decide ahead of time what you want the vibe to be, and create a playlist with the outcome in mind. Cycling classes require knowing the playlist well and knowing the nuances of the song to use the beats for climbs, sprints, and endurance sections. There’s nothing worse than getting revved up for a sprint only to have the music drop into a slow verse. Music fuels members to push harder, go faster and lose themselves so that they don’t realize how hard they’re working, but it only works if you know your music well.
Beat: Regular pulsations that create an even rhythm. Try to tap your foot to the music and find the beat. If you have trouble finding the beat, find someone who has a good ear for music and let them find the beat with you. Clapping to the beat in your car while driving is a good way to practice this.
Downbeat: The stronger pulsation.
Upbeat: The weaker pulsation.
Tempo: The rate of speed, beats per minute (bpm). Certain parts of the classwork with different tempos. For example, the warm-up for a class is usually 120-140 bpm whereas the high impact or low impact will be faster. In contrast to the fast tempo, your cool-down music is very slow. An instructor should be aware of the bpm for each section of the class.
Phrase: In music, this is like a complete sentence. Beats of music combine to form measures and measures combine to form phrases. Most group exercise classes work with 32-count phrases that are counted as four groups of eight counts each. As you become more proficient as an instructor, the musical phrase will become very clear and automatic. In the beginning, you may need to work on this aspect by listening to music, tapping out the beats and finding the musical phrase.
Rhythm: A regular pattern of movement or sound that can be felt, heard or seen. As you teach and become more familiar with the music, you can vary the rhythm to assist your teaching techniques. For example, you can slow down the rhythm to half-tempo (two beats per movement) instead of regular tempo (one beat per movement), or double-time (one beat per two movements).
Music Mapping/Song Form
In some classes, like kickboxing or cycle, it’s important to map out the song or learn the song’s structure.
This is important because, in cycling, for example, a chorus is generally a great place to put a sprint. The catchy part of the song that’s faster with perfect BPMs just feels good to spin fast with, or, get out of the saddle. Imagine the buildup and imagery an instructor might paint for an all-out sprint to the finish line. Words like, “get ready, we’re going for gold, just hang in there a bit longer,” prepare the members for the intensity that’s about to come. Now imagine that anticipation ruined because a song drops into a slower tempo in the bridge of the song instead of the fast and catchy chorus. It just doesn’t fit. Those awkward moments can be avoided by knowing your music.
In classes that require “left-side, right-side” movements, such as kickboxing, it’s an instructor’s worst nightmare when the song is unbalanced. If you have two 64-count verses to create choreography for the right side, but the song goes into a chorus and then only two 32-count verses the second time around, your left side won’t be balanced with the right.
Very few songs are balanced perfectly, which is why choreographing to radio music can be challenging. There are many ways to work around this, but you must know your music before creating your choreography to ensure balance. If you’re unsure, map the song on paper. To do that, simply play the song while writing down the parts of the song and the counts.
John Moxey from songstuff.com says, “Song Form describes the structure of songs in an easy to understand framework. When using song form, letters are assigned to the different sections of a song where repeated sections are assigned the same letter as was assigned on the first occurrence of that section. The letters then create a map of the overall song, or the song architecture of the key feature of that type of song.”
Most modern music in the West contains:
- Introduction (Intro)
- Coda (Outro)
Collectively, these are known as Sectional Forms. Examples of song structure include:
- Strophic or AAA Song Form
- AABA Song Form
- AB or Verse/Chorus Song Form
- Verse/Chorus/Bridge Song Form
- ABAB Song Form
- ABAC Song Form
- ABCD Song Form
If you know how to listen for the verses, choruses, and bridge, it’s easy to assign letters and map out the song. Doing so allows you to know what, and how much, of something to teach in each part of the song.
Many classes won’t require mapping because you’ll simply need continuous play music in the background. What you will need to train yourself to hear is the downbeats and top of the phrases, as those are the pivotal points in which to change exercises, add degrees of difficulty, or simply follow in your mind to count how many reps you’ve done. Good instructors don’t need to count every rep and set as they teach. They know exactly how much of something they’ve done by knowing how many 8, 16, or 32-counts have gone by.
Teaching in a public place, usually for profit, requires a commercial music license. Many people must be compensated for music to be legal, including publishers, songwriters, record labels, and artists.
Gyms and studios in the United States often pay Performing Rights Organizations (PROs), and royalties collected by these administrations are dispersed to the artists, authors, composers, etc. This type of coverage, however, is for commercial use, as in the music played upon entry, in locker rooms, and the cafe. This means that gyms are only covering half of their legal requirement because music played in classes is considered a “public performance” and requires a license. The main reason for this is that the business, benefits from the musical performance, and as such, the artists should be compensated, per copyright law. Gyms assume instructors use covers or sound-alikes of original artists, and these are legal because they pay royalties when recording them as covers. There are dozens of reputable sites that offer this type of music.
There’s a big difference between a restaurant or hair salon that’s able to play music legally as compared to a gym. Gyms charge fees for entry, making it unlawful to benefit from music.
Instructors, in the hope of abiding the law, often purchase monthly business accounts through Sirius or Pandora. “These services advertise that they have partnered with Pandora to provide legal and licensed personalized radio specifically for business use.
SiriusXM for Business states, ‘We save you both time and money by paying all royalty fees including ASCAP, BMI, and SESAC — costs you would otherwise incur if you use CDs, MP3s or regular radio for your overhead music.’ However, if you read the fine print, you quickly discover that they clearly state: ‘The Service is not authorized for use in connection with a business that charges an admission fee (such as nightclubs, bowling alleys, fitness centers, skate parks, etc).’ The business memberships only cover areas in which no admission fee is required, like a lobby or café.
The safest way to teach your classes is to buy cover music designed for fitness classes.
Distinguishing the beat when using music to drive a class is a vital skill instructor must possess. Background music that’s not used to lead the class is less important and requires less skill. For some people, musicality comes naturally; they can literally hear the beats in any song and cue accordingly. For others, it’s a struggle and won’t ever be “easy,” but it can be learned and practiced. In addition to selecting appropriate music for each class with the correct BPM (beats per minute), there’s also a lot to know about what’s legal regarding music, music clips on social media, and distribution.
Always be sure to have backup music in the event you drop and break a CD, or your iPhone glitches. You never know what can happen with technology, so have 1-2 backups.
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