Does Exercising Improve Musicality?

As a musician and former athlete, I have long pondered whether exercising benefits musical performance. Initially I was curious if working out with the goal of building strength or conditioning muscles could improve the physicality of your playing. For instance, does practicing boxing make your drumming better? Another curiosity of mine was whether exercising can give you a mental ‘boost’ during your playing. In other words, does exercise improve the efficiency of internal processes, allowing you to have better ideas during improvisation? My life right now is extremely busy because of school work, which leaves little time for music (my next priority), and even less time for physical fitness (my third priority, for the sake of this blog). But if I knew that exercising directly improves musical performance, I would make more time to do so.

Since I’m almost at the mark of my fitness-free month, I’m looking for any excuse to get back into working out. I know it would improve my physical and mental health, but if I found out that exercise could improve my musicality, I would run to the treadmill immediately. So let’s do some research.

First, the null would be: exercise does nothing to improve musical performance. Or the alternative: exercising improves musical performance.

According to a 2004 study entitled “Effects of aerobic exercise on anxiety sensitivity,” aerobic exercise was shown to lessen the overall effects of general anxiety. 54 subjects (ages 18-51; 41 women) who had self-reported anxiety participated in treadmill exercises of varying degrees of intensity; anxiety levels were reported through a survey, measuring physical and mental perceptions of the symptom. The researchers found that both high and low-intensity workouts reduced what they called “anxiety sensitivity.” This term refers to the degree to which people react to high-anxiety situations. For musicians, this could be an important recital or performance. Think of it as the anticipation of anxiety during a performance, which means that people become anxious when they think about the anxiety they might have while up on stage.

The high-intensity aerobic exercises more greatly affected anxiety levels, as the presence of general anxiety was found to be significantly diminished in these subjects after 6 workout sessions. On the other hand, subjects who performed the low-intensity workouts did not see as substantial an effect on their reported anxiety.

But this still doesn’t answer my query as to whether exercising has physical benefits to playing music. I would have to see whether exercises which focused on coordination or strength would in turn benefit instrumental coordination. Some people claim that lifting weights could cause musicians to love their “feel” for their instrument. In other words, strength training could affect the finesse with which they play. As a guitarist, I have a few wrist/finger/forearm strengthening tools which I use to improve the necessary strength for guitar playing. I have seen improvements in areas of my playing that help with soloing and chording, but that could be due to the confounding variable of practice itself.

For beginner musicians, strength can be a difficult obstacle to adeptly playing their instrument. Drumming requires upper and lower body strength to get strong drum ‘hits’. There is also a great deal of endurance needed to play this instrument, so full-body stamina exercises can’t hurt. As a guitarist/bassist, strong hands, fingers, and forearm
ms are needed in order to reduce the ‘buzz’ that you hear when a fret isn’t pushed down hard enough. Although as a singer, I’m not sure you really need much exercise. I have seen plenty of heavyset singers who can absolutely wail. However, if you’re going for David Lee Roth style performing stunts, you might want to consider picking up some nunchucks.

Although the results of this study showed that exercise could reduce the effects of anxiety sensitivity, it wasn’t musician-specific. To attain a more specific conclusion, I would conduct an experimental study with only musicians as subjects. I would have a control group of musicians who did not exercise as a part of their daily regimen, and an experimental group in which musicians would exercise. I would take self-reported levels of anxiety prior to the study, and measure those anxiety levels throughout several months, during which both groups of musicians would have performances. I would also test playing speed and strength of attack before and after the trials to determine whether weight lifting improved these areas of playing. Also, I would hire playing experiments to evaluate how this training affected one’s feel of the instrument.

But here’s the takeaway: intense exercise is not imperative to musical adeptness. Big, small, fat, skinny, strong…you don’t need superb physicality to rock out. You can be as skinny as Jimmy Page or as buff as John Petrucci; it doesn’t matter unless you can SHRED that thing. (Note: John Petrucci was an amazing guitarist even before he was shredded).



Works cited:

Initial article (where I found the study):

Effects of aerobic exercise on anxiety sensitivity:

Arnold & Guitar:

DLR jumping photo:

John Petrucci:

Jimmy Page:

Leave a Reply