It seems pretty obvious to me that music helps me work out. I'm super-tired, I want to die with foot-pounding tedium, I'm planning on walking the next block and then..."Get up, get up, put the body in motion!" and, shoulders shimmying, I'm good for another 5:52. I feel like music helps me get farther, faster, better. But is that what the studies support?
In the Journal of Exercise Physiology, Larry Birnbaum reported that when he made three groups of subjects (fast music, slow music, and no music) run at 5.5 mph for fifteen minutes, the fast music group showed a marked difference: their oxygen consumption (VO2s), cardiac output, number of breaths and other indicators were much higher than those in in slow and no music groups. That means that fast music actual may make you /less/ efficient than slow or no music. On one hand, being less efficient is bad, because then your body can't handle longer or harder workouts, but on the other hand, being less efficient is precisely why we do things like switch up our exercise ruitenes every couple of weeks--we don't want our bodies to be too comfortable with what we're making them do.
Speaking of shaking things up, the International Journal of Sports Medicine recently published a study called "Effects of Differentiated Music on Cycling Time Trial." This study, conducted mostly by H. B. D. Lim, also looked at three groups (but this time of 10-K cyclists): a no-music control group, a group that listened to music during the /last/ half of the 10-K workout, and a group that got to listen to music for the /first/ half of the workout. The scientists didn't find any huge differences between the groups in general, but they did notice that the group that had music introduced at the halfway mark started to bike faster, even 1 km/sec faster at the introduction of the music. Lim et al point out that this, "illustrates the behavioural influences that music can engender during self-paced exercise." In other words, a song can make me kick it up at the beginning.
Finally, the Journal of Sports Behavior challenged college students to ride a stationary bike for 45 minutes or to exhaustion (which ever comes first, right?). This test had four groups: one control group who got nothing, one group that was rewarded with listening to their favorite music, one group was reward with $0.15 for every forty pedal rotations, and one group of lucky dogs who got both music and money. Wanna guess what they found? Turns out money is all that mattered. The two groups that got money worked harder and longer than those who didn't, and the group that got money and music didn't do any better than the group that only got the money. In the immortal words of Puff Daddy, "It's all about the benjamins, baby."
Would I run faster, then, if instead of sweat tunes, I gave myself a quarter for every quarter mile I ran? Maybe, but if I get a dollar a mile, what if I spend that dollar a mile on a new iTunes song? Sounds good to me.