Wednesday, February 4, 2009

Music While You Erg

Music While You Erg
By Michael R. Mann
Published in Rowing and Regatta (issues May and June 2007) under the title 'Music whilst you erg'

Research has shown that physical performance can be enhanced with the accompaniment of music. Indeed music may be regarded as an ergogenic aid; in his book 'Physiology of muscular activity' Karpovich states that 'the purpose of an ergogenic aid is to improve performance or hasten recovery or both'.

The idea of using music to enhance performance in rowing is not new; the Greeks used an 'auletes' and the Romans a 'hortator' to initiate and maintain, with the use of a drum or a flute, the stroke rate in their warships . Shanties and work songs have been used over the centuries to accompany work associated rowing and the principle has been that the strong beat in the song comes at the point of greatest muscular contraction. As an aside to this it seems logical that the strong beat comes at the catch but there may be preferences for having it at the finish or elsewhere in the stroke depending on the music, the individual and the rowing style as measured by the magnitude of the rowing force during the work phase.

As rhythmic self-paced activities par excellence, rowing and erging, apart from the problem of the unequal work and recovery phases, would seem to be ideally suited to be performed to music. Nevertheless, appreciation and response to a musical stimulus is subjective, as is the athlete's rating of perceived exertion; so choice of music is all important.
Some pertinent questions on its use might be:

- will the use of music make boats go faster or erg times better and will the training be more enjoyable?
- can music help in the learning of rowing and in adaptive rowing?
- how can we use music?
- can music be used in the competitive situation?
- is it fair to use music?

The main considerations in this article focus on the effect of music on performance on the ergometer (with some references to boat rowing), the practicalities of using music and the possibility of using music in competition.

Very little research has been done on music and rowing but one study by Scott (et al.) in 1999 tested novice rowers during a 40 minute row on a Concept2. The subjects were divided into three groups. The first group listened to a task-related "associative" audio tape which was the sound of a cox motivating a crew; this produced an increase in performance. The second group listened to "dissociative music" but nevertheless music chosen by the group; this group did not demonstrate any marked performance increase. The third group watched a "dissociative videotape" of races from the 1992 World Rowing championships; here there was some increase in the level of performance.
A logical follow-up to this approach would be to see how performance levels are influenced by watching an associative video as well as listening to associative music.

Another piece of research entitled "Effects of asynchronous music on flow experience during an indoor rowing class" is currently being conducted by Victoria Warren at Brunel University.

Rowers themselves are divided on the use of music. In researching for another article on the same subject I was interested to see whether there were any thoughts and opinions from rowers themselves. A search on the internet revealed a divergence of opinion ranging from those who did not or could not row to music to those who found it enhanced their performance. There was even the suggestion that there should be separate rankings for those who use music which raises the question of whether its employment is ethically acceptable.



In this situation there is no rhythmical relationship between the music and the required physical movement.
The music, usually of an excitable, energetic, powerful nature, merely serves to provide a working atmosphere. The music, often chosen by the athlete(s) performs the three basic functions of music in this situation; to stimulate, to offer a distraction and to make the training more enjoyable. For this reason it is not inconceivable that this approach could also be adopted in the competitive environment. Because the appreciation of music is subjective it is not easy to recommend specific pieces. In addition, pleasing everybody, let alone achieving optimum results, is even more difficult in the group situation. I do not know of any evidence that suggests that rowers are either more or less receptive or responsive to an audible musical stimulus than other athletes.

It is important, however, to remember that asynchronous music, in certain situations, might be detrimental to performance if it comes into conflict with the rhythm of the rowing action.

The Aarhus Studenter Roklub finished top of the Concept2 Open Men's Winter Team Relay League in 2005/6. The nature of the competition - eight rowers using one machine - means that competing synchronously to music is not feasible and indeed the crew used Heavy Metal (e.g. Rammstein) and Techno as a background during their efforts.


This is where the rowing stroke, either in the boat or on an ergometer, is performed in perfect time to the music. More and more rowing clubs and fitness centres offer group rowing sessions with a lead instructor and accompanying music thereby giving participants both a visual and aural stimulus during the workout. The music should have a clearly discernible beat at one point in the rowing cycle. As mentioned above, this would normally be, but not necessarily, at the catch.
In Italy, the company 'Musicforfitness' has produced two CDs specifically for rowing. The music ranges from 114-140 beats per minute; indeed research suggests that for sustained sub-maximal effort a tempo of about 130 beats per minute is ideal. Musicforfitness also talks about the notion of 'colpi per minuti' or strokes per minute (in this case between 28 and 35) with the main beat measured on the drum.

Similarly, R2Music is producing CDs aimed at rowers taking them through a series of tempo changes during the workout.

Rowyo’s cadence training software seems to be the modern equivalent of the Roman hortator with a programmable metronome and is declared to be ideal for synchronised erg training. As far as I know, music is not offered in the software.

Of course, indoor rowing sessions will often work at lower ratings and beatcounter software offers the possibility of not only finding music for a given rating but also the option of modifying the tempo of the music without affecting the pitch. There is also no reason why music cannot be composed specifically for erging and rowing which would take into account the problem of the unequal work/recovery ratio.

In the competitive situation an athlete could use his or her own pre-recorded music designed to produce the best result over the 2000m row.


This is the most exciting development in the application of music to physical performance because it allows the athlete to be in control of the music according to the way that he or she exercises. Nike has just brought out a product (Nike+) for runners, using sensors in the shoes linked to an iPod, which gives the athlete feedback on his workout and changes the music based on the way he runs. Similarly, Sony has recently developed the 'Music pacer' for its NW-S200 MP3 player which will adapt its music according to how the athlete runs.

Being able to control music in this way should not be difficult to achieve in rowing. Modern rowing ergometers and many racing boats are fitted with monitors that display, among other things, the stroke rate. If the information on the stroke rate can be linked to a sound device then it would appear that the problem is solved and controllable music can be used for both crew rowing and indoor rowing.

By using the device known as pitch lock the music will follow the beat of the athlete but will not be distorted. Another approach is that the change in the stroke rate could initiate a change of track. Whichever method is used it is important that the music faithfully and immediately reacts to the athlete's effort.

Exercise led music, therefore, gives the athlete control of his music and could also be employed in the competitive situation.

Looking at the race analyses of the BIRC on the Concept2 website, much can be learned about the interaction between pace and stroke rate and how these change over 2000 metres. Although some rowers have the discipline to maintain their optimum rating over the whole 2000m course and are not influenced by final sprints (they judge their effort precisely and distribute it over the effort to achieve the best result) many competitors increase the stroke rate over the last few hundred metres. This is normal in competition and it is at this point, in the final stages of the effort, that the athlete starts to become concerned only with the rowing to the exclusion of all other distractions; he is in his own erg-world, becomes oblivious to the shouting of the crowd, the sound of tens of rowing machines, the screen displays, and the other competitors. By using music which follows his effort, the athlete can be both motivated and disciplined through the final period.

In indoor rowing competitions the rower is in control of his or her destiny; it is a self-paced activity. The conditions for racing are always more or less the same and there are no unexpected external factors which might influence the performance or result.

Using the technique described above when the rower takes up the rating, usually over the last few hundred metres, the music will follow but of course the rower needs to maintain that delicate balance between the three vital factors of stroke length, stroke rate and power so that pace is not compromised.
Even if it does not seem feasible for some to use music over 2000 metres it could be an invaluable ergogenic aid over the longer distance competitions.

It is clear that many rowers use music either individually or as part of group or team indoor rowing sessions; some use synchronous music, others prefer asynchronous music.
It is hoped that this short article will encourage a more critical analysis of the use of music in the training and competitive situation and an evaluation of how it can be employed to produce the best results. What is perhaps also needed is a workshop or seminar to discuss and exchange ideas on rowing with music and to develop models of good practice. Also ergometer and stroke rate meter manufacturers should look into the possibilities of linking their products to music systems. Certainly WaterRower has some interest and states on its website that you can 'Listen to music, or even watch television while you row without raising the volume'.


Crust, Lee and Clough, Peter J. 'The Influence of rhythm and personality in the endurance response to motivational asynchronous music' Journal of Sports Sciences, 2006 Feb; 24(2): pp. 187-95.
Karageorghis, Costas ‘Music for sport and exercise’ In Ultra-fit Vol. 8. (1998) No. 6. pp. 30-32
Karpovich, P. V. ‘Physiology of muscular activity’. Saunders, London, 1985. p. 263.
Kravitz, Len ‘The Effects of music on exercise?’ In IDEA Today 12(9) pp. 56-61 1994
Mann, M. R. Erging to music. In Ultra-fit, Vol. 14 (2004), No. 7. pp. 76-78
Mann, M. R. ‘The Use and effect of music as an ergogenic aid’ In Roeien, September 1978 pp. 21-24
Mann, M. R. 'Music and rowing: the use and effect of music as an ergogenic aid and in the learning of rowing'. Paper given at the FISA World Rowing Coaches Conference, Athens, November 2003
Scott, L. M., Scott, D., Bedic, S. P., & Dowd, J. “The effect of associative and dissociative strategies on rowing ergometer performance”. In The Sport Psychologist, 13, (1999). pp. 57-68.

The first part of this article talked about the diverse opinions of rowers on the subject rowing and music. Some opinions can be found at

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