Student research measures effect of music on athletes

Skau's research is only one of the projects currently being conducted by seniors in the Union Scholars honors program. While many majors require a research or creative project as part of their major requirements, such academic contributions are part of the core curriculum for Union Scholars. The honors students are held to a high standard of originality and thoroughness, and must present their findings before graduation. Other Union Scholars projects this year include:
  • Kristie Alfy: "Dengue Fever and Nursing Practice" (Nursing)
  • Cori Cress: "Media Representations of Homeschooling" (Elementary Education)
  • Sierra Hatcher: a collection of travel poetry (Communication)
  • Serena Stevens: "The Effects of Brand Name on Quality Perception and Preference" (Psychology)
  • Kelly Vogler: "The Benefits of Peer Advising Programs in Raising Student Retention Rates at Union College" (Business)

Ever wonder if the Mozart or MercyMe on your iPod is actually helping your workout? David Skau, senior international rescue and relief and pre-med major, aims to find out. For his senior research project, Skau investigated the effects of pure metronome beats on athletic performance.

“This project is heavily based on primary research,” explained Frankie Rose, assistant professor of biology and Skau's research advisor. “Primary research is an essential tool in learning and it’s crucial for Union College students to do more hands-on research and discover experimental outcomes for themselves, versus only reading about it in a book.”

Skau's ultimate goal was to discover how music affects an athlete. While other studies have tackled this question before, Skau's research is unique because it isolates the effect of the beat and removes other factors, such as musical taste.

“We already know that music has a significant impact on people, and there's some evidence music or beats help people exercise harder, and faster tempos have a greater effect than slower ones," Skau said. "But is this true at all tempos, or is there a certain range of tempos that allows for the most comfortable and optimal athletic performance?”

To find this out, he had participants pedal while listening to varying metronome tempos. “The beats used covered a much wider range of tempos than previously studied, from 120 up to 480 beats per minute, and were presented in a random order,” he explained.

After monitoring heart rate, distance cycled and asking participants about their comfort level, Skau charted his findings to see which tempo maximized the group's average performance. “Essentially my findings could improve people’s workouts in gyms,” he said. “If a particular range of tempos seems to provide the best outcome, then classes could begin to tailor their music to make exercising more comfortable and effective.”

Skau's findings suggest that increasing rhythmic stimuli does increase exercise rate, but only to a point. “Somewhere between 120 and 240 beats per minute seems to be ideal," said Skau. "Above that, the effect drops off. At 480 beats per minute and above, participants don't seem to exercise any harder than with no beat at all." However, further research would be needed to pin down a more exact number, which is likely to vary from one individual to another.

Rose is also thinking beyond senior research projects for more opportunities to encourage primary research. In Rose’s Mammalian Physiology class, students have broken into small groups to consider hypotheses of their own.

“One group is measuring the effects of music on certain brainwaves,” said Rose. “Another group is researching how music affects a person falling asleep, and a third on the recovery time from exercising after having recently donated plasma. A fourth group is replicating a polygraph with our current equipment.”

Each group will present their statistical analysis in class at the end of the semester. Rose hopes to have several students present their findings at a biology symposium at the Nebraska University of Sciences and submit the research to peer-reviewed journals.

Rose, a 2002 graduate, began his own career in research working alongside then-Union professor Brian Wong, examining the effects of plantains, an herb often though of as a weed, on cancer growth in mice. He now passes on that experience to his own students. “Research made me focus on improving my critical thinking skills even more than coursework,” said Rose. “Getting involved in research at an undergraduate level is one of the benefits of choosing a small college like Union where professors can work directly with students. It gives insight into the scientific method, and a taste of how difficult it is to find even a very small nugget of new information.”