With Pourquoi Mozart? first published in 1991, a French researcher named Dr. Alfred A. Tomatis unveiled his startling theory that listening to the music of the perhaps the most famous name-brand composer of all time could affect the brain in a way that would have healing benefits. In the rush of books and articles that followed, things really hit the fan. Playing the master’s music was credited with everything from treating learning disorders like dyslexia, ADD and autism to helping a German sewage treatment plant break down waste faster, because said its foreman, of “the vibrations of the music, which penetrate everything—including the water, the sewage and the cells.”
“Here’s the thing about the Mozart Effect,” says trainer David Siik of Equinox. “It’s just the belief that by listening to Mozart as opposed to other types of music, especially lyrical music, you tend to perform better in testing like IQ tests, cognitive tests, reading tests. But it’s not conclusive. Half of the scientific community believes that there is such a thing as the Mozart Effect but then there are half that don’t believe.”
But Siik had a hunch. As the architect of the club’s elite treadmill program Precision Running, he wondered if music could affect overall performance in the series of interval drills that make up the class. The former sprinter worried though that adding music to the mix would change the spirit of the class, which he likes to call “track practice for working adults.” And on the field, athletes don’t usually listen to music at the same time they are listening to a coach.
“I looked at the Mozart Effect as a starting point but I was never planning on playing Mozart in the class,” Siik says. “All that means is the choice between lyrical music versus non-lyrical music affects the brain and your motivation and feelings. It’s been studied for a long time but it hasn’t really been applied to fitness.”
So, after a year-and-a-half of his own research, when Siik debuted music at the immersive Precision Running lab at the Santa Monica club in 2016 (and now breaking out nationwide with a new lab opening in Boston’s Chestnut Hill this fall), it wasn’t Amadeus but rather the likes of Armin Van Buuren, Radion 6 and even Calvin Harris.
“I found that the most robust library falls with the hi-energy/trance music, which is perfect because trance by its very nature has a lot of patternization in its notes,” Siik says. “It’s great because trance is one of those genres that, even if its not your jam, its the one genre that everybody can tolerate.”
Siik says studies show that making complex choices while listening to lyrical music hyper-stimulates the language-processing part of the brain that blunts emotion. Non-lyrical music with major chords and a positive vibe causes the limbic system of the brain “to light up” with positive feelings and motivation. And it doesn’t interfere with the structure of Siik’s class, which asks each member to figure out their own formula as they go along.
“If you have, say, Justin Timberlake feeding you this awesome story and then you have a coach, David Siik, telling you to subtract 1.8 from your personal record, and add a 2 per cent incline, I believe it’s overstimulating your language processing center and studies support that. The multitasking that is caused by lyrical music in the background dramatically reduces focus and retention.”
So, instead, it’s the EDM strains of Nordic Nights, Intense and World of Tomorrow that power the class, with the latest Drake remix relegated to the initial warm up or the cool-down at the end “to bring you back to the real world,” Siik says. And, he adds, this can even apply to the recreational runner.
“If you’re just going out for five miles with no decisions, you should play whatever music you enjoy, Siik says. “But for anybody who’s looking for a little bit of challenge in their workouts and wants to create a sense of structure—say going to Central Park and doing two minutes fast, one minute walk— try this music. I guarantee it changes the experience.”