Why Does Music Sound Slower When Running?

 runners running across an arid landscape

There are people on the internet who insist that music sounds slower when they’re running.  We’re interested in finding out whether something happens during exercise to alter the brain’s perception of what it’s hearing or if there’s something going on with the device they’re using.

This isn’t something that happens to a select few people, either.  It’s been reported both on forums and websites with several possible explanations floating around. 

So what’s going on?  Why does music sound slower when someone’s running?

 

Why does music sound slower when running?

 

Firstly, this doesn’t appear to be a technological problem but a sensory one.

There’s probably nothing wrong with your headphones or the playlist you’re listening to.  We’re big proponents of using sweat-proof headphone covers during a workout to reduce the chance of damage but this doesn’t appear to be caused by moisture getting inside of the headphones.

Many of us assume that time is calculated by the watches we wear on our wrists or the clocks on our kitchen walls, but our brains can have a different concept of time and that’s where things get interesting.

According to Business Insider, sportsmen and women have reported ‘experiencing an adjustment in their perception of time’.  It uses baseball and tennis players as an example of when people have actually reported the ball as ‘slowing down’ before they hit it.

We’ve read similar things about car accidents. Some people report time slowing down in the seconds before and during an accident giving them enough opportunity to react in a way that may not have been possible had they experienced the accident in ‘real-time’.

We don’t always experience time passing at the same speed.  Many of us would agree that a year seemed to pass more slowly when we were children.  The school holidays seemed to endlessly stretch on and on and birthdays seemed to take forever to roll around but few adults would say the same thing.

There’s the saying that time flies when you’re having fun, too, but it crawls when we’re stuck in a meeting or waiting for a delayed flight in an airport terminal.

But where does music come into this?

We’ve written in the past about how listening to music can affect athletic performance.  It’s the idea that music is a distraction and that it’s also a mood enhancer so it helps us to keep going even when we’re pushing the limits of our endurance.  

  • The tempo of music also plays a big role.  Research suggests that high-tempo music can help us access an in-flow state (deep concentration) which makes us more focused, powers-up our performance and makes us less likely to quit.

    It means that the harder you’re working out the higher the tempo you need and want to keep going.  This could actually make the music you are listening to start to sound slower.

    Business Insider spoke to Dr Costas Karageorghis who indicts humans have a preference for songs with a tempo of between 120 and 140 beats per minute.  During high-intensity workouts an individual may feel they need a faster tempo which can translate to hearing a current song as not being fast enough: a person’s perception of music changes as they workout harder.

  • One person also suggests that it can be due to pitch and the way headphones transmit sounds into the ear.  It’s not that the music is playing any faster but our brains are interpreting what it thinks is a lower pitch more slowly.

  • There’s also the idea that during exercise we can experience a ‘flow-state’.  This is something that Dr Costas Karageorghis has mentioned before and it’s what happens when someone puts all their mental effort into a single task.

    Our brains have limited processing power so if you’re listening to music when entirely absorbed in something it will sound slower.  Writing on the New Rising Media website, Jason England says that in day-to-day life we often split our attention between different things.  If you’ve ever tried to hold a conversation with someone whilst typing, you’ll understand that it’s harder to feel fully absorbed in what you’re doing.  He mentions, too, a study where subjects were interviewed after a test and said that they’d felt as if the world had slowed down around them as they focused.

    It’s easy to imagine that most of us fall into a flow state at least occasionally when we’re running.  It would be interesting to see whether this is more common running on a treadmill where the runner doesn’t need to worry about staying alert for safety as road or trail runners might have to.  Certainly, the repetitive nature of running: putting one foot in front of the other over a sustained period of time seems ideal for falling into a flow state.

  • It could also be that during exercise with the body more oxygenated than usual that we’re able to process things faster.  This can make something like music seem to be playing more slowly.


Music does slow down for some people when their running and it may be a relief to know that if this is happening to you that you’re not alone.  There’s no definitive answer as to why it happens and it’s likely to be based on a number of different factors but it’s fascinating that something like our perception of time can be altered just by running and then highlighted because of our playlists.

Of course, there’s nothing stopping you from telling everyone that actually, you’re running faster than the speed of sound :P

If you’re regularly running in on-ear or over-ear headphones, you can add moisture-proof covers to keep the cushions smelling fresh and safe from sweat damage.  We have recently extended our range and we think you’re going to love our new designs.