It’s the musical equivalent of taking a pre-workout supplement or downing a double espresso. The build-up, the beat-drop, the eventual rush of full-on let’s do thiiiiiis—pump-up jams are motivation to get whatever you have to do done.
But hype music also produces a very psychological response in the listener, too, and a response that goes far beyond just wanting to dance. Scientists have actually researched this.
In a 2020 study entitled “Keep Calm and Pump Up the Jams: How Musical Mood and Arousal Affect Visual Attention,” researchers found that “high arousal positive music” (pump-up jams, in other words) improved the overall reaction times of study participants in a visual reflex exercise compared to participants who didn’t listen to any music.
And the researchers concluded that their findings might have real-world, outside-the-significance. “These results may have implications for the effect of music on everyday tasks that require rapid reactions, such as driving,” according to the study.
Maybe this isn’t news to you. Anyone who has heard Van Halen’s “Jump” at a sporting event or looped Eminem’s “Lose Yourself” during a long run knows the value of a pump-up jam. But what you might not know is how all this works on a brain chemistry level.
Jessica Grahn, Ph.D., is a cognitive neuroscientist who studies music, an associate professor in the Department of Psychology at Western University in London, Ontario, and one of the authors on that 2020 study.
Pump-up jams have a powerful effect on how your brain works, says Grahn. Below, she answers questions about how music gets you hyped, why certain music can’t, and her all-time favorite pump-up track.
Plus, available through our Men’s Health Spotify account, a playlist of 20 awesome pump-up jams to power you through almost everything.
What happens in your brain when you listen to pump-up music?
“When we’re listening to music that we really enjoy, dopamine, a key brain chemical related to pleasure, is released,” says Grahn. “If this music is energizing, making us feel pumped up, then this dopamine release is even higher.”
Grahn says this is all because of something called the “HPA-axis,” or “hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal axis,” a brain and hormonal system that regulates bodily functions, including arousal, stress, and mood states.
“It’s very likely that music acts on the HPA-axis—relaxing vs. energizing music will have opposite effects on this system, causing the release of hormones both in the brain and the body that are aligned with relaxation or being ‘pumped up,’ Grahn says.
What effects do pump-up jams have on a person physically?
It’s a workout.
“Listening to music that pumps us up increases our heart and breathing rates, makes us feel more alert, and can reduce ‘ratings of perceived exertion’ during exercise,” Grahn says. “Basically, we can work harder aerobically without necessarily feeling it.”
Are there certain characteristics, musically, to songs that have an ability to pump people up?
“Most music that pumps us up has a faster rather than slower tempo, and with what we call ‘high event density’, or more notes and note changes occurring (sort of the opposite of ‘chill-out’ music),” Grahn says .
And, on the opposite end of the spectrum, there’s a reason why, say, smooth jazz, never pumps you up.
“We can find it hard to get into music that is very complex or unpredictable, so music that is culturally unfamiliar or does not follow familiar musical rules may be less effective,” says Grahn.
Her favorite song with high event density? “One of my favorites is ‘Apply Some Pressure’ by Maximo Park,” she says.
You’ll find that jam, and 20 more, on our “Music to Get You Hyped” playlist on our Men’s Health Spotify account.
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