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Choose great music to keep a class energized and engaged

By Rita Santos-Rocha and Nuno Pimenta.

This is an excerpt from EuropeActive’s Essentials for Fitness Instructors edited by Rita Santos-Rocha, Alfonso Jiménez, and Thomas Rieger.

Characteristics of Music Used in Fitness Classes

The music used in fitness classes can be a determinant for the motivation levels in those classes, and therefore should be adjusted to the client’s profile. For example, music from the 60’s is usually more appreciated by clients that were born by then (Karageorghis and Priest, 2012, pp. 59). On the other hand, the selection of music could be based on cultural factors. Music selection is an important feature instructors should address properly because it helps instructors control various aspects of a class (e.g., speed of movement or number of repetitions of a specific exercise). For this purpose, music used in fitness classes must have specific characteristics to be suited for different types of clients and classes. Specific fitness activities sometimes demand specific music selections as well. Such characteristics include

● music speed,
● music continuum and
● music structure.

Music Speed

Music speed, as measured by the number of beats per minute (BPM), is a major issue when teaching group fitness classes to music. It determines the speed of movement and correlates with the class difficulty level. Increasing or decreasing the BPM raises or lowers the class difficulty level, respectively. Music’s BPM influences class difficulty level in terms of two factors:

Complexity. When the BPM is high, participants can perform more movements per minute, which increases the session’s complexity.
Intensity. Raising the speed at which movements are executed in a cardio workout (by raising music’s BPM) increases both the metabolic intensity and difficulty level of the class.

Of course, many other aspects can influence either the complexity or intensity of a workout.

Music Continuum

Music continuum refers to music that it is uninterrupted, which is helpful as a reference for movement repetition at all times during group fitness classes. This means that the fitness instructor does not have to count the number of repetitions or set the tempo or movement speed. Therefore the fitness instructor is free to perform other tasks during the class, such as correcting participant performance, motivating the class or maintaining a positive atmosphere. In a recent review, Karageorghis et al. (2012, pp. 47) state that ‘the use of music has been found to yield ergogenic effects in the exercise domain while also promoting psychological (e.g., enhanced affect) and psychophysical (reduced ratings of perceived exertion) benefits’.

In order to take full advantage of using music in group fitness classes, the instructor must learn the structure of the chosen music and specially prepare to use it in class.

Music Structure

Music for group fitness classes has a very specific structure that is extremely useful for helping fitness instructors facilitate their tasks because it is predictable. This structure includes the following aspects:

● Beat
● Metre
● Musical eight
● Musical phrase


The beat is the basic unit of time in music. It sets the music’s speed (tempo), as figured in beats per minute (BPM). Music is divided into bars, organised by tempo and metre. Stronger and weaker beats help to set the music’s style by determining the music’s rhythm, which is different from the music’s tempo. Rhythm in music is characterised by a repeating sequence of stronger (downbeats and on-beats) and weaker beats (upbeats). Downbeats are particularly important because most movements performed to music in a group fitness class start on the first beat (also called a master downbeat; see chapter 9). Downbeats fall on odd numbered counts and upbeats are even numbered, as seen in figure 8.1.

Downbeats and upbeats in an eight-beat sequence.


Most often, music follows a repeated pattern that allows us to identify a rhythm, which is called the metre. Common patterns include triple metre, used in waltz music, and quadruple metre, which is often used in electronic dance music. Music with quadruple metre is most often used for group fitness classes, and it has a repeating pattern containing four beats, where the first odd-numbered beat is the downbeat and the third beat is also strong, though not as strong as the downbeat, and is called the on-beat, while the even-numbered beats are upbeats (figure 8.2).

Beats in a quadruple metre.

Musical Eight

The musical eight is a popular concept in choreographed activities, but is also a musical structure. In quadruple-metre music prepared for group fitness classes, it is possible to identify two sets of four beats that go together to form a sequence of eight consecutive beats: the musical eight. Here, the first beat, or master downbeat, is stronger than the following seven beats (figure 8.3).

Beats in a musical eight.

Musical Phrase

A musical phrase is determined by both the music’s melody and its beats. This means that a musical phrase is distinguished by the previous and the following phrases, by the instruments playing, by any lyrics sung and even by the rhythm. For music used in and specially prepared for group fitness classes, it is possible to identify a fixed pattern of musical phrases: Groups of four consecutive musical eights (4 \x\ 8 beats) constitute a musical phrase. This means that in every 32 beats, it is possible to identify a new instrument, a new lyric, a different rhythm or simply the chorus. Because of this phrase pattern, instructors should prepare all classes and choreographies for a 32-beat musical phrase. Although some quadruple-metre music may use 16- or 64-beat phrases, they will not pose a problem for 32-beat choreography.

Learn more about EuropeActive’s Essentials for Fitness Instructors.

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EuropeActive's Essentials for Fitness Instructors

EuropeActive's Essentials for Fitness Instructors

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