Leslie Mansour by Leslie Mansour

Music serves many purposes in group fitness classes. From assisting the instructor create a well-planned class to providing the beats and phrases for cuing to motivating the participants, music’s role in exercise is as diverse as instructor’s personalities.

Incorporating music into a group fitness class can be a fun component to class design, but in order to use it well, it’s important to understand it first. To help you in the process of music mastery, here are four factors to consider.

1. Role of Music

To determine the role music will play in your group fitness class, ask yourself what the purpose/objective of the music will be in relation to the movement. You may want the music to play a supporting role in the background, motivating or assisting in the relaxation of participants.

On the other hand, if you are teaching a mixed-impact cardio and strength class where the tempo of the music and downbeat are emphasized, music’s role is front and center, playing the leading role in the foreground.

Music in the foreground incorporates the tempo or music’s rate of speed — also known as beats per minute (BPM). Being able to distinguish the beat when using music in the foreground is a vital skill the instructor must master whereas the beat in background music is less important since it is not used to lead or pace the class.

Next time you play music, listen and see if you can find the downbeat — strong pulsations occurring in a regular continuous rhythm. Once you have found the downbeat, listen to distinguish it from the upbeat — de-emphasized weaker pulsations.

2. Musical Phrasing

BPM plays the leading role when it comes to musical measures and phrasing. An organized series of beats form a pattern known as a measure, which is marked by a regular occurrence of a strong accent on the first downbeat of each series.

Phrases are made up of multiple measures. It’s like taking multiple sentences (measures) and stringing them together to make paragraphs (phrases). It is typical for music to be orchestrated in a series of 32-counts with each sentence containing 8-counts, and each paragraph containing 4-measures.

Professional fitness music, such as music purchased through resources like Power Music®, is designed to assist group fitness instructors find beats, measures, and phrases. Ranging from <100 BPM to 160 BPM, this music is developed according to industry standards as seen in Table 4-1 below. Demarcations in the music are emphasized so the group fitness instructor can locate where they are at all times in the music.

Music Tempo for Common Group Fitness Modalities
Tempo (beats per minute) Modalities
<100 Most often used for background music or slower, mind-body classes like Pilates, yoga, or stretching classes
100–122 Beginner step-training classes, low end of low-impact aerobics, and hip-hop classes If cycling on the beat and using pedal stroke as a measure of beats per minute, this range represents the upper limit of music tempo
122–129 Muscle toning, advanced step-training classes, low-to-mid impact aerobics, some dance classes, aquatic exercise, and conditioning classes
130–160 Faster-paced movement classes, mid-to-high impact classes, some dance classes, trampoline jumping, and some martial-arts based classes


3. Music Selection

Music should contribute to the overall experience of a group fitness class. The number one compliment or complaint a group fitness class can receive is music selection, followed by class design. If you have great music paired with a well-designed class, participants will want to come back for more. 

How can you sharpen your music selection skills?

It’s important to take into account the demographics of class participants because the music should match the participants’ interest. Consider if your crowd will be in their mid-20s to early-30s, or late-50s to mid-60s. Or if there will be more women or men.

One way to incorporate music that matches the participants is to ask for recommendations. Either have a music suggestion form where participants can write songs and artists they like, or conduct a survey. However you do it, getting feedback from your participants can assist you in successfully matching music to the population of interest and foster a student-centered teaching approach.

4. Volume

Music volume is just as important as music selection. Regardless of the class objective, it’s important that participants enjoy the full experience. Therefore, music volume and instructor projection (including the use of the microphone) is crucial. 

Volume should not exceed the recommended 85 decibels (dB) because exposure to noise levels >85 dB can be damaging to hearing. Audiologists also recommend turning up the bass and lowering the treble if music adjustments are necessary.

Keep in mind that participants’ abilities to hear the instructor over the music provides a level of safety in participation as well as protects the instructor from voice injury. It also enables the instructor to better hear in the event of an emergency. Many group exercise studios will be equipped with sound device technology such as the Sound Ear to aid instructors with selecting appropriate music levels.