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By Team ICG® Master Trainer Jim Karanas

I love looking for music for my class.  I”™ll spend hours searching.  When I find a good song, I”™m ecstatic.  I”™ve always loved listening to, hearing and feeling certain rhythms. There”™s even a hierarchy in my appreciation of a song:  first, listening to it; second, riding my bike to it.  But the absolute best is leading a class to it.  It”™s an awesome feeling.

I”™m not the only one.  Many indoor-cycling instructors feel the same way.

If you teach indoor cycling, you”™re an Exercise to Music (ETM) instructor.  ETM instructors work in fitness centers, health clubs, community centers, church halls, schools — in fact, wherever there's a suitable space and some sort of sound system.  Most of us work freelance, delivering several classes a week and enjoying the flexibility of working around our existing lifestyle.  Some teach full-time and often become involved in running a club as studio coordinators.  Wherever ETM instructors go career-wise, however, they share a love of teaching to music.

Music influences us so deeply that the body reacts.  Our pupils dilate, our pulse and blood pressure rise, the electrical conductance of our skin drops, and the cerebellum, a brain region associated with bodily movement, becomes more active.  Blood is even re-directed to the leg muscles.  Some speculate that this is why we tap our feet (or ride harder).  It”™s obvious that music evokes emotion, but it”™s still not clearly understood why.

Recently, a team of Montreal researchers screened 217 respondents to ads seeking people who experience “chills to instrumental music.”  The researchers asked the subjects to bring in a playlist of favorite songs and monitored their brain activity while the music played.

The music triggered the release of dopamine in the dorsal and ventral striatum.  No surprise.  Those regions have long been associated with response to pleasurable stimuli.  The more interesting finding emerged from a close study of the timing of this response, what happened seconds before the subjects got the chills.

Just before the participants”™ favorite moments in the music, dopamine activity increased in a different portion of the brain called the caudate.  Researchers called this the “anticipatory phase” and suggested that it signals the coming of a pleasurable auditory sequence, triggering expectation of euphoria, a “reward prediction.”  The reward was the sense of resolution — hearing what they expected to hear.

We typically associate surges of dopamine with the processing of actual rewards.  And yet, in the caudate, while listening to music, dopamine release is most active when the chills have yet to arrive, when the melodic pattern is still unresolved.

This is why musicians sometimes introduce a theme or note in the beginning of a song and then avoid it. The longer we”™re denied the pattern we expect, the greater the emotional release when the pattern returns. That”™s when we get the chills.

But that”™s just listening to music.  Why is teaching to it even more pleasurable?  When we know a song really well, it becomes more predictable.  Yet, when we teach to it, that doesn”™t seem to matter.  Or maybe we like teaching to music we love because it”™s familiar, not despite that.  We”™re anticipating our favorite parts and getting the reward when we ride as they play.

There”™s no research that explains this phenomenon in ETM instructors, so I tried to think of a similar situation.

Teaching indoor-cycling to music is not unlike a musician”™s performance.  I”™m not creating the music, but I”™m channeling my feelings for it into classes.  I build and repeat patterns.  They”™re biomechanical, but they”™re still patterns.

So I checked the forums and found statements on why musicians like to play and perform.  These were some of the accounts I found:

I play simply because it brings me a kind of enjoyment that I can”™t find anywhere else.

There”™s no better feeling than creating something that cannot be recreated.

Because I have ideas and feelings that I can't express any other way.

To bring an audience into the moment is satisfying.

It's like a body part.  I was just born with it.  I can try to ignore it, but it will always be there.  I can enjoy myself and do what I was born to do and love to do, or I can stop doing it and be miserable.

By the pure manipulation of sound, you can bring out emotion in yourself and others and express yourself when words fail.  Well, that, and chicks.

For me, playing music reaffirms that there is magic and wonder in this world.

To end war and poverty, to align the planets and bring universal harmony and contact with all life forms from aliens to household pets.

Every one of the above statements describes my feeling about teaching indoor cycling to music.  The last one is my favorite because the musician can”™t identify why he/she loves to play.  People ask me why I”™ve taught exercise to music for over 30 years, why I spend hours looking for the right song to create what I hope will be a good ride.  I can”™t quite explain it, either.

Becoming a good indoor-cycling instructor requires an incredible amount of work, and having a passion for music helps to motivate us to put in the many required hours.  Studying music, staying open to sources of new music (e.g., a movie soundtrack), learning to play an instrument, or just listening to musicians perform are powerful ways to improve our craft.



Jim Karanas
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