Classical music to fuel your daily workout

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March 27, 2015

Even for classical music lovers, classical isn't often the go-to genre for exercise music. Many people prefer steady, pulsing music for their workouts, but classical music is full of dynamic shifts: even loud, forceful pieces typically have at least one quiet passage, so if you turn the volume up to hear these passages, your ears might suddenly be blasted with fortissimo trombones or earsplitting percussion.

This is a problem wherever you listen to classical music on headphones, and it has plagued me on car trips, too. At the gym, an additional problem is that during quiet passages, the pop or rock music playing overhead might interfere with your private classical music experience.

If you can see past the volume shift drawback, the classical canon does offer some killer workout music. "Killer" seems an especially appropriate adjective in this case, because most of the music I chose is programmatic with elements of militarism or ferocity. I created this playlist especially for strength training, but I think it would also accompany cardio workouts well. In addition to my own test, my friend Jason — an occasional classical music listener — gave it a try during a weightlifting session.

"I think with the right selection of music," Jason concluded, "classical music can definitely be a stimulating component of strength training — particularly if has a fast tempo, a beat to it. I tend to listen to metal when I work out with weights, so the change to classical was definitely a change — a good change."

Here's the playlist:

1. Mars 
from Gustav Holst's The Planets. An obvious choice, but undeniably effective.

2. Lord Melbourne (War Song), Percy Grainger. 
This fifth movement of Lincolnshire Posy has plenty of aggressive brass.

3. Festive Overture, Dmitri Shostakovich. 
A more cheerful but still invigorating selection. I always thought this composition was written for concert band, but I recently learned it was originally an orchestral piece. This point on the playlist was "definitely where things started moving," said Jason.

4. Auto-da-fe, Leonard Bernstein. An ensemble number from Act 1 of the operetta Candide. It's gruesome but energizing. For Jason, this piece "continued moving nicely until the music moved into the story; kind of lost me there, even with the intermittent bursts of music."

5. Ride of the Valkyries, Richard Wagner. 
The beginning of Act III of Wagner's opera Die Walkure is, like Mars, kind of a cliche, but it does the trick. "Valkyries kept the party going for sure," said Jason, "as it reminded me of so many action sequences from movies and whatnot."

6. Storm, Benjamin Britten. 
I've had the savage final movement from Four Sea Interludes on my mind since playing it with the Duluth Superior Symphony Orchestra in January.

7. The Hut on Fowl's Legs (Baba-Yaga), Modest Mussorgsky. 
The ninth movement of Pictures at an Exhibition is percussive and frenzied, transitioning attacca into the majestic finale:

8. The Great Gate of Kiev, 
which might be just the thrilling boost you need to finish that workout! Jason agrees that "Britten and Baba-Yaga were good to keep things stimulated!"

One piece I decided not to include is Strauss's Ein Heldenleben. As a horn player, I think it's great, but I don't think the average listener would like it as much in this context. Now that you've seen my playlist, what classical pieces would you recommend as motivation and entertainment at the gym?

Gwendolyn Hoberg is an editor, writer, and classical musician. She lives in Moorhead, plays with the Duluth Superior Symphony Orchestra, and writes the Little Mouse fitness blog. She is also a co-author of The Walk Across North Dakota.