Are the hills really alive with the sound of music?

Does listening to music in the outdoors enhance the experience, deepen our bond with landscape and even make us walk or run faster? Or is there nothing better than the sound of silence?

Athlete listening to music
Does listening to music while exercising enhance performance? (photo: Chiz Dakin)

A well-meaning relative bought my wife a CD last Christmas, described on the cover as music to listen to while out running.

It’s fair to say that it hasn’t received much air time, partly because it seems to be aimed more at urban joggers than seasoned fell runners; but also because the only thing that most of the tracks appear to have in common is a rhythmic beat rather than, say, a melodious quality or uplifting lyrics.

Music as an accompaniment or a distraction to a bland run around a park or a monotonous trail is one thing, but for many of us the ‘sound of silence’ (to borrow from Simon and Garfunkel) is one of the profound sensory experiences of being in the outdoors, especially among really grand landscapes like mountains. And yet could a well-timed snatch of music enhance the impact?

Music certainly has the ability to amplify our feelings and stir passions. It may be a particular song or score, or perhaps the latest tune in our head, but just a few chords can sometimes bring back intensely personal memories of a particular place or experience.

Whether listening to Mussorgsky's 'Night on Bare Mountain' at full volume or singing John Denver's 'Rocky Mountain High' at the top of your voice makes that mountain experience any more intense or enjoyable is difficult to measure, but music’s association with landscape is certainly well founded.

John Denver might not register with today’s generation, but some of the most famous tunes penned by this popular American singer-songwriter (who died in a plane crash in 1997, aged 53) are associated with the grand landscapes of America, like the Rockies, so much so that the Colorado state legislature adopted 'Rocky Mountain High' as one of its two state songs.

Country and Western, like Folk music, is a genre that seems to have a close relationship with landscape and place; and indeed there’s a recognised US folk genre of the Appalachians called Mountain Music with roots in bluegrass and ballad singing.

In particular, check out the Luke Smathers Band, which combined traditional string band music with more conventional pop and country music – it was known as Mountain Swing.

David Holt
American musician David Holt collects and performs the songs of the Blue Ridge Mountains (photo of David Holt by Hugh Morton, www.davidholt.com)

The power of song

Some traditional songs and folklore ballads celebrate the activity as well as the landscape, especially if it’s associated with political protest or cultural identity. Ewan MacColl’s 'The Manchester Rambler' is still regarded as an anthem among some walkers and describes the popular struggle for access to the mountain and moorland in northern England during the 1930s; and in particular the Kinder Scout Mass Trespass.

I'm a rambler, I'm a rambler from Manchester way

I get all me pleasure the hard moorland way

I may be a wage slave on Monday

But I am a free man on Sunday

As a counterpoint, consider a poem by William Blake, which is today belted out by congregations as the hymn 'Jerusalem' and which also makes use of hillwalking imagery (among other deeper meanings!):

And did those feet in ancient time,

Walk upon England’s mountains green:

And was the holy Lamb of God,

On England’s pleasant pastures seen!

For some people, music is such an indispensable part of their life and who they are that it naturally extends to the outdoors.

Cherelle Harding was involved in Black Girls Hike and went on to found Steppers UK, and she told Huck Magazine last year that she rarely steps outdoors without her headphones on and a soundtrack playing: 'When I think about being outside – wandering into woodland, hiking through hills – I think about the song that was playing when I did it.' She says she feels a deep bond to the reggae music that her grandparents and ancestors played, with songs about connecting to nature and being outdoors.

Music and song can exert a powerful influence, even if familiarity with it is derived from popular media, including movies. The soundtrack from the film The Sound of Music continues to conjure up Alpine peaks and flower-filled meadows, even among those of us who have never sat through all of its 2 hours 55 minutes. (And apparently many people believe 'Edelweiss' to be the Austrian national anthem rather than a catchy tune specially written for the film by Rodgers and Hammerstein.)

Thorneythwaite Fell
Inspiration from the hills – a choir performs on Thorneythwaite Fell in Borrowdale as part of the Fellowship of Hill and Wind and Sunshine project (© North News and Pictures)

Beating a path

Melody, rhythm and other compositional features are often found in classical music to evoke aspects of the natural world. Debussy’s La Mer, Beethoven’s 'Pastoral Symphony No 6' and Mendelssohn’s 'Hebrides Overture' all come immediately to mind.

Stirring, emotive and uplifting maybe, but predictably none of them featured on Now That’s What I Call Running, which topped the UK Compilations chart briefly in 2012.

And yet, gimmicky title aside, can certain songs and genres of popular music actually improve our walking or running performance? Should my wife reach for that Christmas CD, after all? One school of thought suggests that walking to a steady beat helps improve walking speed, stride length, rhythm and symmetry; and it’s sometimes been used to help people who have had mild strokes or are going through rehabilitation to slowly develop faster speed and a proper gait.

Certainly some activities - race-walking and Nordic skiing come to mind - appear to be so metronomic that they could be responding to a regular beat. Think of a marching band, of course, and how the beats per minute (BPM), typically thumped out by the person with the enormous drum, dictates the overall pace.

Indeed, just as we tap our foot to the sound of a marching band we can find that, without knowing, we sync our footsteps to a repetitive beat. This natural human response to music means that, rather inevitably, we can be prompted to walk, cycle or run a little faster. Experts say that a tempo of around 120 beats per minute is suitable for gentle jogging, rising to around 140-150 for a proper run and faster still if you’re looking to increase your cadence.

So, for a jog try 'Bad Romance' by Lady Gaga (119 BPM) or 'Livin' On A Prayer' by Bon Jovi (123 BPM). For a decent run put on or 'Mr Brightside' by the Killers (148 BPM), 'She Loves You by the Beatles' (150 BPM) or 'I Get Around' by the Beach Boys (150 BPM). Queen’s 'Don’t Stop Me Now' and 'One Way or Another' by Blondie will both ramp you up to 160 BPM.

So, it seems, superlative landscape and the freedom of the outdoors can inspire great music, take on a cultural role and create a bond between person and place; but conversely it may also enhance our physical performance – whether we climb ev’ry mountain, run up that hill or walk on the wild side. Now that’s what I call Cicerone music.

Top of the (Outdoor) Pops

Climb Ev'ry Mountain – from The Sound of Music

These Boots are Made for Walking – Nancy Sinatra

Walk on the Wild Side – Lou Reed

River Deep Mountain High – Ike & Tina Turner

Running up That Hill – Kate Bush

Walk This Way – Aerosmith/Run-D.M.C

Midnight Rambler – Rolling Stones

The Fool on the Hill - Beatles

Ain't No Mountain High Enough - Marvin Gaye & Tammi Terrell

I Walk the Line – Johnny Cash

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