Why Does The Same Music Sound Faster Sometimes?

Ever thought your favourite song sounded faster than usual? No, it’s not just you. There’s a rather fascinating scientific explanation…

That’s me on the right, too cool for school on my last day - 2006…

That’s me on the right, too cool for school on my last day - 2006…

Allow me to tell you the story of when I first discovered this weird phenomenon. It was 2006 - GCSE exam time for myself - and I managed to sneak my iPod into the English Literature exam (sorry Mr. Ireson). My system was to conceal the MP3 player in the blazer pocket, run my earphones underneath the shirt and out the back of the neck.

And the reason why? I was at my most creative with a rather bizarre playlist - the same thirty songs on repeat, spanning many genres from Funeral For a Friend to The Streets.

However, something was different… All of the music sounded about 5-6% faster and there was no logical explanation in my mind as to why. Is it possible for an iPod to be too fully charged, leading to faster internals? That was one of many stupid questions I asked.

Recently, I experienced the opposite whilst running. Almost like my heart rate was paradoxically connected to the tempo of the song - the song going slower as I exerted myself more.

Is this just me? Or is there something happening that can be explained scientifically? Well, lucky for you, it’s the latter.

There are two simple answers, it’s all in your head and your heart. Allow me to explain.

This is all to do with Flow - a psychological state more commonly known as being “in the zone.” Coined by Mihály Csíkszentmihályi in 1975, it is a mental state of operation where a person feels fully immersed in what they’re doing, totally focussed on an activity. Think of it like when a game you’re really enjoying ratchets up the difficulty and pulls you in, or when you surprise yourself with a random productive spree at work.

This research was kicked off when Mihály expressed interest in how artists can get so focussed on work, they disregard necessities like eating, sleeping and drinking (shout-out to anyone who went through this with video games…like me).

So, he and the team got to work researching this phenomenon through experiments, questionnaires - leading to him figuring out a system. He acknowledges that the brain can only process so much information, telling an audience at his 2004 TED talk that the average human can process about “110 bits of information per second.”

This question hit me once again recently, while walking along the river…

This question hit me once again recently, while walking along the river…

While that sounds like a lot, the quantity is skewed heavily by high quantities of bits needed for simple actions. Just decoding speech takes 60 bits per second, which demonstrates why its hard to focus your attention on other things in the midst of conversation.

Humans normally split this finite amount of bits over the things they are doing on a daily basis, but  when in the flow state, they are completely engrossed with the one task at hand. When interviewing the subjects as part of this test, they described the world around them slowing down as they focussed.

… See the connection? In your differing levels of psychological flow state, music will sound slower and faster. Probably faster if it’s just background, and slower if you’re focussed.

Not only that, but your heart rate comes into play too. The perceived tempo of a song depends a lot on it. Most of the time, you’re listening to music at a resting heart rate. But when you listen while jogging, your heart rate at 140 beats per minute (bpm), the sound will sound slightly slower.

As summed up by one Reddit user: “It's just relative, just like me, who while sitting on the couch is actually traveling around 25,000 mph.”