Your Brain On Music, Or Finding A Beat You Can Fight To

by | Nov 8, 2020

I’ve recently explored the sacred lands in South Dakota. I choose road trip music to go with the nature of my journeys. On this trip I have been in gratitude. One of my favorite artists, AURORA, the amazing Norwegian singer-songwriter, dropped this cover of Alanis Morrisette’s THANK U right before my trip. It’s a beautiful and soulful cover, completely appropriate for the spirit of my journey.

Listening to this song while traveling to ancient pilgrimage places made me recall how music profoundly affects the human brain. This new study focuses on music and it’s neurological impact:

The study reinforces points made in this book:

Dr. Chris Berka at Advanced Brain Monitoring has done her usual brilliant work in furthering the body of research on the effect of music on the brain

One insight I gained early on in my research to improve training was how the power of music, rhythm, and cadence can add a powerful subliminal component to training events. It’s completely overlooked as an environmental factor in training design and presentation of critical fighting skills. I remember many years ago watching video of JKD legend Paul Vunak training West Coast SEALs while playing bongo drums. I remember the derisive commentary from “training experts” about “hippy dippy drum beating.”

What the “experts” missed was how immersion in that rhythmic beat trained, at an unconscious level, cadence and timing during real-time drills to develop technique that relies on faster-than-normal-conscious processing to identify cadence/rhythm and BREAK it to the advantage of the attacker or defender.

I remember the first time I tested the concept in a class of experienced and hardened combat shooters. I played a catchy rhythmic tune and got them all out of their seats doing a warm up that consisted essentially of “shadow boxing” through presentation technique with their duty weapons. They picked up on the cadence unconsciously, and enjoyed it — big grins, tapping toes, bobbing heads — and the speed of their presentation skills, when put on the timer, increased by an average of 25%.


With just music.

These were experienced SWAT level shooters and instructors to whom a 2.0 second presentation from duty gear was expected. To get to an average that ranged between 1.1 to 1.5 seconds with music, “shadow boxing with guns” and no formal instruction was an unbelievable improvement. They didn’t want to believe it.

Though they’d already done it, repeatedly, on the timer.

I just laughed and told them to argue with themselves if they didn’t want to accept their improvements, and got on with taking them to higher and better levels.

One element of instruction/course design is the concept of “Manipulate the learning environment.” That may include sound like background music, graphics and visuals placed on the wall or go up on the wall in the course of training, temperature (want to watch people get crabby? Induce thermal stress in a closed classroom…) and other elements. After studying research on the affect of scents on the olfactory nerve and associated brain regions,  I experimented with scents. I stopped as some people had dramatic ill effects after exposure to various aromatherapy concoctions.

One element I’ve adapted with significant success is the concept of a “learning playlist.” I select music according to the mood/emotional state I want to evoke in the background of specific teaching/instructional points. For instance, if I’m tasking students with a writing, note taking or recall learning event, I’ll utilize music with the cadence of baroque classical like Pachabel’s Canon in D:

If I’m coaching something that requires dynamic movement, like Airsoft gunfighting, knife or combatives drills, this is one of my favorite musical pieces. I first heard this when visiting with FCS Kali Tuhon Ray Dionaldo

So if you listen to first one and then the other, do you notice within yourself a different emotional state? We can measure that difference and evoke it at appropriate times during a training presentation to your benefit.

I first discovered these concepts in the Bulgarian and Soviet research on enhancing human performance during the 70s and 80s. The Soviet Union spent billions of rubles on improving the performance of their most elite Spesnatz teams and Olympic athletes. Their research applications led to a panicked catch up effort by the American military research establishment which then created the entire field of accelerated learning and performance enhancement via training the brain. The recent research underscores the dramatic effects manipulating the learning environment CAN facilitate while training critical skills that must be retained under life-threatening stress.

When I train instructors, we spend significant time examining all the elements within any given learning environment, from a classroom to an open tent in the desert, so that we may manipulate those elements to maximize the learning experience of our students.  Music is one such element.