What Makes A Great Workout Song? – A Spotify Deep Dive

This week, we’re taking a deep dive into one of my favorite things: music.

Like a lot of people, music is a big part of my fitness journey. I have multiple workout playlists on Spotify and always listen to one when I’m at the gym. If I forget headphones and have to go without music that day, I never perform my best.

Even though workout music is important to me, I’ve never been able to master the art of playlist design. My playlists just tend to be my favorite upbeat songs at the time. They are all over the place musically and thematically, which can sometimes be a little bit jarring.

So in my journey to create the ultimate workout playlist, I decided I needed to look beyond just myself–tracking down some of the most popular workout playlists right now in an effort to answer the question: “What makes a great workout song?”

Naturally, I turned to data for my answer.

Luckily for me, Spotify, one of the most popular streaming services around the world–and my music platform of choice–makes a lot of its data publicly available through an API.

So I connected to it and began to investigate.

To make sure things were data-centric, I focused only on playlists created by Spotify. Since their platform design is based around machine-learning, it seemed probable that Spotify’s playlists were likely more data-informed than standard users’ playlists, and therefore more likely to contain the “best” songs. Additionally, Spotify-created playlists were significantly easier to search and access through the API.

So here’s what I found: the best workout songs of 2021, according to Spotify.

Spotify collects data on quite a few different numeric values for each song on their platform. For the purposes of this analysis, I focused on the following:

  • Valence (A measure of a song’s “happiness” level)
  • Energy (On a scale of 0 to 1)
  • Loudness (although Spotify normalizes the audio of their tracks to keep them at relatively consistent levels, there is still some variation)
  • Danceability (On a scale of 0 to 1)
  • Tempo (Beats Per Minute/BPM)
  • Track age in years (Spotify’s raw data includes the release date, which was used to calculate this field)

If you want to learn more about these metrics, you can check out the Spotify API documentation here, though it is important to note that I did not pull the information straight through the API, but rather through an interface in the spotifyr software package.

In an effort to understand what sets a song apart as a great “Workout” song, enough for Spotify to include in their workout-specific playlists, I wanted see how Workout music looks in comparison to other genres across these different variables.

To do this, I selected a handful of genres and compared them using the metrics defined previously. The six genres I used were Workout, Rock, Pop, Indie, Hip Hop, and EDM/Dance music.

We can see the results of this analysis in the gallery below. Each graph shows the distributions of each of our variables of interest for our six selected genres of choice. To get a sense of the “standard” workout song, I also calculated the median values–representing the midline, where 50% of songs fall above and 50% fall below–for each distribution, illustrated by a vertical black line.

According to this analysis, the songs that Spotify has highlighted as great workout music seem to be distinct from our other genres. What sets them apart?

Let’s consider valence first. Compared with other genres, workout music seems to be pretty middle of the road on the happiness scale. There are a higher proportion of happy workout songs than EDM and dance songs, but a lower proportion than indie and hip hop. However, the happiness level of workout songs can vary dramatically. Some songs rate very low on the happiness scale, while others rate very high.

Energy is also quite interesting. Workout songs tend to be quite high energy compared with other genres, matching up pretty well with the energy of rock music and EDM/dance music. They are typically a lot more energetic than pop, indie, or hip hop songs. And this makes sense when we think about the purpose of workout music–to keep you motivated and working hard during a workout! Low energy, “chill” songs would likely not be all that productive.

Given that, you might be wondering why there’s a low energy bump for the workout category. It turns out that the low energy songs belong to a yoga-specific playlist, which is classified by Spotify in the same way that songs for a standard gym playlist would be.

What about loudness? Just like with energy, workout music is at the top. Workout songs have the highest median loudness of any of our genres, with some standout low yoga songs once again.

For danceability, workout music is no longer at the top. Workout songs tend to be moderately danceable–more than rock and indie, but less than hip hop. Workout music does appear to have the highest danceability range of any of the genres, though. There does not appear to be a clear danceability number shared by workout songs.

What about tempo? For this measure, workout songs seem to be pretty average, hovering around a median tempo of 125 BPM. They seem to share the same peak density as EDM/Dance songs and are faster than a lot of hip hop songs.

As for track length, once again, nothing stands out all that much. Workout songs tend to hover around a median track length of about 200 seconds (a little over three minutes), which is a little shorter than rock and indie songs and similar to pop and EDM music. Additionally, a much lower proportion of songs are over 5 minutes (300 seconds) for the workout genre compared with other genres.

Finally, song age. This metric produced one of the more interesting graphs, with the distributions for the genres looking dramatically different. Workout music was again relatively middle of the road–with a median song age of around 2 years. Workout songs did tend to be a little bit older than the songs on EDM, hip hop, or pop playlists–but what stood out most to me was just how much newer they were than the songs on rock and indie playlists, which both had median ages of over a decade old!

So what does this tell us about the perfect workout song–according to Spotify? If we’re looking just at median values, it looks like the ideal workout song is:

  • Moderately happy
  • High energy
  • Quite loud
  • Pretty danceable
  • About 125 BPM
  • A little over 3 minutes long
  • A couple of years old

However, not all workout songs have to look exactly the same and be carbon copies on these different metrics. In fact, to create a great playlist of multiple good workout songs, there should be some variety, with some songs higher energy than others, a mix of song lengths, and variation in danceability.

To see what this mix might look like, let’s look at the top 5 workout songs by overall popularity (which Spotify classifies as popularity relative to similar music, not all music in general).

The most popular workout songs on Spotify’s playlists as of August 2021 are listed below, alongside links to their music videos if you’re curious:

  • Bad Habits – Ed Sheeran [Watch]
  • I WANNA BE YOUR SLAVE – Måneskin [Watch]
  • INDUSTRY BABY (feat. Jack Harlow) – Lil Nas X [Watch]
  • STAY (with Justin Bieber) – The Kid LAROI [Watch]
  • Yonaguni – Bad Bunny [Watch]

If we look at these in terms of their relative values for those metrics we mentioned previously, we see that the songs are quite mixed in their features.

For example, Bad Habits is the most danceable song by far, but also has the slowest tempo and the longest duration. Industry Baby is quieter than the other songs, but on the happier end. STAY is not very danceable, and the shortest song of the bunch, but it has a pretty high tempo and higher energy than most of the other songs.

This graph makes it clear that there’s no one formula for what makes a top workout song. No two workout songs are identical and they all trade off in terms of different features.

To build a great workout playlist, it looks like we want a mix of songs that fall generally near our median metrics, though there is some flexibility.

For fun, let’s explore a few other variables. First up, explicitness. An explicit rating means that a song contains curse words and/or sexual, violent, or offensive content. Typically, musicians are expected to tag their own music for explicitness, so this can be subjective. However, if the streaming platform a song is hosted on determines that a song is explicit and it has not been marked as such, it can result in penalties for that artist, such as their music being made invisible to listeners. As a result, most musicians are inclined to review their songs carefully and provide accurate ratings.

When we look at explicitness, we once again find workout songs in the middle. A little over 20% of workout songs are tagged as explicit–significantly more than indie, EDM, or rock, but less than pop and much less than hip hop.

What about song title? Can we glean anything from the titles of workout songs? Are there any clear themes across them?

Below we have a word cloud of the most common words that appeared in the titles of the songs on Spotify’s curated workout playlists. Word clouds aren’t the most scientifically useful, but they do provide us a quick visual glance at what’s going on.

The one word that stands out the most here is “feat”, a shortened term for the word “featuring”, which indicates that one artist has brought in another artist for a guest appearance on their track. Workout playlists seem to have a lot of songs with guest artists, rather than songs done by one individual or group.

So there we have it: a look at what makes a great workout song. Since the “perfect” workout song is quite a subjective measure, I’m curious: What’s your favorite workout song? What features make a workout song great for you? Did you find anything interesting in this article that changed your view of workout music?

And if you want to check out some of the songs analyzed for this project, here are a few of Spotify’s top workout playlists:

For more posts like this, check out the Data Analysis category on the blog!

If you liked this, and want me to continue doing more posts about workout music, let me know what type of work and analysis you’d like to see!

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