Lyrical Music Is Olympic Figure Skating's Greatest Psychological Hack

"When you have lyrics, it’s really clear what the music is trying to say."


New at the PyeongChang 2018 Olympic Winter Games is the addition of lyrical music to figure skating. The songs made an expectedly dramatic debut: Latvia’s Diana Nikitina skated to the words of R&B singer Sade (“Soldier of Love”) and France’s Mae-Berenice Méité roused crowds with a Beyoncé medley.

The work of systematic musicologist Paul Elvers, Ph.D. suggests that lyrical music can have quite an effect on the people watching the skaters themselves.

Elvers tells Inverse that the biggest difference between lyrical and instrumental music is that music with words takes the guesswork out of figuring out how music is meant to make you feel — and as listeners, this is something we all subconsciously want. It’s simply less work for our brains.

“When you have lyrics, it’s really clear what the music is trying to say,” he says.

The magic of figure skating is in its ability to convey an emotional message while simultaneously defying physics with technical stunts. Judges appraise a skater’s involvement “physically, emotionally and intellectually as they deliver the intent of the music and composition.”

In the current competition, the most popular song selections remain beautiful classical pieces like Bizet’s Carmen or selections from Tchaikovsky’s Swan Lake. Meanwhile, a song like AC/DC’s “Back in Black,” which Hungary’s Ivett Toth skated to on Tuesday, makes it clear to the audience exactly what mood she wants to express.

Lyrical music, however, may not just have an effect on viewers. Its greatest effect may be on the person skating to it.

Recently, Elvers’ work has focused on the effect of lyrical music on an athlete’s performance. In particular, he’s been focusing on lyrical music that’s motivational.

In a paper published in Frontiers in Psychology in 2017, he and his team discuss the results of a ball-toss game that participants played after listening to either no music, lyrical motivational music selected by a panel of experts, or lyrical motivational music they selected themselves. Surprisingly, the researchers didn’t find an effect on self-esteem enhancement or performance. Instead, Elvers says, “What we found was that people were behaving more risky” to their own lyrical motivational music.

“It’s not still really clear why risk-taking was affected,” says Elvers, a researcher at the Max Planck Institute for Empirical Aesthetics. He thinks it may have something to do with music changing the way a person frames a choice or situation, shifting them toward perceiving a choice as more potentially rewarding than potentially threatening.

“It might be that people look more at how many more points they can receive when they hit the basket — and not as something very risky or very likely to fail.”

Elvers is reluctant to extrapolate from his results, but it’s not hard to imagine how a similar situation might play out on the rink. Risk, in figure skating, means daring to try a triple axel, like Mirai Nagasu, or multiple quads, like Team USA’s Nathan Chen did while skating to “Nemesis” by Benjamin Clementine during the men’s short program last week. Someday, it may even mean attempting the near-impossible quintuple.

The decision to allow lyrical music in figure skating is likely a ploy to bring in more, and younger, viewers, the New York Times observed. As competitors continue to fill the Olympic rink with lyrical pop, it will be interesting to see how tastes among figure skating judges change.

At the very least, it will very likely be more fun for the skaters. They, too, are getting younger, and are probably not listening to Bizet all day. Perhaps Méité, who will likely not place in the women’s singles competition but has already won the hearts of fans everywhere, put it best in her interview with Cosmopolitan, where she noted that Beyoncé’s music is “crazy, wild and fun,” adding, “You can just dance to it.”

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