Snowboarding and Music

Both on and off the board, music has been enriching the snowboarding experience for the past two decades.


Mountains aren’t a natural centre for urban cool. Think about it: for thousands of years, these remote wildernesses were untouched by mainstream society, inhabited instead by Deliverance-esque folk whose main preoccupation was merely surviving the extremities that their environment threw at them. Fashion had no place here.

Later, however, the mountains were colonised by outsiders who had discovered the recreational joy of sliding down snowy slopes. As the snow industry took root in this chilly oasis, the ‘great outdoors’ became commercialised – a playground for the stuffy elite, complete with high-fashion ski suits, lodges and spas. Then along came snowboarding. For a time it was an outsider sport, seen as eccentric and even downright dangerous, but eventually it became accepted; most importantly riders were permitted to share the same slopes as skiers. Once in the fold, snowboarding could easily have gone the way of two planks – holding downhill races, wearing one-pieces and generally embracing the middle class, middle-aged wintersports aesthetic.

But fast-forward and look at snowboarding today. It’s not just another mountain sport with a lucrative industry behind it; it’s a creative, youthful lifestyle with links to surfing, skateboarding, art, fashion, film and music. It’s even incorporated the modern cult of celebrity – being a pro isn’t just about riding, it’s about having an attitude, being an icon – a rockstar! How did this happen? How did a sport rooted in the wilderness become such a progressive cultural force? There are many contributing factors but, deep down, music is a pretty crucial one.

Go back to the late 1970s and music, specifically punk rock, was turning skateboarding from clean cut, surfy pursuit into an anti-systemic urban lifestyle, thanks to skate figureheads of the day like Steve Olsen, Salba and Duane Peters going to Black Flag gigs and expressing their inner punk on four wheels. The ‘skate and destroy’ attitude inspired a generation of kids and set the sport on a whole new historical path. Within a decade, it would be snowboarding’s turn to feel this impact.

It was Ranquet in particular who symbolised a grungy, convention-spurning attitude, and whose stylish riding brought across much of skateboarding's timeless trick vernacular.

After the battles of the early 1980s to get snowboarding accepted at ski areas – led by the likes of Jake Burton, Tom Sims and International Snowboard Magazine founder Tom Hsieh – it was music (and the musically-influenced skateboarding) that injected a much-needed dose of metropolitan cool, shifting it away from those early, lycra-clad slalom races to a future of freestyle creativity and individualism.

Much of the momentum came from the Pacific Northwest. By the early 1990s, Seattle was riding the wave of grunge music, with local bands such as Mudhoney and, of course, Nirvana at the height of ‘cool’. As this scene exploded in popularity, its relatively close proximity to such snowboarding hubs as Mt Baker (the first resort in the USA to allow riders on its lifts) and Mt Hood saw a cross-pollination of cultures: iconic snowboarders like Mike Ranquet, Chris Roach and Circe Wallace would regularly hang out at grunge gigs and summer skate jams alongside musicians like Eddie Vedder and Mudhoney frontman Mark Arm. It was Ranquet in particular – with his famous blue hairdo – who symbolised a grungy, convention-spurning attitude, and whose stylish riding brought across much of skateboarding’s timeless trick vernacular.

Going hand-in-hand with the music was fashion. Music-loving snowboarders didn’t want to dress in the preppy style popular with skiers at that time, so soon they were arriving at the hill in a loose (albeit ill-suited) uniform of jeans, caps and flannel shirts. When the likes of Standard Films and Fall Line began putting these riders on screen in such movies as Totally Board and Critical Condition, grunge and rock music was the natural soundtrack.

And these films and their soundtracks are important. They act as cultural markers, both reflecting the trends in snowboarding at any given time and helping to spread them to a wider audience. Music, in other words, sets the tone for different eras, crews and styles. What would Absinthe be without epic indie rock and mellow beats; Mack Dawg without American punk and hip hop; and Robot Food without Euro bleeps and retro 80s sounds? Take a look at any new trend that has emerged in snowboarding and you’ll find a soundtrack to go with it; hip hop and urban jibbing in the late 1990s; the return to backcountry kickers and classic rock in the late 2000s; and DIY jibs with scruffy emo tunes in the present day.

Nowadays, music and snowboarding have a two-way exchange. Former pro riders such as Jamie Lynn, Trevor Andrew and Travis Kennedy (er… well, maybe not!) have carved out music careers through natural support from their fellow riders. Brands too have recognised that music is an integral aspect of shred culture, with Volcom leading the way by starting their own record label (Volcom Entertainment) and Billabong and Quiksilver making moves to catch up.

Take a look at any new trend that has emerged in snowboarding and you'll find a soundtrack to go with it.

The Science

But it’s not just the broader snowboarding ‘scene’ that is influenced by music. Technology has brought music into the act of snowboarding itself. The growth of personal music players since Sony first launched the Walkman in 1979 has allowed riders to provide a soundtrack to their own shred sessions. Take a look at the phenomenal growth of brands like Skullcandy, WESC, Aerial7 and Frends, with their snowboard-specific headphone ranges. In fact, Danny Davis et al’s Frends crew claim the inspiration for their new business venture was the fact that “music – and the conduit to it, headphones – are just as much a part of our lives as the snow.” As it turns out, as a motivating force, music may actually help you become a better rider. It’s something that many a snowboarder can relate to:

“I think music’s just a good way to kinda pump yourself up,” says Danny Kass, who claimed silver in the 2006 Torino Winter Olympics while listening to ‘The Game’ on his headphones. “It stops you from over-thinking certain things and worrying about this and that. I like to try and stay focused and pump up the jam. You feel it, feel the music!”

“Music amps you up for sure,” agrees Schoph Schophield, UK snowboarder, artist, Dalikfodda founder and music afficionado who likes to shred to the likes of Truckfighters, Fu Manchu and Kyuss. “If you have some full-on heavy shit on whilst learning something new or a favourite tune, you’re more on it.”

The effect of music on sport has been studied by many psychologists over the years. Up-tempo beats have been shown to help runners go faster for longer; calming music has allowed netballers to score more goals; and switching from slow to fast tunes can give long-distance cyclists a boost in their performance. According to research, music has the ability to give you positive motivation and temper your stress levels (what boffins call ‘pre-activity energising or relaxation’), and it can reduce the sensations of exhaustion and extend your work rate by synchronising your activity to a beat. So basically speaking, it allows you to get you into what some call ‘the zone’.

“The ability to get yourself in the optimal emotional state is important for snowboarding and any physical activity,” says Andy Lane, Professor of Sport and Learning at the University of Wolverhamption. “In sport and competitions, the likelihood of us getting extremely nervous increases. In some degree, it can be quite helpful for performance as nerves gets the body ready for physical activity. It tells your brain that there’s some danger in the environment that you need to attend to. You want that to a point where it’s not so intense that it become paralysing but where it’s quite energising.”

Scientifically speaking, the peak of this emotional condition is known as ‘flow state’². It’s a mindset characterised by an ‘energised focus’: a level of concentration that is followed by extraordinary physical performance. Music has been used to get into this state in many cultures throughout history, the most obvious example being the pre-battle ritual – from Roman armies beating drums, to the Māori war haka, to US soldiers listening to heavy metal before and during combat missions in the Iraq war (as captured in Michael Moore’s Farenheit 911). Getting in this optimum emotional state has a lot to do with training your body to go against your natural instincts of self-preservation.

Back in the snowboarding world, go back to the first time you pointed the nose of your board down a slope. Your body’s natural reflex is to lean back as you descend an incline, but do that and you’ll be on your arse very quickly. You’ve got to override that natural reaction and lean forward, putting your weight on your front leg. As it happens, music can help you with this.

So what is it in music that contributes to this positive motivation? The musicality (harmony, melody, tone, and BPM) plays a part. Studies have shown that up-tempo, aggressive, self-confident music is more likely to promote the same thoughts in the listener – something that is very useful for snowboarding. Think of all your favourite shred videos – chances are that whatever the genre of music, the soundtrack reflects this uplifting musicality. It’s probably no coincidence that the director chose it.

“There’s lots of ways in which music that links to previous experiences can be useful,” adds Professor Lane. “We have certain memories of very powerful pieces of music [that work] in quite a motivational way.”

Music acts as a memory trigger, you see. Say you’ve watched to death Travis Rice’s part in Pop, famously accompanied by Modest Mouse’s ‘Float On’. When you hear that tune again on the mountain, it will remind of his smooth, powerful backcountry riding and conjure up images of you charging the mountain like Rice (or even being him!), helping put you in that optimal emotional state. Or perhaps you were listening to a particular song when you were previously in a hyped state or just had a great day’s riding. Play that song again and your mind will instantly make that association. “It’s the same way that people makes associations in all sorts of sports competitions, like their lucky socks,” explains Lane. “There is a link created between the sock and the expected feeling which the person has experienced when they’ve been successful wearing those socks.”

It turns out you don’t even need to physically hear the music to feel the motivational benefits – using your imagination can be equally effective. “The idea of humming a song while you’re trying to snowboard is actually quite functional, it can get you into that relaxed state” explains Lane.

Pro rider Eddie Wall agrees. “I am almost always singing a song in my head as a ride, “ he says. “I usually think of The Misfits, Interpol or Bob Dylan. I think it helps a great deal, whether I’m dropping in for a rail or jump, or just riding powder. It takes my mind off what I’m doing. Especially [if I’m] filming something on the bigger side – something scary – it helps so much to sing a song and take my mind off of everything and just do the trick. I can actually look back to some of my video parts, and I can remember what song I was thinking of during certain tricks.”

So that’s the motivating and energising impact of music, but what about other factors? Rhythm, for example, might help a runner synchronise his stride to an up-tempo beat, but how does it relate to snowboarding? To answer this, just think about carving. You may well have seen a snowboarder cruising a piste, subconsciously dancing to the disco in their ears. By synchronising your turns to music, it can have what is known as an ‘ergogenic’ effect – an external influence that improves your performance by making your muscles work harder for longer. Firstly, the rider pushes their movement patterns to stay in time with the beat, and secondly the hypnotic effect of the rhythm distracts them from sensations of exhaustion.

So listening to music has got to be good right? Well, that’s all very well for gentle greens, but come black runs, trees and the unexpected, it may not be so straightforward. As Lane explains, “snowboarding is usually an asynchronous activity, responding to the terrain. You can go along to a rhythm at some points, but at others it would be a distraction. I’m not sure in snowboarding that music would be ideal because [riding variable] terrain requires a lot of closed focus concentration.”

As a motivating force, music may actually help you become a better rider

So once you’re charging, there’s basically far too much sensory stimulation for music to be any good to you at all. It may even serve as an unnecessary distraction – ending in a chauffeur-driven helicopter to the nearest hospital.

It’s precisely for this reason that double-cork pioneer and all-round progressive snowboarder David Benedek claims never to ride with music. “I just feel like I need to hear what’s going on around me as well as hear the wind to let me judge my speed,” he says. It’s something that Eddie Wall – who himself “almost never” rides with headphones – recognises too:  “The downside is not being able to hear everything around me. If I can’t hear the snow under my board, or other people around me, it kind of throws off my riding a bit.”

Putting on a pair of cans In the park could – in theory – be particularly dangerous. Aside from failing to hear potential hazards – like a fallen rider in the landing or a cry of “Dropping!” – you may get overexcited; you may be brimming with self-confidence and belief that you can hit the XL kicker, for instance, because you’ve had Metallica screaming in your ear for the last few minutes, but is that really within your ability? The mind may be up for it, but are your tired legs? “As far as downsides go, I could see music detaching yourself from the actual reality or skill level that you´re at,” notes Benedek.

That’s not to say cutting off your senses to the outside world can’t sometimes be useful. When it comes to competing, music really comes into its own. “Where you’ve got a crowd cheering you on and other random distractions, music will close that off to something very predictable,” explains Lane. The asynchronous distractions of a crowd can actually inhibit you reaching that flow state, but the predictability of your favourite music can help. “It allows you to switch into the music when there’s something you want to listen to, and not listen to the noises around you. You’ve got an immediate distraction in your local environment.”

Snowboarding’s ultimate competitor, Shaun White, is no stranger to this idea. “I love the fact that music can put you in a certain mood,” said Shaun in a recent interview with German sports channel ServusTV. “When I’m at a competition, [I’m] getting all nervous as I have to drop in and ride in front of everybody. Then your favourite song comes on and everything doesn’t matter.” UK pro Ben Kilner clearly agrees, having tuned into Van Halen’s ‘Panama’ before his pipe run at the 2010 Vancouver Olympics. Fellow Olympian Kelly Clark went even further: as the TV cameras focused on her in the start gate, she could be clearly heard singing along to Christian hymns on her iPod before dropping in to win bronze. “At events there is always so much going on that it is nice to have something constant,” she says. “It allows me to focus on what I’m doing and not get distracted by things around me.”

Both White and Clark, much like Kass, went on to ride the pipe with their music on – with White reportedly pulling his historic Double McTwist 1260 while listening to Guns N Roses’ ‘Paradise City’. The predictable, ‘synchronous’ terrain of the halfpipe makes it a perfect fit for riding with tunes and getting into a rhythm. Nevertheless, Kilner doesn’t drop in with music on. “I need to hear the sound of my board on the snow to help me pin point the perfect takeoff,” he explains.

And so this suggests that the impact of music is, like musical taste itself, very subjective. It’s not just a case of listening to ‘stimulating’ music just before you are going to shred. Says Lane: “It has potentially very individualistic intervention. Some people will get the benefits much quicker than others. The selection of songs for the activity is part of it.”

Whereas runners can tailor playlists to specific runs, taking into account inclines, sprints and plateaus, the often unpredictable nature of terrain means snowboarding just doesn’t work like that – unless you’re practising a pipe routine, of course. After all, is there much to be gained from having some pumping tune kick in when you’re creeping along a cat track?

For all the theory of what to listen to when, it assumes one major thing: you are alone. Snowboarding may be an individualistic sport, but in reality you usually do it with your friends. You can get so much of your confidence and hype from simply laughing, joking and pushing each other to do stuff you’re scared of. It’s something Ben Kilner puts the most value on: “Getting a bunch of friends together gets me all fired up to go for it. It’s odd but if one of your friends lands an amazing trick then that really motivates you to do something; you’re happy for them but you also want to go and do something good as well. You don’t want to beat them in some sort of angry way, just do something so they’ll be happy for you too.”

So instead of spending hours on iTunes, crafting that perfect playlist and hyping yourself up in your own little world, perhaps in the end you should just try riding with people who are better than you? Maybe, if you are lucky, they can sing you a little song.

Perhaps in the end you should just try riding with people who are better than you? Maybe, if you’re lucky, they’ll sing you a little song.

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