With nearly three and a half thousand teen driving deaths per year, could popular music genres be to blame? As a driving enthusiast and music aficionado, this statistic piqued my curiosity. I set out to discover how music affects driving and created the inquiry question: How do different genres of music impact driving behavior and reaction time? Mohamed Benmerihki, a professor at EDHEC Business School, defines driving behavior as, “the set of actions he/she performs to ensure both the safety of people and compliance to the driving regulations” (Benmerihki).
Similarly, reaction time is defined by how quickly a driver responds to unexpected changes in traffic conditions. A few primary elements of driving behavior are following distances, cruising speed, speed of acceleration, and braking distances, and all of these must be considered when examining how music effects driving behavior and reaction times.
Overall, from careful research I have determined that music genres with rapid tempos stimulate reckless, more dangerous driving but improved reaction times, while genres with relaxed tempos encourage safer driving behavior on the whole.
To reach this conclusion I first had to determine whether music has any affect on the body or not, and I found that music does have both physiological and psychological effects. In his study on various types of music and the effects on bar patrons, University of Scranton scholar James C. Roberts notes that, “music can soothe and relax customers, or it can shake them up and make them feel excitement to the point where they just about burst.
If the tempo is increased, the energy level jumps and people go crazy. If the tempo is slowed, people relax. Music can also bring on strong emotions. For instance, some music can create anger, hostility, and aggressive behavior” (Roberts p. 89). Robert’s study demonstrates barroom performers’ ability to control their audience’s mood through tempo, genre, and volume.
Not only does this study reveal performers’ authority over audiences, but also music’s regulation of physical and mental behaviors. Faster, upbeat music, such as heavy metal, rap, and electronic dance music (EDM), typically translates to more aggressive, reckless behavior. On the contrary, calm, slower genres, like classical and LoFi, incite more rational behaviors. While these effects are primarily physical, Amy Wilson, Psychology Today writer, focuses on the mental connection contending that, “sad background music helps students memorize negative facts…whereas cheerful music helps them remember positive facts” (Wilson 13).
The material in Wilson’s article shows a correlation between the connotation of facts and the type of background music playing. When the implied emotions of the memorized facts and the music are similar, memorization is significantly more effective, further explaining music’s role in improving mental capacity. As illustrated, music has numerous effects on the human body, and with so many physiological and psychological effects, music genre, tempo, and volume all play a role in the way people drive.
Driving requires a high level of mental capacity to assess traffic conditions and respond with physical inputs, and because of the necessary mental requirements, drivers are particularly susceptible to the influence of music. Heavy metal, EDM, and hip-hop are among the most dangerous music genres to listen to while driving due to the negative impacts of their influence. Jeffrey Arnett, psychology professor at Clark University, conducted a study to determine whether heavy metal affected adolescents.
In his results, Arnett noted that, “boys who liked heavy metal music reported a higher rate of a wide range of reckless behavior, including driving behavior” (Arnett). Arnett’s research denotes negative behavior associated with listening to heavy metal in the car, and in addition, the research indicates that heavy metal incites recklessness in listeners which can make driving with heavy metal much more unpredictable and dangerous on the road. Author and music psychology professor Warren Brodsky attributes the dangers of these genres to their fast-paced tempos.
Brodsky’s study into driving with music finds that, “as the tempo of background music increased, so too did simulated driving speed and speed estimate. Further, the tempo of background music consistently affected the frequency of virtual traffic violations: disregarded red traffic-lights, lane crossings, and collisions were most frequent with fast-paced music” (Brodsky). In this simulated study, music genres with fast tempos similar to those of heavy metal, EDM, and hip-hop, resulted in more collisions, faster speeds, and a higher frequency of red lights run.
The tempo of these genres elicits poor driving behaviors that present dangers to the drivers themselves and those around them. Music with tempos above the average human heart rate of sixty to eighty beats per minute raises the heart rate in listeners. Another study, The Stereo Effect, conducted by the I Drive Safely team, discovered that, “The more dangerous tunes were those that were markedly noisy and raised the heart rate past its natural levels. These pieces take the driver’s attention away from the road and focus it upon the music instead, causing them to speed up in order to match the tempo of the song” (I Drive Safely).
Music tempo’s effect on human heart rate is the catalyst for the reckless, aggressive driving behavior associated with hip-hop, dance music, heavy metal, and other fast-paced genres. Anthony Karr, editor automotive news website Motor1, notes that of the five most dangerous top ninety-six songs on Spotify, three are rock songs and the remaining two are dance music (Karr). This further solidifies that fact that fast genres incite concerningly risky behaviors while listened to behind the wheel.
On the contrary, fast genres appear to have benefits when it comes to improving reaction time. When played at high volumes (above 85 decibels), as these genres typically are, New Scientist Magazine’s Laura Spinney finds that reaction times are, “a whole tenth of a second faster than those driving with no music” (Spinney). Even when played quietly, rock music has been found to improve reaction times by up to fifty milliseconds.
Despite these reaction time improvements, drivers playing loud rock were a tenth of a second slower to effectively scan their environment (Spinney). Driver awareness is essential for safety of the driver and others around them on the road, and with loud music acting as a severe inhibitor to awareness, fast, loud genres cannot be deemed beneficial to driver safety and ability.
Although fast, loud music like heavy metal, hip-hop, and EDM are often dangerous, listening to relaxing music and classical genres while driving can improve driving behaviors and reaction times. Research shows that at a scientific level, listening to classical music can improve productivity and physically lower stress by reducing cortisol levels (Classic FM).
Cortisol is the stress hormone that the human body naturally produces. By reducing the level of cortisol being produced, humans experience less stress. Listening to classical music has the ability to lower cortisol levels which leads to safer, calmer driving behaviors, and with little to no stress while driving, drivers are able to focus on the road and take fewer risks. Increased focus also brings about improved spatial reasoning, the brain’s physical problem-solving ability.
Thomas Wilson and Tina Brown of The Journal of Psychology conducted a study on the Mozart Effect, classical music’s improvement on specific task, particularly on spatial reasoning performance. The study results revealed that, “listening to the patterned classical music of Mozart can indeed enhance performance on some measures of spatial reasoning” (Wilson, Thomas). By listening to classical and relaxing music while driving, drivers have a higher problem-solving capacity allowing them to make smarter, safer decisions in response to traffic changes. Anthony Karr, mentioned previously, also ranks the five safest songs to listen to while driving out of Spotify’s top ninety-six.
None of which happen to classical, but all possess tempos following the normal human heart beat which activates stress-relieving properties. Digital marketing writer Grace Sweeney further explores the Mozart Effect and its impact on productivity. In her experiments, “music was found to provide a little mood boost and it had a soothing, anti-anxiety effect, too” (Sweeney). Both a lack of anxiety and a positive mood generate better driving behaviors. Classical music reduces stress, anxiety, and improves awareness, and drivers listening to classical reap these benefits.
It could easily be argued that the benefits of listening to classical music in the car are irrelevant as some consider classical a dying genre, but this is not necessarily the case. Dawn Chmielewski of Billboard, a popular source for music charts and news, finds that, “Classical music is undergoing a revival as mood- and activity-based playlists on streaming services turn young listeners on to instrumental tracks — and pique their interest in the artists behind them. Spotify’s Intense Studying playlist has 1.4 million followers, while Peaceful Piano counts over 3 million, fueling a 70 percent spike in classical music streams from the same time in 2016” (Chmielewski).
In just a one-year timeframe, the number of classical listeners on nearly all music platforms spiked upward drastically, indicating a resurgence of classical music. Now, more people choose to listen to classical music while studying to increase focus and mental aptitude, in addition to the relaxing, anti-anxiety effects the genre possesses. These advantages are the reason why so many new people are listening to classical music. Classical is currently in a stage of growth and with factual proof of the physiological and psychological asset that classical genre can be, an increasing number of drivers will undoubtedly be tuning in to classical stations for future drives.
Despite the discernable benefits that genres such as classical and LoFi present, listening to any form of music while behind the wheel may be considered dangerous. An infographic created by Ayana Lage illustrates the dangers of driving with music, and Lage explains that driving with music requires a significant boost in mental effort, even up to a sixty-one percent increase during traffic jams. While listening to music, drivers are twice as likely to run through red lights making traffic citations more common (Lage).
Although many listeners report a mood increase while listening to music, the brain is still required to process more information than it would without any music present. The rise in mental effort can, and often does, result in traffic violations, aggressive driving behaviors and a higher number of collisions happen while listening to music. Jordan Navarro and colleagues from Human Factors psychology journal conclude from their study on music and driving that, “arousing music improved drivers’ responsiveness to changes in the speed of the followed vehicle.
However, this benefit was canceled out by a reduction in the drivers’ intervehicle safety margin” (Navarro). Contrary to Lage’s statistics, Jordan Navarro acknowledges positive aspect of listening to music while driving, but he is quick highlight the flaws. Navarro argues that a loss in the intravehicular safety margin, the safe following distance between cars, makes driving with music much more dangerous despite the positive aspects.
When students first enter driver education programs, instructors typically advise against learning with music, and driving lessons seldom occur with music playing. Most driving instructors are aware of the statistics that both Lage and Navarro present, and they encourage against driving with music to foster safer driving habits and better behavior in new and young drivers. Although it is advisable to exercise the practices that driving instructors teach, it cannot be deemed totally unsafe for experienced drivers to listen to music behind the wheel.
The vast majority of research indicates certain genres, like heavy metal, rap, and EDM, incite more reckless behaviors, but calmer genres, like classical, display benefits that outweigh the negative aspects of driving with music. By lowering stress levels and increasing focus and spatial-awareness, driver behavior becomes calmer, more relaxed, and drivers are more aware of surrounding traffic, pedestrians, and regulatory signs. All of these aspects combined make for a peaceful drive that is both safe and anxiety-free.
Although some may say that all music is dangerous, only certain fast-paced genres have reckless implications. At a lower volume, relaxing genres positively impact driving behavior and can increase following distances. With low-frequency and slow tempo music styles presenting a vast number of positive effects, a resurgence in classical music has the potential to bring along fewer collisions, create safer drivers, and reduce the number of road-related injuries and deaths. In review, research presents thorough evidence that music effects the way and behavior with which humans drive, but with troubling ramifications, fast, loud music is not sensible. If drivers find it satisfactory to play music behind the wheel, soft, slower genres at a mild volume are recommended to minimize risk while on the road.
- Arnett, Jeffrey. ‘Heavy Metal Music and Reckless Behavior among Adolescents.’Journal of Youth and Adolescence, vol. 20, no. 6, 1991, pp. 573-92. ProQuest, https://search.proquest.com/docview/204634575?accountid=2711, doi:http://dx.doi.org/10.1007/BF01537363. Accessed 19 Mar. 2019.
- Benmerikhi, Mohamed. “How Can I Define Driving Behavior?” ResearchGate, ResearchGate, 2014, www.researchgate.net/post/How_can_I_define_driver_behaviour. Accessed 18 Mar. 2019.
- Brodsky, Warren. “The Effects of Music Tempo on Simulated Driving Performance and Vehicular Control.” NeuroImage, Academic Press, 6 Dec. 2001, www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/abs/pii/S1369847801000250. Accessed 19 Mar. 2019.
- Chmielewski, Dawn. “Mood-Based Playlists Grow Classical Music’s Revenue, Cache With Young Fans.” Billboard, Billboard, 14 Sept. 2017, www.billboard.com/articles/news/magazine-feature/7964881/mood-based-playlists-grow-classical-music-revenue. Accessed 21 Mar. 2019
- Classic FM. “The Scientific Benefits of Listening to Classical Music on Your Commute.” Classic FM, Classic FM, 7 Mar. 2019, www.classicfm.com/discover-music/scientific-benefits-listening-to-classical-commute/. Accessed 19 Mar. 2019.
- I Drive Safely. “The Stereo Effect: Can Music Influence Your Driving Behavior?” I Drive Safely, I Drive Safely, 2019, www.idrivesafely.com/defensive-driving/trending/stereo-effect-can-music-influence-your-driving-behavior. Accessed 19 Mar. 2019.
- Karr, Anthony. “5 Most Dangerous Songs To Drive To (And The 5 Safest).” Motor1.Com, Motor1.Com, 20 Nov. 2018, www.motor1.com/news/276860/five-most-dangerous-songs-driving/. Accessed 21 Mar. 2019.
- Lage, Ayana. “How Listening To Music Affects Your Driving Ability [Infographic].” Daily Infographic, Daily Infographic, 6 July 2017, www.dailyinfographic.com/how-listening-to-music-affects-your-driving-ability. Accessed 20 Mar. 2019
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- Sweeney, Grace. “How to Use Music to Be More Productive and Creative.” Softonic, Softonic, 5 Mar. 2019, en.softonic.com/articles/best-music-productivity. Accessed 20 Mar. 2019.
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- Wilson, Thomas L., and Tina L. Brown. ‘Reexamination of the Effect of Mozart’s Music on Spatial-Task Performance.’ The Journal of Psychology, vol. 131, no. 4, 1997, pp. 365-370. ProQuest, https://search.proquest.com/docview/213818444?accountid=2711, doi:http://dx.doi.org/10.1080/00223989709603522. Accessed 19 Mar. 2019.