Does listening to music while driving distract you? It is certainly an important question with respect to safety: a distracted driver is an unfocused one, and therefore more likely to get in an accident.
To answer this question, we need to understand how music affects the brain in general. Scientists believe that our sense of rhythm, which has a powerful impact on behavior, stems from listening to our mother’s heart beat as we grow in the womb. The brain is stimulated and shaped by sound patterns long before we are capable of any kind of rational or semantic understanding: that is why, for example, parents are encouraged to expose babies to classical music, whose rigorous complexity has good effects on the developing brain.
Music affects us unconsciously, producing responses we do not choose but are rather subject to. Of course, this is something we all know from anecdotal experience: we find that some songs just make us feel a certain way, now happy and inspired, now nostalgic and melancholy.
This phenomenon goes deeper than you might think. For instance, sometimes when we listen to music our heart beat may try to get in sync with the tempo.
When it comes to driving a vehicle, up-tempo music—around 120 to 140 beats per minute—has been found to increase aggressive and risky decisions such as running red lights and stop signs. So, in order to avoid getting in an accident, it is a good idea not to jam out to the electronic dance music you enjoy when out dancing on Saturday night. Before you know it you might end up banging your head against the steering wheel!
Volume is important too, so your dad was on to something when he yelled at you as a teenager: “Turn that music down. I can’t even hear myself think!” High volume music—above 95 decibels—can influence the brain to pay more attention to the music than to what’s happening on the road. The brain can only process so much stimuli. So your vision may not be as keen as usual. Also, you may not hear vital sounds, like someone beeping at you or your struggling engine.
On the other hand, it has been found that listening to familiar music at a moderate volume level may influence faster reaction times behind the wheel. Perhaps the reason is that, as people are more relaxed and comfortable, they perform better, like athletes who get “into the zone” by not overthinking and so not feeling distracted.
Genre also makes a difference. In one test, rock music and “easy listening” music, both played at 70 decibels, were compared and it was found that the latter group had slower reaction times. Better to listen to Bob Dylan than Kenny G.
A final thing to keep in mind: fatigue and depression are each associated with poor driving performance, increasing the risk of getting in an accident. So, if you are tired or feeling down, you’ve already driving at increased risk. Listening to familiar music that makes you happy, at a moderate volume level may help!