Music and Driving

Have you ever put together the perfect playlist for a road trip?  What criteria did you use to pick the music – best songs for a singalong, songs to keep you pumped, something you can car-dance to?  What if we were to tell you, your playlist could be putting you at risk on our roads?

Studies have shown that music can be quite detrimental in situations where a strong focus is needed.  Take studying, for example; it has long been debated between students and teachers as to whether music helps them concentrate and relax into the study or causes a major distraction.  Where do you stand with that argument?  Are you a study-groover or do you like the peace and quiet?  Are you listening to music right now?

How Music Impacts Us (in general) – According to the Research

Brain Power – In the 90s some super smart people conducted research of brain capacity for spatial reasoning and used musical notes to represent brain activity on a model.  Testing the results on college students’ brains, they reported that IQ levels increased by as much as nine points as a result of listening to Mozart’s ‘Sonata for Two Pianos in D Major’.  This theory became known as the Mozart Effect, suggesting listening to classical music would actually make you smarter.  Around 10 years later, flaws were found in the theory and the whole thing was pretty much debunked.

Mood – OK, so music doesn’t necessarily make you smarter but can it make you feel better?  Yes!  That’s its job!  Music is designed to make you feel.  According to research, listening to music releases a neurotransmitter called dopamine in our brains. Dopamine promotes feelings of happiness and excitement.  Check out more about that here.  Research has shown that problem solving and memory formation may come easier for some when they are in a good mood, vs a bad or even neutral mood.  However, music is also designed to make you feel other things such as sadness and anger, so careful selection is key.

Concentration – Here’s where it gets problematic… research looking at how music impacts students while studying shows that students who listen to music when they’re reading and writing tend to absorb less information and be less efficient in their studies.  On the flip-side, students who study in a quiet environment do better at recalling information later for a test.

So the conclusion seems to be – yeah/nah.  While it can be good for your mood, which can in-turn help with study, it can be distracting and make it difficult to take in information.  It really depends on the type of music and the type of task.

What about when we’re driving?

All the research on the impact of music comes into play but is amplified (see what we did there?) when we put it together with driving.  Research shows that soft, quiet background music in high-traffic situations can actually ease the boredom, anxiety or stress that comes with being stuck in bumper-to-bumper traffic.  While background noise, such as music has been shown in some cases to improve mood, focus and concentration, listening to music while driving has also proven to be extremely distracting.

If you do decide to bring music into your drive, here are a few things to consider:


  • Listening to loud music in the car prevents you from hearing what’s happening around you – sirens from emergency vehicles, horns honking, even the sound of your own indicator, therefore making you slow to respond to emergency situations.
  • Scientists at Newfoundland’s Memorial University found that listening to loud music while driving can be incredibly distracting.  Their study saw reaction time slowing as much as 20% when participants listened to loud music. (They defined ‘loud music’ as 95 decibels – to put that in perspective, the middle volume of a standard music player (such as your phone) is about 94 dB.  A car’s music volume can frequently hit 100 dB, especially on the freeway.

OUR TIP: Choose soft music and keep the volume low.


  • A number of studies from around the world have found that drivers listening to fast music (more than 120bpm) take more risks (sudden lane changes, running red lights, etc) and drive faster than people not listening to music or listening to slow-paced background music.  Check out this article on a recent study from China for more on that.
  • Music with a faster tempo also increases distraction because it’s competing for attentional space; the greater number of temporal events (beats per minute) which need to be processed, and the frequency of temporal changes starts to impact memory storage, distract operations and limit driving capacities.

OUR TIP: Choose slower-paced tracks for a cruisey ride.

Not sure if your tunes are the right speed?  Run them through this handy bpm checker.


  • Listening to music affects multiple areas of the brain and the effect it has can change based on the types of music.  Music can actually influence how you view the world around you – listening to a happy piece of music will often see you respond to a neutral situation in a positive way, whereas listening to sad music will often make you see that same situation in a negative way.
  • One study showed that drivers listening to music that is considered to have violent or hostile lyrics drove more aggressively, sped up more and stayed speeding longer.
  • Even positive emotions, such as excitement can be dangerous while driving, leading to speeding and missing important driving cues – the ultimate goal is to get yourself in a good, focussed, neutral mood.
  • Another study out of Israel looked at driving behaviours of teens listening to their favourite music.  It showed this music to be among the most distracting of all because drivers tended to focus more on the music than the road, leading to a number of dangerous situations.  Read more about that here.
  • Songs with lyrics compete with brain activity – you are either trying to remember the lyrics or take them in as you drive, taking away mental focus from the road. Drivers, generally, are not aware that as they get drawn-in by a song, their brain moves from focussing on driving tasks into a state of active music listening.

OUR TIP: Consider choosing light, uplifting instrumental music to put you in a positive or neutral mood and free up your brain power for those quick decisions on the road.

As you can see, there’s a lot to consider before you crank up the volume and hit the road.  We highly recommend practicing mindfulness while driving – turning off any competing sounds and tuning into the road, the car and the environment.  However, after reading all of this, you may still think that a little bit of music can benefit you while driving.  If this is the case, take a little time to plan and choose your playlist, set it before you start the car and keep it at a reasonable volume so you can keep your hands on the wheel, eyes on the road and ears attuned to everything around you.

A well-thought out playlist can not only help you arrive at your destination safely, but it can also get you in a great mood for the day ahead.



image by Racool_studio on Freepik