Listening To Music While Riding A Motorcycle: Let’s Look At The Science

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Around five or six years ago, I was expecting an important phone call from a prospective employer.

I spent most of the day nervous. Couldn’t eat, couldn’t relax, couldn’t think about anything else.

So with 3 or 4 hours left to wait, I decided to go for a ride to waste away the time.

And eager to give my new comms system a try, I connected it to my phone and set off on my ride – with AC/DC performing a live show inside my helmet.

Listening to music while riding my motorcycle: AC/DC through a Cardo (Image: Cardo)

“42 39 56, You Could Say She’s Got It All”

An hour into my ride, I was rocking along to “Whole Lotta Rosie” when all of a sudden, my helmet started to ring.

I looked down at my phone to see the name of the guy I wasn’t expecting for another few hours.

Sssshhhiittttt.

I dabbed at the phone with my gloved fingers to cancel the call. But the cheap phone case prevented the touchscreen from working beneath my fingers.

sena intercom and helmet
New motorcycle intercomms can be fiddly!

The Stress Of Listening To Music While Riding A Motorcycle!

I knew that in a few seconds, the comms headset would auto-answer the call. And whether I was ready for it or not, the voice of my next manager would soon be permeating through my helmet.

5 seconds to go…

4 seconds, 3 seconds…

Double yellow lines everywhere – nowhere to stop.

2 seconds, 1 second…

“Hi, is that Paul?”

filtering - listening to music while riding a motorcycle
Listening to music while riding a motorcycle doesn’t go well with filtering! (Image: motorkari)

The Saviour Of The Golden Arches

Unfortunately, I was in a town I didn’t know when all this happened. And I was stuck in heavy traffic.

There was nowhere to stop and nowhere obvious for me to turn in so that I could complete my call.

With sweat filling my helmet, I saw the golden arches of a McDonald’s drive-thru. And getting to that car park became my only mission in life.

Police sirens whizzed by and the sun beat down on my shoulders. But eventually, I made it.

And in a quiet corner of the car park, I completed my call without ever taking off my helmet.

(For those of you who are wondering, yes, I did get the job!)

sena bluetooth headset
Unable to disconnect the call, I completed it with the helmet on (Image: Honda Community)

Listening To Music vs Riding A Motorcycle In Silence

And that, dear readers, was my first ever attempt at having some sort of media play through my helmet.

In the years since then, I’ve tried listening to music on my phone whilst diverting calls to voicemail. So far, that has prevented a repeat of the above experience.

But there’s always something to spoil the experience.

The volume is too high or too low.

I don’t like the song that’s on.

Or I decide halfway through that I want to listen to something else.

Worse still, this is always the time when a fellow rider wants to speak to me. And invariably, I end up having to take my helmet off to communicate because it’s easier than trying to turn the music off with gloved hands.

In my experience, riding with music just isn’t worth the faff.

indian motorcycle - Listening to music while riding a motorcycle
Listening to music while riding a motorcycle always means removing my helmet to talk to people

Who’s Listening To Music While Riding A Motorcycle? Everyone, Apparently

Whilst I know many people who wear earplugs, I only know a few that love listening to music whilst riding a motorcycle.

But after doing a bit of research on various forums, it turns out that most riders like listening to music while riding a motorcycle.

And this was further confirmed when Carole Nash conducted a UK survey on thousands of road users regarding motoring and music.

The overwhelming majority enjoyed listening to music whilst on the road. But there were also some common misconceptions.

Almost half of those asked (45%) believed that listening to music while riding a motorcycle was illegal. And, astonishingly, 9.4% of people thought that singing on a motorcycle was also illegal.

As it happens, listening to music (or indeed singing) whilst riding a motorcycle in the UK is not illegal.

But for our American readers, make sure you check your State rules on whether it’s legal or not to listen to music.

For example, in California, you can listen to music, but only through one headphone. The other ear must be left unencumbered to hear sirens and other road noises.

motorcycle earplugs - listening to music while riding a motorcycle
Listening to music while riding a motorcycle isn’t illegal in the UK (Image: Inceptive Mind)

Listening To Music While Riding A Motorcycle: What The Science Says

Okay, so it’s all well and good me telling you what I think. And it’s all well and good telling you what the thousands of Carole Nash survey participants think.

But what does science say on the matter?

Does science say we should, or shouldn’t listen to music whilst riding our motorcycles?

Well, we delved into the scientific research from the Universities of Cambridge, Sussex, Tel Aviv, and Sydney, amongst others. And this is what we found.

bikers wearing helmets
Seeing what science has to say on the subject of listening to music while riding a motorcycle (Image: Technipages)

Listening To Music Whilst Riding A Motorcycle Can Enhance Performance

For many years, listening to music has been a proven way to keep your mind in the moment – especially when performing routine tasks.

For instance, if you’re an experienced tourer, you would’ve spent many hours transiting on motorways.

And science has shown us over the years that listening to music when performing tasks we know well can enhance performance and concentration.

But if we drill down a little further, we also find that whilst listening to something is good for our performance, that doesn’t necessarily mean we should listen to anything.

long straight road - listening to music while riding a motorcycle
Listening to music can help enhance performance and concentration while riding a motorcycle

Music & Riding: The Misconception Of Multitasking

Whilst we all like to think we’re great multitaskers, the fact is that most of us aren’t.

Actually, not only can most of us not multitask, but we’re woefully shit at it.

Very few people in this world can multitask. For most of us, multitasking simply means doing two jobs badly.

But that doesn’t mean we can’t listen to music and ride. To an extent.

For example, you’ll have no problem reading this post whilst listening to soft music playing through your headphones.

But I challenge you to read it whilst listening to an Audiobook. Or listening to rap music.

Go ahead, give it a try!

norway road, motorcycle
Probably not a good idea to multitask on roads like these! (Image: Life In Norway)

Two Tasks That Use The Same Part Of The Brain

You can’t read this article whilst listening to an Audiobook because both require the language centre in the brain to process the words.

As much as we try, it’s very difficult for us to fully take in an Audiobook AND take in the contents of this post at the same time.

So what we have to do is focus on one thing and then the other. We switch between the two.

brain vector
Listening to music while riding a motorcycle can mean switching between tasks (image: Skyland Trail)

Here’s What The University of Sussex Has To Say

In one of their recent studies, the University of Sussex took this concept of multitasking and applied it to driving.

And sure enough, they found that road users can drive and listen to soft music simultaneously.

But when drivers are asked to drive whilst listening to an Audiobook, everything goes tits up.

Why?

Because we are trying to perform two tasks that both call on the same part of the brain.

shoei helmet and intercom - listening to music while riding a motorcycle
Performance decreases when driving and listening to an Audiobook (image: New Atlas)

Listening To Music While Riding A Motorcycle Can Call On Your Imagination

So when listening to an Audiobook, the narrator calls on our imagination. They read to us in dulcet tones and we form visions in our mind. We internalise and envisage what is being described to us.

And whilst this is perfect for winding down in the evening, it isn’t good whilst driving. Because we end up going from the road to the book, and then from the book to the road.

And it’s in these gaps that accidents are likely to occur.

When the Audiobook whisks you away into the lush, green forest with turquoise rivers and bluebells, you start to picture it in your mind. And that means you don’t see the idiot that’s about to pull out in front of you.

So if we know Audiobooks aren’t good for us but music is, then what exactly should we listen to?

motorcycle mountain road sunset
Listening to music while riding a motorcycle is good providing it doesn’t divide our attention (image: BikerOutpost)

Music And Its Effect On Concentration

A paper by van der Zwaag et al found that music can positively affect behaviour whilst driving. In other words, music can make us feel good. And that invokes a positive state and safer driving.

Additionally, it also found that whilst music can make us safer, it does so without hindrancing our capacity in high-demand situations.

Moreover, music also helps with fatigue and boredom. This is why it’s a good idea for those long cross-country sections of your tour where you see nothing but motorways all day.

long straight road - listening to music while riding a motorcycle
Listening to music while riding a motorcycle has shown to decrease boredom and fatigue

So What Should You Listen To?

Various studies have found that particular genres of music affect us in different ways. For example, fast-paced music in the gym can help us work out harder.

But for touring, that fast-paced tempo could actually cause some unwanted right wrist-twisting that could catch you out at the next bend.

In contrast, the ‘Mozart Effect’ study found that classical music removes stress hormones whilst increasing dopamine levels.

This results in a feeling of calmness and contentment by the listener.

Classical music has also been found to increase visual attention as well as keep you occupied with the constantly varying sections. The complexity keeps you guessing where the music is going next.

mountain road in wales, motorcycle
Listening to classical music while riding a motorcycle should yield good results (image: deanodog)

Listening To Music While Riding A Motorcycle Can Serve As A Distraction

I’m one of those people who likes to have music playing in the background whilst sat at my computer. I don’t really listen to it… it’s just ‘there.’

And this is fine for browsing the web.

But what about in my uni days when revising for an exam or writing my dissertation? Did I listen to rock, rap, or old-school dance?

No, because it distracted me. My mind would fight with the task at hand and I would listen to the lyrics rather than type.

It served as a distraction.

And the same can be said whilst riding. Your music shouldn’t be serving as a distraction and pulling you away from the task at hand.

mountain road in spain - listening to music while riding a motorcycle
Don’t become distracted by listening to music while riding your motorcycle (image: J Pleakis)

Does Music Volume Matter When Riding?

Several of the studies found that loud music (over 95dB) actually reduces reaction time.

In contrast, we stated above that music can have a positive effect on mood and state. But it seems there is a volume threshold where music becomes a hindrance rather than a benefit.

You should be listening to music while riding a motorcycle at a moderate volume.

The Soundtrack To Your Life Might Not Be A Good Idea

This sounds strange. But some of the studies found that we’re likely to become overly engrossed in songs we love.

We all have favourite songs, and we all know how they make us feel. Oftentimes, we associate those songs with fond memories that we’re transported back to when we hear them. And this can be distracting.

Also, we may start singing along – which is fine. Until we get lost in the music and end up over-exuberantly bopping away in the saddle.

This is where turnings are missed, hazards are ignored, and dangers are unseen.

group of motorcycle riders on coastal road
Listening to music while riding a motorcycle: don’t get lost in the moment! (Image: TripAdvisor)

Music Tempo Can Unintentionally Affect Your Riding

As mentioned above, fast-paced music can be good in the right setting. But in driving scenarios, it’s not uncommon for riders to unintentionally speed up when listening to a fast-paced song.

In contrast, we can become lethargic and zone out if the tempo of the music is too slow.

For balance, try to listen to music that is somewhere between 60 and 80 bpm.

Interestingly, that is also the rate at which our hearts beat.

listening to music while riding a motorcycle - motorcyclist on desert road
A tempo of 60-80bpm is best when listening to music while riding your motorcycle

Listening To Music While Riding A Motorcycle: Conclusion

On balance, it would appear that listening to music can have a positive effect on your riding.

Get it right, and you can enjoy increased alertness, heightened concentration levels, alleviation from boredom on long stretches of motorway, a release of endorphins, and some relief from stress.

Remember, you want your music playing at a moderate volume. It needs to be loud enough for you to take it in, but not so loud that it becomes a distraction.

It also needs to be the right tempo. Happy Hardcore isn’t the genre for riding! Something between 60 – 80 beats per minute seems to be ideal.

Lastly, try not to play music that will compete for the spacial segments of your brain – such as rap or Audiobooks. And play something you like. But nothing you like so much that you start air-drumming to the solo at 80mph!

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