Music & Consumer Behaviour,  Music Psychology

Music and driving

Over the past two weeks I have been involved in a music psychology project that was the brainchild of an insurance company called They were interested to look at the relationship between musical genre preferences and driving behaviour across a large sample of UK drivers. The company hired a polling organisation to run a questionnaire across over 2000 members of the public and then sent the data to me. What did we find?

Aggression: Some of the results replicated those reported in an article that I wrote with Nikki Dibben (Dibben & Williamson, 2007). People who listen to drum and bass and heavy metal music were more likely than listeners of classical music to report aggressive driving behaviours, for example. But then of course there is the large confound in the room – that of age group. Younger drivers are statistically more likely to listen to these genres according to the present survey and according to other evidence they are also more likely to demonstrate aggressive driving.

However, one factor that may play also a role is volume and tempo. These genres can often be played at loud volumes and feature fast tempos. At high levels, fast and loud music can divert attention from driving (Brodsky, 2002) and result in greater driver aggression (Wiesenthal et al. 2003).

There were some other interesting findings in the report that were not necessarily along the lines I would have predicted.

Speeding: Jazz listeners were significantly more likely to report receiving a fine for speeding than any other genre. I can think of three possible explanations;

1) The survey was self report so jazz listeners may simply be more honest than others about their driving mistakes!
2) The complexity of jazz music might mean that the driver becomes more involved with the music (listening analytically) and loses concentration on their exact speed
3) The survey also revealed that jazz listeners make significantly more long journeys that any other genre so they may be more likely to encounter speed cameras.

Near-misses: Reggae listeners were statistically more likely to be involved in near misses. They were also more likely to report that they use music to help them to stay alert and less likely to turn music off in order to help them concentrate.

From this evidence it is possible to speculate that these drivers are over-stimulating their system with music and not recognising the possible consequences for concentration. One issue might be that reggae is often thought of as relaxing music, but it has as much potential to distract a driver as any other type of vocal music.

What music is good for driving? Music listening in cars has both potential benefits and costs. Both of these effects are driven by two main factors; 1) the intrinsic qualities of the music and 2) personal experience and preferences. To explain these in more detail;

1) Music that contains lyrics is potentially more distracting than instrumental music. We know that verbal-based materials interfere more with other everyday tasks such as reading and playing computer games.
2) Music that is louder and more complex (contains more key changes, more erratic rhythms, more layered textures, and more instruments/voices) is likely to be more distracting.
3) Music that is unfamiliar is more likely to be distracting compared to tunes we know well.
4) Not liking the music in our environment can negatively influence our concentration.

It is also important to consider circumstances: whether the journey is common for the driver, whether it is taken under stress (mental or physical) and the complexity of the journey itself (how many other cars are on the road, extent of any traffic works and weather conditions).


Once useful conclusion from all this is that genres that are unfamiliar to us and/or not liked by us are more likely to be distracting while we drive compared to our favourite genre that we know well. A great excuse for insisting that when you drive you should pick the music!

One last Christmas-themed point: According to the survey the UK’s favourite Xmas driving song is Slade’s ‘Merry Christmas Everybody’. Why might this be a good driving song?

The song is mostly in a major key, a musical structure that is often associated with the communication of happy emotions. It is a familiar song for a lot of people so will likely cause a lower drain on cognitive resources compared to an unfamiliar song. It is also quite repetitive in its structure and lyrics, which again will make it easier to process than a more complex melody and song.

Finally, I suspect that it will be linked to plenty of positive memories for a lot of people, being associated as it is with a favourite family holiday in the UK. Triggering pleasant memories can improve current mood and emotional levels, which has the potential to have positive temporary knock-on effects for our behaviour and attitude as a driver.

Please drive safely and happily this Christmas 🙂