The headline – Classical Music Makes Careless Drivers – in a British newspaper yesterday naturally stopped me in my tracks. What rubbish! What arrant nonsense! These were my initial thoughts and when I read the accompanying news story I almost boiled over with rage, not least at the observation that "drivers who listened to classical music drove the most erratically". Apparently some researchers "using GPS technology" had discovered that motorists who listened to "Beethoven's Fifth, Bach's Toccata & Fugue in D minor or Strauss's Blue Danube" were more careless than those who listened to pop music. What made my blood boil was the suggestion that these much-vaunted findings were produced using a sample of just eight drivers each of whom drove some 500 miles. Notwithstanding a national newspaper's natural desire to catch attention by over-simplifying the facts, the basic research on which the item was based appears to be fundamentally flawed. Perhaps the "GPS technology" made the research seem more sexy and clouded brains which might otherwise have seen the more blatant flaws in the findings, but what possible validity can there be in studies involving just eight samples?
Long before "GPS technology" was invented, I advised airlines, hotels and other enclosed public spaces on the best music to select for their use. A natural opponent of background music, I worked on the basis that if it was an inevitable fact of life, I might as well use my expertise to ensure that it is was painless as possible. Extensive research and field studies (done in person rather than relying on technology of dubious relevance) yielded a fascinating correlation between music played subliminally and human behaviour. From a sample of several thousand I discovered how, for example, shoppers would buy less, drinkers would drink more, diners would rush their meals, passengers experiencing flight delays would complain less and guests would perceive a higher level of luxury when different types of music were played. I also experimented with long-distance coach passengers (sampling 3800 passengers over 82 journeys between London and the south of France, Spain, Andorra and Austria) and found their levels of tiredness, enjoyment and general well-being at the end of each journey was measurably affected by the type of music played during the journeys, the length of time during which no music was played and the by the choice of music at specific journey points along the way.
Field studies also revealed driving habits changed significantly according to what music was played, and at one stage an insurance company became dangerously interested in this area; the danger coming from releasing such information to them and seeing them raise premiums, for example, to those who expressed a preference for Rolling Stones over Richard Clayderman (frankly I'd ban both from all in-car audio systems, but that's a matter of taste, not the consequence of careful research). This research, however, I regarded as of dubious value since the number of imponderables more or less prevented any realistic results from being quantified. It certainly does not require any sort of intellectual strength - let alone the use of "GPS technology" – to tell us that, if you play fast music you tend to drive faster than if you play soft music. Beyond that, however, whether the music you play is classical, jazz, pop, solo piano, orchestral, vocal, operatic, electronic or disco, you respond to its speed, volume and complexity and not to its genre. On top of that there is the issue of individual taste. For me, pop music in a car is dangerous as it makes me angry, classical music is dangerous because I get too involved, and jazz is dangerous because I cannot but help tapping my right foot as it plays. My solution: I always travel with talk radio or in total silence, music has no part in my life behind the wheel.
Returning to this latest research, however, having written off all Classical music as encouraging dangerous driving, the researchers came up with a list of 10 pieces which encourage safe driving. Here they are;
1. Come Away With Me – Norah Jones
2. Billionaire Feat. Bruno Mars – Travie McCoy
3. I'm Yours – Jason Mraz
4. The Scientist – Coldplay
5. Tiny Dancer – Elton John
6. Cry Me a River – Justin Timberlake
7. I Don't Want to Miss a Thing – Aerosmith
8. Karma Police – Radiohead
9. Never Had a Dream Come True – S Club 7
10. Skinny Love – Bon Iver
Put anyone of those in my car CD player while I'm driving and I would immediately crash into a wall. Luckily for these researchers the eight sample drivers – possibly all students with such music on their portable playlists – clearly have no objections to musical superficiality.
Which begs the question; who undertook this research and allowed such dubious, not to say downright contentious, findings to enter the public domain? Step forward the London Metropolitan University. Sounds familiar? This was the university which hit the headlines a few months ago when it was discovered it had been encouraging foreign students (and their fees) through suspect visa applications and wobbly entrance pre-requisites. It seems as if their academic research is as rigorous as their admissions procedures.