Tuesday, February 19, 2013

Music of the Gears - Peter Kay

Frankly, I like to listen to music... on and off the bike. I've been a musician and avid cyclist for the majority of my life, and the two have gone hand-in-hand all along the way. I've learned a lot about mixing the two; sometimes the easy way, and sometimes the hard way. Below, I'm going to share some of that with you. And though it may seem like I'm over-thinking it - who wants "rules" just to listen to music, right? - the truth is that this stuff is easy to do, and the list basically focuses on one idea: in order to ride safely, music should not become a distraction or interference.

Riding alone, churning the pedals for hours on end, can sometimes be tedious and, yes, even boring. Though the freedom and exhilarating feelings that come from cycling itself are always a joy, in order to attain the fitness we want, "time on the bike" is essential. In order to get those base miles in, those long days and cumulative miles, it is often necessary to ride sans peloton. But after a while, it's easy get stuck in a rut. Riding becomes stale as options are exhausted and routes turn to routine. Eventually, we lose interest in scenery, hill challenges, and everything else that makes cycling so wonderful... and we stare at our little computers instead, watching the miles tick by and the clock roll past. There are many ways to keep the ride fresh, and I will revisit this topic several times in the coming months. But for the moment - putting aside the greater issues born from a culture of decreasing attention spans that stresses the importance of multitasking and an immediate and constant connection to a social network - I want to address the somewhat controversial answer that so many turn to: music (via headphones/earbuds).

Disclaimer: this is written to those who are already using headphones and is not a suggestion that people should wear headphones. Distracted cycling is dangerous cycling. As always, I ask: please ride responsibly, predictably, and with yours and others safety in mind at all times.

On the Trainer

When on the trainer, anything that can help to break- up the monotony is a good thing. Without changes in terrain, scenery whizzing by, and sunlight flitting through the leaves above, spinning on the trainer can be mind- numbingly dull. Short, punchy intervals are great, but some kind of additional mental stimulus seems almost necessary. Being on the trainer and being on the road are just very different, and since safety is a much lesser concern on the trainer, earbuds are generally okay.

On the Road

  1. The best way to approach it is to treat music as an accompaniment to the ride, not as a distraction. Your mind should be alert to the ride and your eyes open. In a sense, music replaces conversation (see #2). It is not meant to block out the usual, normal sights and sounds.
  2. Please, NEVER listen to music on a group ride.* Aside from it being incredibly rude, it's far more dangerous. The amount of sound the brain filters through on a normal group ride to gather essential information is remarkably high: wind, conversations, buzzing freewheels, chattering chains, traffic, etc. It is important that everyone is able to communicate with each other and is alert to warnings, etc.
  3. NEVER use noise cancelling/reducing earbuds. Sounds of traffic, dogs, etc. need to make it to the brain and shouldn't be blocked or impeded. The buds themselves already block a fair amount of sound from entering the ear, comparable to wearing earmuffs in the winter. High-end earbuds can make music come alive, and that's great. But remember: it's a bicycle ride - not a concert. (Though mediocre in sound quality, the JVC Gumy Headphones are some of my favorites because they're inexpensive, durable enough for sweat and such, and they "let the light in.")
  4. ALWAYS wear both earbuds. A common misconception is that wearing only one earbud allows a rider to hear everything else more clearly. In fact, it's just the opposite. Wearing one creates spacial orientation issues, mixing-up the auditory system in the brain, and making matters far worse. Two ears, just like two eyes, allow the human brain to locate a sound relative to the body. We are able to detect distance, speed, etc. because we have two ears, because we are binaural. Though stereo, the majority of the sound coming through the earbuds is panned close enough to the middle to appear "inside" the listeners head when both earbuds are worn. Because of this, the brain can much more easily detect, identify, and process sounds outside of the music (like traffic, dogs, etc.). Wearing only one earbud is like riding with an eyepatch! It significantly hinders depth perception.
  5. Try to keep the volume quieter than the sound of the wind; and by this, I mean that the wind should come across as it normally does on a bike ride (with earmuffs). I use the wind as a benchmark for setting volume levels with music slightly softer but still audible.
  6. Make sure that the volume rocker or volume buttons are easily accessible. Sometimes one song is suddenly louder or quieter than the others on a playlist (see below), sometimes a motorist needs directions, and sometimes terrain causes changes in speed. I often have to lower the volume on hills because the noise of the wind drops dramatically as I slow down. There are many reason to adapt quickly, and it's best to be able to change without losing pace.
  7. Look around more. In other words, make an effort to ride more visually alert regarding traffic, dogs, etc. When I ride with earbuds, I find myself looking behind me a little more often. I'm more sensitive to the surroundings, and I try not to "zone out" and stare at just the road ahead of me. Besides, maybe you'll see something you never noticed before!
*I hate to make exceptions to this one, but in the case of a group ride that includes a sizable mountain - where I know I'm going to be alone for the duration of a long climb - I sometimes stop and turn on music. On the way up, I lower the volume whenever I approach another rider or get passed, and at the top, I immediately remove the earbuds. I don't wear them at all during the rest of the ride, only putting them on at the base of the climb.


I carefully and consciously create playlists meant for cycling. I've learned that certain types of music and certain songs just don't mesh well with riding outdoors. No, I'm not voicing a personal opinion on specific artists or genres, I'm not saying Techno is better than Country, or anything like that. Individual tastes mean that different songs effect people in different ways. But some aspects of music can interfere with cycling. I avoid dramatic differences/changes in volume, I avoid music that includes or blends with my surroundings (no honking cars or traffic please!), and I plan my playlist according to rides themselves:
  • Monochromatic: in order to avoid constantly and drastically needing to change the volume, create playlists of similar styles, intensity, and instrumentation. This doesn't mean listening to a single artist, and certainly doesn't mean listening to only a single album (in fact, albums tend to have fast and slow, loud and soft). But try to keep the list on a relatively even keel. This will help avoid alarmingly loud intros and "Did my battery die?" quiet moments.
  • Flat Line: though most popular music has a fairly compressed dynamic range, some pieces have a broad range of dynamics (very loud and very quiet within one song). Just as you want each song on a list to be of a certain volume level, the dynamics within each song should be somewhat steady.
  • Mood: consider the goals of a ride and plan the list accordingly. Jenny Owen Youngs or some songs by Radiohead might be good for a recovery ride (or a recovery in between intervals), whereas the speed, intensity, and syncopated rhythms of Dream Theater is probably bad for a climbing ride.
  • Distortion: some guitar effects blend with the sound of the wind (for example, Thrash Metal). This inevitably results in the listener turning the volume up and up and up... blocking much needed exterior sounds.
  • Random Lists: playlists created automatically by the software never work well (and I don't mean playing one of your lists in a random order). Inevitably, there will be too much variety and it always seems to add a song I'm "just not in the mood for." Since changing songs is generally a pain and can even mean stopping, it's best to simply put some forethought into it.
  • Stereo: some songs are panned really wide, with instruments hard left or hard right. As I noted in #4 above, this can be distracting and/or disorienting. If the guitar is in the right speaker only - best to leave that one off the list.


If, without earbuds, you often find yourself startled by passing cars or charging dogs, or you frequently miss normal communication in the peloton, or you just have difficulty understanding conversations while on the bike, it's probably not a good idea to ride with earbuds. Some people are easily distracted. Some tend to "zone out" or forget to look around/back. Some get very focused on the ride itself (hills, intervals, etc.), and all sound is secondary. And some people just don't hear as well as others. Whatever the case, be honest with yourself about your abilities and limitations and avoid putting yourself at risk.

Peter Kay

1 comment:

  1. I liked your article however I feel that it's never a good idea to listen to music while riding. It is inevitable that you will create a dangerous situation for either yourself or other car riders given that your focus may be on pushing the buttons to change music level or songs. Enjoy nature as you stated and keep music only for the trainer.