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Common Tread

Is it OK to listen to music on a motorcycle?

Aug 08, 2019

One of the answers I often give for why I ride a particular motorcycle is pretty succinct: “I like the music it plays.”

And that’s pretty much it. All the bikes in my personal garage (right at this moment) are stripped to the point of comedy, with even basic necessities left out. Tunes beyond the engine’s work song are simply out of the question. The poor generators can barely light the taillamps! Asking them to charge my phone or run a stereo seems optimistic to the point of folly. On most of these heaps, I prefer instead to hear the concerto of mechanical failures; it makes roadside diag work easier.

I find myself toe-tapping right along to sweet AM gold hits like “Shovelhead With Solid Lifters” and “My Empty Peanut Tank (Is an Echo Chamber).”

I definitely do not need music on a motorcycle.

But I’m not a motorcycling ascetic. Those bikes illustrate how lovely it is to ride something modern. Recently, I took the company Street Glide home. Now, this bike’s aging a bit. Its audio system was hardly cutting edge even when new, but it boasts a CD player and an auxiliary 3.5 mm audio jack. (We always take the antenna off when using it as a camera bike, and it went missing years ago, so FM is not an option. The choices are static across the dial on FM, occasional crackly AM, occasional crackly weather band, or crystal-clear music through the auxiliary jack.)

SG radio
Ugh. What a mess. Photo by Lemmy.

I’m no audiophile, but I like hearing tunes as much as the next guy, so the next morning when I set off for work, I hooked up my period-correct MP3 player and a charging cord and there was a snarl of wires everywhere but then Buck Owens started singing and I didn’t care and it was awesome.

Indian screen
Doubles in volume if Kid Rock is played. Photo by Lemmy.

So sometimes I like music on a motorcycle. I like that bike in particular because it has speed-sensitive volume control. As I go faster, it plays louder, and as I slow at an intersection or through a suburban housing development, it plays more softly so I am not that middle-aged guy blaring Kid Rock. Always the unedited versions. I don’t listen to Kid Rock, but I am fairly sure it’s all bystanders hear when you ride around on a bike with music playing. I don’t really give a shit how I appear, but nobody really likes that guy, so I try not to be him. (“That guy,” not Kid Rock.)

There’s a question or two regarding safety that arises with bike-mounted audio setups, but I’d argue that most cars have similarly complex (or more complex) arrangements with more insulation from outside auditory cues, so there’s parity with automobiles. As a society, we mostly seem OK with the idea of radios in cars.

BMW Display
I mean, if it's on the bike, I'm not gonna not use it, right? Photo by Lemmy.

And I’m OK with the idea of radios on bikes, personally.

Pat in Shoei lid
This is far cheaper than a touring motorcycle. Photo by Lemmy.

Another common method of music consumption nowadays is a set of helmet-mounted speakers, generally coupled with a comm unit and a phone. I like this method of listening to songs, too. Charging is sort of a pain. (I always forget to charge the comm units when I stop, and I don’t really like having my phone doing anything when I am on a motorcycle in case I need to use it for something like directions, or calling a friend with a truck because my roadside diag mentioned earlier didn’t go well.) And sometimes people trying to speak to me don’t understand I can’t hear them until I get my lid off or the thing turned off, but other than those minor hiccups, these setups work great.

These are portable, too. They work on all the bikes you own or ride. Consider a smaller bike with no place to put an amp and a head unit and speakers and all that jazz. To wit: I can listen to Van Halen when I’m jamming down a trail on a dirt bike. I can’t speak for you, but sometimes I’ll give a little more right wrist if the right song is on, and that’s real boss.

Some riders prefer to let Pandora or Spotify or the internet radio station du jour play DJ, which isn’t usually possible with most current motorcycle-mounted audio outfits. Instead, you just turn on your phone and your comm system, and let your mind wander.

headphones on a headlight
How do you listen? Photo by Lance Oliver.

And we’re back to safety for a moment. With regard to in-helmet speakers, since almost all setups are comm systems, there an offset with increased safety when riding in a group. There are tradeoffs, for sure, but as I get older and grayer, when I use a comm system, even if I am listening to Nickelback or Creed (I don’t), the shame is (would be) all internal, so that pretty much mitigates any potential safety issue for me.

I realized, though, that I like all these things at different times for different reasons and I personally have no strong opinion on the matter. I don’t own a dresser with speakers and never have. I have never bought a comm unit, but I have happily used a lot of the ones that have been issued to me, but I suspect when I move on to some other job where I’m not given such equipment, I likely won’t buy any. Maybe if I ever get something nicer and newer than a historical rolling wreck. Eh, I’m a tightwad. Probably not.

Music is nice if it’s there, but I don’t need it. That might be the least-hot take of mine Lance has printed in a while.

So what about you? Music or no? And if “yes,” what’s your preferred method for delivering it to your ears? Style points for any consumer electronics that have been fastened to a motorcycle with duct tape, drywall screws, or epoxy.