Opinion: Music, Politics & The Brain—What’s Influencing You?

By Emily Scherzinger

It has always been assumed that music carries an incredible ability to invoke emotion and memories, but recent advances in neuroscience have now established this as a fact. The best-selling book This Is Your Brain On Music by Daniel J. Levitin delves into this phenomenon and explains it in layman’s terms. Levitin notes that the cerebellum and amygdala in the human brain are at the centre of emotion. When we hear melodies and sounds that are pleasing to these centres, we feel enjoyable and pleasant emotions as a result. In contrast, listening to dissonant melodies and sounds commonly invokes upset or even angry feelings. These reactions have been passed down from our ancestors through evolution – the same mechanism that produced fear and anger in response to a predator’s hunting cry now makes that one annoying song on the radio particularly jarring.

It is obvious that, because of this ability to affect listeners so deeply, music filters into all aspects of life. This includes aspects such as how we exercise, what we read, and even whom we vote for. Music and politics have always been intensely interwoven in many different ways. For example, there are bands that make politics the subject of their music, such as U2 and the Clash, and there are also genres that are devoted entirely to the intersection of music and politics, such as anti-war music or topical songs, songs that draw attention to past or current political and social events. The use of politics as subject matter in music can be both manipulative and useful, as it may influence listeners, but also inform them of important world events.

A good example of this is Bob Dylan’s topical song “Hurricane,” which was written about the wrongful incarceration of Rubin “Hurricane” Carter, a professional boxer who was charged for a triple murder during a robbery. Racism was apparently a determining factor in the arrest and trial, and this fact was popularized through Dylan’s song. He sings, “Though they could not produce the gun/The DA said he was the one who did the deed/And the all-white jury agreed.” Dylan released the song on his 1976 album Desire, making Carter’s case well known to the public and thus helping him appeal for a fair retrial.

1.75_finalist_PMS877While this may be a good use of influential music, perhaps the most manipulative use is in political campaigns. As stated by Deane Root, a professor of music at the University of Pittsburgh, for the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, “a political rally that doesn’t use music can sound hollow and incomplete.” As a result, music is now a staple of political rallies, and as its use has become more popularized, it has been established that using the right music primes the audience to “take on attitudes toward whatever else they may be seeing or hearing.”

This all began in 1840, when “Tippecanoe and Tyler Too” became the most famous political song in American history, made for William Henry Harrison’s presidential campaign. From then on, a wide variety of songs have been appropriated for politics, from Frank Sinatra for John F. Kennedy’s presidential campaign, to Jackson Browne for John McCain’s campaign.

I think I can speak for all of us when I say that, whenever I hear the James Bond theme song, I want to become a stealthy British spy and run through crowds like I’m chasing someone. Similarly, intense and specific emotional reactions are exploited by political campaigns. Maybe politicians and their campaign teams don’t mean for you to associate their campaign with covert missions and running through crowds like a maniac, but they do want you to associate the marching-band drums and bell-like guitars in the songs they choose with patriotism and, as a result, with the political candidate.

However, Barack Obama created an interesting variation of the campaign song playlist with his most recent presidential bid. Obama’s most recent campaign playlist covers a wide variety of genres – from soul to classic rock to indie pop – therefore ensuring that it resonates with a large portion of the population. Chances are, if you have listened to any popular music within the last fifty years, you’ll find something that you like on his playlist, containing artists as popular as Earth, Wind & Fire and as indie as Noah and the Whale. This strategy is brilliant because it doesn’t make a play towards patriotism like most campaigns do. Instead, it attempts to tap into the brain’s emotional centres, as explained by Levitin. If you associate at least one of the songs used in the campaign – or even a song like one used in the campaign – with a good memory or feeling, then it can be argued that you would have more positive feelings towards Obama as a presidential candidate, and you would therefore be more likely to vote for him over other candidates.

It is clear that music can be persuasive towards listeners in both good and bad ways. It can help rally people towards a good cause, as Bob Dylan did with his song “Hurricane,” or it can heavily influence people in choosing the next leader of their country. Either way, there is nothing we can do to escape music’s influencing power. The best that we can do is be aware of what may be influencing our emotions, and know how important our emotions are in making our decisions.


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