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Ab Aeterno, no. 1, November 2009.

Why Music? A Look at Art & Propaganda

Elizabeth Whitcombe

Anne Vallayer-Coster, “Attributes of Music,” 1770

Music can influence our emotions and the quality of our judgments. Our emotions play a key role in how we reason. If we are emotionally out-of-whack, then we will not be able to reason as effectively. Music is the art form that is most able to dissuade us from thinking critically.

Our brains have a plastic property—the circuits we use more get stronger, those we use less atrophy. The characteristics of the music you listen to; and the way you choose to listen to it; will affect your ability to make decisions.

Because of these properties music has always been an attractive vehicle for propaganda. Music’s power to persuade is at the heart of Plato’s argument for censoring the Arts.[1]

So what gives music this power? Nature built us to look for beauty, and music exploits our tools for finding it.

Music and the Evolving Brain

Music is ordered sound. Our ears pick up on vibrations in the environment around us. The vibrations are converted into electrical impulses in the inner ear and are sent into our brain’s information processing channel.

Millions of electrical pulses are poured into the central nervous system every second. A cluster of nerve cells called the reticular activating system (RAS) has to pick out which pulses are interesting enough for the mind to pay attention too. The RAS is attracted to ordered sound-beats and rhythm especially. A regular rhythm can absorb the brain’s attention so much that other automatic systems will entrain themselves to the beat—for example, unconscious foot-tapping, head bobbing, and the like.

Music is a way of focusing group attention: from church services, to military marches, to drum circles. A strong beat seems to propel people to efforts that would otherwise be extremely difficult. In his 1927 book The Influence of Music on Behaviour Charles Diserens notes how in some cases music listeners become so engrossed that they enter a trance-like state.[2] A modern example would be the energy of a crowd at a concert. Music has huge crowd-creation potential.

Pavlovian Sound

Matthias Grünewald, “Concert of Angels,” detail, 1515

Music can “reward” us with a pleasurable experience, or “punish” us with stress. It does this by stimulating the brain to release chemicals and manipulating our heuristics. Heuristics are simple rules that our brains use to process information more efficiently. They are “rules of thumb” that help us make decisions, judgments, and solve problems.

The brain evolved to anticipate things that help us survive. Heuristics aid that goal. We get a “buzz” when we guess right, and feel stress when we guess incorrectly—especially so if we guess wrong repeatedly. Music plays to that desire to “guess right” at a very deep level. This is the beauty of harmony and melody.

Harmony occurs in music when complementary frequencies are played together or in sequence.

The mind anticipates that a melody’s notes will vary up and down the musical scale but will tend to end up on some combination of complimentary frequencies. When the melody is very unpredictable, the mind becomes stressed: what key is this? Which note is most likely to come next? This isn’t beautiful!

In fact, this desire for harmony has been with mammals and birds since very early times. Petr Janata of the University of California/Davis, played Strauss’ Blue Danube Waltz to an owl, but with key frequencies occasionally omitted.[3] Prof. Janata measured the electrical pulses coming out of the part of the owl’s brain that processed the sound and found that the owl had reinserted the missing frequencies into the waltz! The need to correctly predict our environment—and the heuristic tools we use as short cuts—are an ancient part of our being.

There is music which consciously aims to frustrate these expectations—for instance, the music of Arnold Schoenberg. Schoenberg wrote music that avoids predictability and requires a lot of active analysis.

We thrive on a tad of active analysis and a dollop of predictability. Some of the most beautiful music is that which teases our anticipation. Prof. David Huron of Ohio State University offers an explanation of why discord falling into harmony gives us a pleasurable feeling.[4] We are made for a world where our minds are constantly being tested, but where there is also a core of predictability.

Beauty and Evolution

Hans Memling, “Angel Musicians,” 1480s

Beauty is based in order; with just a touch of the unexpected. Beauty is tied to our ability to fulfil evolutionary goals. We want to survive, reproduce, and share community. When an environment, person or thing is beautiful, it is signaling to us its usefulness towards those evolutionary ends: it is giving us that good “buzz.”

What is the most-favored painting subject across the globe? Answer: a lush savannah with animals and shelter. In a survey done in 1993 two Russian artists asked correspondents from a wide variety of cultures and climates what art they liked best—the results were surprisingly homogeneous.[5]

The topic they chose just happens to be the environment most conductive to human survival: a well-watered savannah, viewed from a slightly raised (defensive) vantage point. Old prejudices die hard—and for good reason.

Young people who look fertile or acts that are conducive to good community relations are called “beautiful.” Their qualities appeal to our heuristics. Of course our faculty for anticipation can be misled—but millions of years of evolution speak for them being right most of the time.

Emotion and Decision-Making

Emotion has heuristic qualities. We developed emotions because they allow us to make quick judgments in support of our evolutionary goals. This means that when time and energy are short emotions give us a rough-and-ready decision-making ability. This ability to judge what is important to us is actually what allows us to reason effectively!

In his work Descartes’ Error, Prof. Antonio Damasio describes what happens to patients who have part of their emotional brain damaged.[6] They reason very well, but they have difficulty stopping. They can no longer judge what is practically relevant to them and what isn’t. They could spend the whole day deciding when they would like to set up their next doctor’s appointment.

Music can manipulate the way your brain processes information by tapping into your emotions. It starts with the RAS—our brain’s information filtering system.

The RAS passes information on to the emotional brain—called the limbic system. If the information is judged as possibly threatening; then the fear response is activated. Fear could be considered the first emotion, because new information in the CNS seems to be judged on whether it is threatening first. This makes evolutionary sense, since our primary motivation is survival.

In extreme fear all information pathways to the higher reasoning centers are shut down. The person is then in a highly emotional state, where he can only be emoted with; not reasoned with.

Music has the ability to trigger fear, which is allied to stress. When we hear something we don’t anticipate—like a sudden increase in the volume of music—our brains become alert to the possibility of danger.

Music can elicit pleasurable emotions too (by stimulating opioid release). Recent studies have shown that these emotions are associated with different parts of the limbic system.[7][8] The mood swing doesn’t end with the sound but actually influences judgments made afterward.[9]

Music has a chemical effect on the limbic system. The boundaries of the system are defined by a drop in concentration of certain chemicals and receptor sites, namely: dopamine, serotonin, opiate receptors, endorphins and iron. Music can stimulate and inhibit the release of some of these chemicals in your brain (especially opiates and stress-related endorphins) thereby changing your “mood”; how you will interpret information; and ultimately the decisions you will make.

Conditioning the Brain

The brain is a plastic organ—parts that are used a lot become strong; parts that are idle atrophy. Some emotional disorders involve fear circuits that are too strong. If sufferers don’t get help, their higher reasoning faculty will atrophy. Music therapy can give the reason circuits a chance to get exercise. In their book The Music Effect, Prof. Daniel Schneck and Prof. Dorita Berger give several accounts of different music-therapy treatments.[11] As an example, a person with Asperger’s syndrome (a form of autism involving an overactive fear response) can be played a quiet, predictable song with a strong, steady beat but varying rhythmic patterns in the presence of whatever normally triggers fear.

Why such music? Predictable melodies elicit positive feelings. The beat has a focusing effect, the varying rhythm is interesting and will draw attention away from whatever is causing anxiety. The fear circuits are less stimulated, giving the reason circuits a chance to engage. These qualities combined give the patient a better shot at being able to consider what is going on around him and respond appropriately.

The music is helping the patient gradually become comfortable with what scares them, in order that they can live “normally” under exposure to whatever it is. Over time the music-conditioned response becomes automatic: the brain has reconfigured neural pathways. The “correct” level of fear can be programmed.

The “correct” level of attention can be programmed too. The music distracts the patient from what normally triggers fear—the music “speaks” to the brain in calming way. It is best if the patient is not consciously thinking about the music, but is simply letting the music “wash over” him during treatment. There is an element of passive hearing.

Listening and Hearing

In the 1940s, Vernon Lee (pen-name of Violet Paget, friend of William James’ brother Henry) wrote a book called Music and Its Lovers, where she discussed the differences between listening to music and hearing it.[12] Listeners are actively analysing the piece and thinking about the structure of music, hearers are in a more dream-like state and are enjoying the memories and feelings the music calls up. From a cognitive-function point of view, Ms. Paget’s observations suggest that listeners tend to reason about the music (neocortex) while hearers tend to emote about it (limbic system).

When we are passively hearing we are letting music act on our limbic system without consciously analyzing it.

The Emotional Brain

In his book The Triune Brain in Evolution, Dr. Paul MacLean explains how our emotional brain is associated with the desire to communicate via sound, but not symbols.[10] The limbic system cannot process language or speech—that is the job of the neocortex. The limbic system evolved in mammals at the same time as family-related behaviour, play and audiovocal communication for maintaining maternal contact. Language and our neocortex came later.

Dr. MacLean’s observations shed some light on why music moves people on an emotional level, but not necessarily an intellectual one.

Kant on Music

Music can express emotion independently of content. This feature led Immanuel Kant to rank music as the lowest form of art because it has the least to do with the intellect.[13] Kant lived during a golden age in German music and his judgment may seem harsh. However, if you view art as a way of communicating something specific between individuals, then he was absolutely right.

In fact the strong emotional pull, but vacuity of specific content, make music the perfect propaganda tool. I can use the tune of Beethoven’s Ode to Joy to celebrate Humanism, Christ, or the European Union. Art doesn’t get much more pliable than that.


Joy, beautiful spark of Gods
Daughter of Elysium,
We enter, fire-imbibed,
Heavenly, thy sanctuary.
Thy magic powers re-unite
What custom’s sword has divided
Beggars become Princes’ brothers
Where thy gentle wing abides.
(Friedrich Schiller, 1875, originally in German)


Joyful, joyful, we adore Thee,
God of glory, Lord of love;
Hearts unfold like flowers before Thee,
opening to the sun above.
Melt the clouds of sin and sadness;
drive the dark of doubt away;
Giver of immortal gladness,
fill us with the light of day!
(Henry Van Dyke, 1907)

European Union

Europe is united now
United may it remain;
Our unity in diversity
May it contribute to world peace.
May there forever reign in Europe
Faith and justice
And freedom of the people
In a greater motherland.
(Peter Roland, originally in Latin)

(Technically the European Union version has no lyrics because of the multitude of languages involved. Latin lyrics were developed for anyone who would like to use them).

It is important to understand that unless a person is panicking, he will be able to use some of his higher cortical functions (like understanding speech) while he is listening to music—this is the purpose of lyrics to a song! However, his judgment about the words he is hearing may be skewed by the qualities of the music accompanying them.

Music as Propaganda

In short, music has the ability to change your level of alertness, influence your focus, induce feelings of pleasure, and induce feelings of stress. Music gets your attention and then uses the carrot or the stick. Pair this with a political, religious, or moral message and you have a very effective teaching aid. What’s even better is that the listener doesn’t need to be consciously aware of the music to absorb the instruction. Propaganda is best when you convince people that they have drawn their own conclusions!

Here are some famous examples where beautiful sound distorts the listener’s perception of the words:

John Lennon, “Imagine”

Imagine there’s no heaven;
It’s easy if you tryNo hell below us;
Above us only sky
Imagine all the people;
Living for today…

Imagine there’s no countries;
It isn’t hard to do
Nothing to kill or die for;
And no religion too
Imagine all the people;
Living life in peace…

Imagine no possessions;
I wonder if you can
No need for greed or hunger;
A brotherhood of man
Imagine all the people;
Sharing all the world…

You may say I’m a dreamer;
But I’m not the only one
I hope someday you’ll join us
And the world will live as one.

(John Lennon, 1971)

Kiss, “Love Gun”

I really love you baby
I love what you’ve got
Lets get together, we can
Get hot
No more tomorrow, baby
Time is today
Girl, I can make you feel
No place for hiding baby
No place to run
You pull the trigger of my
Love gun, (love gun), love gun
Love gun, (love gun), love gun

(KISS, 1977)

The first example describes a truly scary vision—something worthy of George Orwell. However most people’s reaction to Lennon’s song is not one of horror, but a cosy, warm glow.

The second is an example of inanity hiding behind a beat and guitar riffs. If someone repeated the KISS lyrics to you with a straight face you would probably laugh; yet very few people laugh when the song is played.

Which Music?

There is no one type of music that is universally “more healthy” than another. What is important is how you choose to listen and how much you choose to listen to. There is a time for sleeping, resting and active thinking. Too much of any and the organism will suffer. Balance is what is crucial.

Having said that, some types of music give more opportunity for active listening than others. Analysing the average Beatles tune will get boring quickly. Technically more complex music gives the brain a better chance to exercise higher functions, if the listener is willing to put in the effort.

Music is also an advertising agent: lyrics and ordered sound can condition you towards associating ideas with feelings. As hearers, we need to shepherd what goes into our heads.

Music’s effect on people’s ability to think is vitally important because we live in a democracy and music is almost omnipresent. While more people can hear music than ever before, musical training doesn’t seem to be keeping pace. The average person is a hearer, not a listener—people are uneducated about their own minds and the music they put in them. A perfect target for indoctrination!


1. Plato, The Republic (Barnes & Noble, 2004).
2. Charles M. Diserens, A Psychology of Music: The Influence of Music on Behavior (Kessinger Publishing, 2007).
3. P. Janata, Electrophysiological Studies of Auditory Contexts, 1997. Dissertation Abstracts International: Section B: The Sciences and Engineering. University of Oregon.
4. David Huron, Sweet Anticipation: Music and the Psychology of Expectation (The MIT Press, 2006).
5. Komar & Melamid: The Most Wanted Paintings on the Web. Vitaly Komar and Alex Melamid. 1997. http://www.diacenter.org/km/index.html
6. Antonio Damasio, Descartes’ Error: Emotion, Reason, and the Human Brain (2005).
7. M. T. Mitterschiffthaler, C. H. Fu, J. A. Dalton, C. M. Andrew, S. C. Williams, “A functional MRI study of happy and sad affective states induced by classical music,” Human Brain Mapping (November 2007):1150–62.
8. A. Goldstein, “Thrills in Response to Music and Other Stimuli. Physiological Psychology 8, 126-129.
9. N. Logeswaran and J. Bhattacharya, “Crossmodal transfer of emotion by music,” Neuroscience Letters (May 2009):129–33.
10. P. D. MacLean, The Triune Brain in Evolution: Role in Paleocerebral Functions (Springer, 1990).
11. Daniel J. Schneck and Dorita S. Berger, The Music Effect: Music Physiology and Clinical Application (2005).
12. Vernon Lee (Violet Paget), Music and Its Lovers: An Empirical Study of Emotional and Imaginative Responses to Music (Thomas Press, 2007).
13. Kant, Critique of Judgment (Cosimo Classics, 2007).