ATTACK. DECAY. SUSTAIN. RELEASE.
I walked off the plane and into the hot sun of Miami for a long weekend, a much-needed escape from the New York winter. Arriving at a swanky boutique hotel in the Little Havana neighborhood, my wife and I asked for a bar recommendation nearby. We walked the five blocks along Calle Ocho just after 11pm and found ourselves at a local watering hole.
When the door opened, we were transported. There were bartenders in vintage maroon suits pouring rum, an overstuffed crowd gleefully sipping on mojitos, acrobatic couples dancing the Mambo, and dozens of tables filled with empanadas and singing customers. All attention was focused on a stage with four musicians—on congas, upright bass, Spanish guitar, and trumpet—who swept up the room in a kind of magic commanding the night.
Still abuzz from the polyrhythms, I put on a “Cuban Jazz” playlist the next morning in our rental car. Suddenly, a quiet Miami intersection came alive with the pulsing of Buena Vista Social Club. With café con leches in hand, we might as well have been smoking cigars and discussing the revolution.
At that moment, I was struck by the transformative power of music. It changes our environment, our mood, our relationships, and our preferences. Music is on TV, in movies, in memories, at the store, at the bar, and when we’re on hold with CVS to get our prescription changed.
I wanted to know more about the mechanics. How exactly does music persuade us?
Well, the first place I looked was—you guessed it—my phone. That’s because dopamine is the chemical released in the brain while scrolling through Instagram, transforming us into zombies on the subway, gleefully oblivious to the forthcoming apocalyptic hellfire. It’s the same chemical triggered by lines of cocaine, controlling the brain’s pleasure centers and leaving us craving more.
Listening to music we love gives us the same euphoric effect, alongside the release of serotonin and the cuddle hormone oxytocin. It suppresses certain networks in the brain, so that your immediate environment fades into the background and short-term impulses lose their urgency. Another network boosts self-reflection and nostalgia, creating a dramatized personal narrative of your life. Our brains literally view music as a companion when we’re sad, making us more focused and relaxed. It allows us to anticipate events and to sleep better.
Music not only reawakens us to the details of a memory, but it also resurfaces the emotion from that moment. It’s eerie how a song can so precisely take you back to summer camp, high school, or an important relationship. That’s why Dashboard Confessional still makes you ache for that long- distance freshman year girlfriend.
From ages 12 to 22 we’re forging our identities and choosing who we’d like to become. Because we’re experiencing love and loss and freedom for the first time, it’s a particularly impactful era in our lives. That’s why adults spend 90% of their listening time with music they love from this period—something called “the reminiscence bump.” So don’t feel bad that you’re not hip to Billie Eilish. You’ve been biologically wired to play Arcade Fire’s Funeral for the zillionth time instead.
Even our taste in genre is based in biology. Empathetic people tend to listen to thoughtful music, like jazz, soul and folk, while those with an analytical mind seek to unravel patterns in hip-hop, dance, and rock. But we’ll like any song if we hear it enough. Radio stations play the same songs over and over again because the more we listen to something, the better our brains feel about it.
With an understanding of music’s path through our ears, into our brains, and out of our emotional robot ports, I was left curious about how we interact with this phenomenon in everyday life. So, here’s a look at the ways music is wielded by artists, politicians, and corporations to tap into our consciousness, guide our emotions, and direct our decisions.
Does This Leitmotif Make Me Look Good, Bad, or Ugly?
The lights are dimmed, the popcorn popped, and the tears primed. Before we even enter the theater or plop on the couch to binge-watch Russian Doll, we’re prepared to become emotional. John Williams, Danny Elfman, and Hans Zimmer all know this, and they’re ready to eff with you.
Music has always accompanied visual artforms, from religious ceremonies to theater. When music was first played alongside silent films, it was meant to drown out the sound of the projector. Over time the role of music evolved, and composers set out to write scores that “create a more convincing atmosphere of space and time and underline the unspoken thoughts of a character,” according to 20th century composer Aaron Copland.
The flutes of Titanic take us into the sea, futuristic blips and bloops bring us into Blade Runner, Ennio Morricone’s sweeping vocals entrance us into a spaghetti Western. That Thing You Do! created a whole soundtrack of fake songs to place you in 1964.
My favorite scores tend to be intimate and poetic soundscapes with natural instruments. In other words, sad songs that make me cry. The 2018 adaptation of If Beale Street Could Talk features a chamber string ensemble playing gorgeous colorful chords. Composer Nicholas Britell also scored Moonlight with a very small arrangement in order to focus on the specific personal tragedies we see on screen. Meanwhile, the tipsy regret of Sideways uses accordion, harpsichord, and violins to create the impressionistic blur felt by our protagonist. (Pro tip: It’s also a beautiful ringtone for a morning alarm. Kudos to composer Rolfe Kent for nearly making me a morning person. Nearly.)
We’re most aware of music in film during the important moments—the orchestral swelling when Rudy plays the big game, when Harry faces the One Who Must Not be Named, or when Will Hunting decides to be Good. But one method used in almost all scores is creating musical themes for specific characters. That’s why we all know Darth Vader’s music. These themes—or leitmotifs—unconsciously resurface when the character appears, although the instrumentation may change to reflect that person’s journey. The trumpet is daring, the cello thoughtful, the harp transcendent, the flute curious.5
Remember Jaws? DUH-dum. DUH dum. Tension and release are the elements composers are painting with. Urgency comes through with the acceleration of volume and speed. In Psycho, violent high-pitched screeches accompany a brutal stabbing. This actually picks up on the human instinct to react to panic in nature and animals in distress. Anxiety is also induced by playing extreme bass vibrations known as infrasound, which is heard naturally just prior to storms and earthquakes. It can literally makes moviegoers sick.
Some other film score tricks include using percussive tremolo and ostinato to build tension, modulating keys to give an unconscious lift, or cutting the music in climactic moments to create a small moment of vulnerability where we expect a crescendo.
And then, of course, there’s the pop song, whose lyrics say more about the character’s inner life than any dialog could. Think of John Cusack holding up the boombox playing “In Your Eyes.” Or Vincent and Mia winning the dance contest in Pulp Fiction to Chuck Berry’s “You Never Can Tell.” Baby Driver used nothing but pop songs to convey the emotions of its characters.
But directors often subvert this model, playing music that purposefully doesn’t match the tone of the scene. Sofia Coppola does this in Marie Antoinette, and Wes Anderson does it in Rushmore. Think of that entourage of dorks walking in slow-motion to a badass Kinks track.
Only The Boss Can Reach Across This Aisle
It was the Monday night before Election Day 2004, and I found myself in downtown Cleveland. There were at least 10,000 Ohioans and volunteers like me excited to see John Kerry give one last speech during his presidential campaign. But let’s be honest—we were more excited to see Bruce Springsteen. In his white T-shirt and jeans, speaking in a mumbling drawl, Bruce evoked the aesthetics of blue-collar working- class Americana. And yet he also articulated complex emotions and a progressive vision for America. This is no easy feat, which is why there’s only one Bruce Springsteen.
Did he play “Thunder Road” and “Born To Run” and make grown men cry? Of course he did. But Bruce also lent all of his unique qualities to John Kerry as an extension of his endorsement.
Political candidates use live and recorded music at every single rally to unconsciously paint a picture of their campaign themes and strategically win over new voters. Bill Clinton walked out to “Don’t Stop” by Fleetwood Mac, Ted Cruz embraced Christian-rock band Newsboys, and Bernie Sanders played “Power to the People” by John Lennon.
Barack Obama’s 2008 inauguration concert was meant to reflect themes of inclusion and to highlight his wide coalition of supporters. That’s why performing artists ranged from working-class folk singers like Pete Seeger and country acts like Garth Brooks to R&B legends like Beyoncé and Latin stars like Shakira.
President Trump plays Puccini’s opera music at his rallies, blatantly invoking an era of totalitarian strongmen like Mussolini. But he has also played songs whose creators disapprove of their use. Most famously, he opened his campaign with “Rockin’ In The Free World,” and Neil Young was not happy about it. (To be fair, Young doesn’t seem happy about most things.) The Rolling Stones and Adele also told Trump to stop playing their songs. Tom Petty and John Mellencamp turned down George W. Bush and John McCain. And Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker used a song by Dropkick Murphys, to which the band replied, “We literally hate you!!!”
It’s a legal grey-area, but when it comes to playing songs at public events, political candidates are generally free to use any song they’d prefer as long as that venue has a public- performance license. On the other hand, candidates certainly do need approval when using music for TV ads. That’s why John McCain settled with Jackson Browne for an undisclosed amount after using the artist’s song without permission.
Music in political ads usually portrays either incipient doom or stately optimism. In negative ads, alarming effects join with minor percussive pulses to create a threatening aura. The goal is to scare the crap out of you through music, and to direct those unconscious worrisome feelings toward the opposition.
For example, there’s a 2016 Trump-approved ad with pictures of Hillary Clinton falling down while a narrator states, “Hillary Clinton doesn’t have the fortitude, strength or stamina to lead in our world.” What struck me most about the music was the overblown sense of gravitas. It sounds like a 90-piece orchestra in a minor key scoring the climax of a Mission: Impossible movie. I can actually see Tom Cruise holding onto a cliff with one hand. The music isn’t inducing fear so much as it’s indicating that the stakes are very, very high.
Then there’s the positive ad, using major chords to raise sentimental emotions of good-hearted, trustworthy, old- fashioned-roll-up-your-sleeves American values. Think of a white man with his family saying, “I approve this message.”
In addition to political campaigns, music has also been used in official government policy. Think of the percussive rigidity of military trumpets or, you know, torturing inmates at Guantanamo Bay. While in solitary isolation, inmates would suffer through 30 hours straight of the same song at full volume. As accounts of the torture attest, it would start and stop at random, and the unpredictability was often the worst part. It was so physically invasive that it became difficult to think at all, leaving inmates with a lack of inner- life, unable to reflect or recall memories. Whether it was The Beegees, Eminem or the Barney theme, Sgt. Mark Hadsell told Mic, “Your brain and body functions start to slide, your train of thought slows down, and your will is broken.” Plus, the sexual nature of some music, like Christina Aguilera’s, made it difficult to be an observant Muslim.
Slow Jams in the Mall, Muzak on the Moon
Corporations also understand that words and dialog can’t affect emotions quite like music can. And changes in emotion trigger our decision-making, including what to buy.
Studies confirm that fast music makes us move quickly, and that’s not good for store owners who want us to stay longer and buy stuff. Sad music with slower tempos and minor keys consistently leads to higher sales in retail settings. Weird, right?
Meanwhile, when we feel like we’re in a high-end store, we spend like high-end customers. That’s why you’re more likely to buy an expensive bottle of wine when there’s classical music playing. We want to see ourselves as The Great Gatsby, not the dude who entered in sweatpants.
Of course, we can’t talk about background music without talking about Muzak. Famously known as “elevator music,” Muzak was a tool of work efficiency that reached millions of listeners by the 1960s. President Kennedy was a fan, and even the astronauts of Apollo 11 listened to Muzak before walking on the moon. It was meant to unconsciously increase energy for workers at their most sleepy by playing “The Stimulus Progression,” where music would gradually increase in volume and tempo over 15 minutes, go silent for 15 minutes, and then repeat. Their slogan was “Muzak fills the deadly silences,” and the company called themselves “Audio Architects” crafting “atmospherics.”
As customers today, we’re mostly looking for the music to stylistically fit the brand—and we buy from brands (and bands) we like. Maybe you dig on the Urban Outfitters “Poolside Vibes” Spotify playlist, or discovered indie artist Japanese Breakfast through the UO blog. The digital space of the playlist becomes an extension of the brand’s physical space, increasing their reach and impact.
Big bucks are spent on curating attractive in-store and online brand playlists. Thanks to Amazon, shoppers are now officially spending more money online than in the analog world, and shoppers increasingly expect a tailored brand image.16 That’s why background music giant Mood Media selects music for McDonald’s, CVS, Whole Foods and Marriott, reaching 150 million customers daily. PlayNetwork’s CEO John Crooke told Racked, “We become an extension of the brand. We learn their marketing strategy, meet the design team, and do our best to learn who the customer is and then create a holistic auditory experience from there.”
A company called Studio Orca runs all of Chipotle’s 1,400 stores. While founder Christopher Golub said that he’s looking to play emerging artists, the Denver Westword reports, “The high, tenuous yowl of Radiohead frontman Thom Yorke wreaks havoc with the steel and concrete of a Chipotle buildout.”
Yeah, OK computer.
On my flight returning to rainy New York, I listened to the new Toro Y Moi album and envisioned my neurons at work. I watched the ‘90s movie Phenomenon on the plane with its dynamic score, caught a new round of uplifting political ads from 2020 presidential candidates, and observed background music subtly humming in the airport while walking to baggage claim. If you listen, music is everywhere, and we’re all subject to its persuasive power.