How Music Is Made To Emotionally Manipulate You

SONDER RAGE, Live at L'International (04/19/24) (Oliver Perez)

‘Weird Fishes / Apreggi’ by Radiohead, ‘Space Song’ by Beach House, and ‘The Great Gig in the Sky’ by Pink Floyd. Some of my all-time favorite sounds that can make you feel the passion in the music. There’s no other way to describe the sounds of a roaring synth with a mess of chords that bounce around your mind. These songs, which I love to stream on repeat, all have one thing in common: they manipulate you. The musicians experiment with different instruments, tempos, and techniques to create a sound that in a way reflects the range of human emotions within their lyrics. The artists manage to create something bigger: music that moves you. ‘Post-rock’ is the genre most known for this type of production, labeled as a ‘feeling’ you can’t describe except through music. Bands like Slint, Sigur Ros, and Black Country New Road fall into this category. Groups such as these are defined as having a focus on the ‘textures and timbres’, as well as an emphasis on long crescendos and riffs throughout. But classified as ‘post-rock’ or not, everyone has that one song that hits you deeply and makes you relate, something that resonates with you, makes you think, cry, or laugh. And whether you realize it or not, music is emotionally manipulating you to feel that way. 

Oxford Dictionary defines manipulation as, behavior that controls or influences somebody/something, often in a dishonest way so that they do not realize it. I know the definition paired with the claim of music sounds ridiculous, but by looking at the natural psychology of humans with how we feel emotions, in addition to the mathematical structure of music, you begin to find the truth hidden between the lines. 

Vinyl records are essentially made by scratching and recording the movement made by our vocal cords in the air and pressing that onto a flat disk. A microphone converts airborne sound waves into electrical signals that can be recorded on a medium broadcast over loudspeakers for our listening enjoyment. So then, like a real live voice speaking to you and evoking emotion, these recordings of sound waves can affect us that way too, right? Our brain’s objective is to ‘decode’ sound waves by processing them electrically. The brain interprets these sound waves made by your record player or phone speaker and can demonstrate changes in brain chemistry within a person’s mind. This means you can externally influence emotions through certain sound waves of music! Going more into this, we can look at the musical scale, which has something called ‘core’ frequencies, that can be manipulated to make us feel differently. An example of this is a pattern of notes on a scale called the ‘tritone’, nicknamed “the devil’s interval”. This scale is known for being one of the most uncomfortable and stressful sounds in recorded history, with its dissonance between the notes and haunting sound. It can be found in modern music being used by bands like Black Sabbath and The Strokes. In the Middle Ages, this tritone was banned in the centralized church since it was seen as extremely distasteful. On the other hand, there are examples of early music that was used positively to influence people. In the earliest religious context, we can take a look at ‘Gregorian chants’ sung in Catholic Cathedrals, or ‘Qawwali’ and Islamic mosques and how they were specifically designed to elicit a profound spiritual experience. This feeling is largely produced within the Perfect 4th and 5th octaves, and is often referred to as the ‘Love Frequency’, or the Vibration of Love. This sound can also be described as a ‘528 Hz’ frequency, which is found in almost every recorded historical religious song. We can also take a look at sheet music, and how major scales contribute to an overall ‘happy’ sound, while minor scales can make things sound tragic or creepy. These frequencies and scales work together to change how you feel, to make music manipulate you into relating to it. You can find YouTube videos now of popular major scale  ‘happy’ songs being switched to minor scales, and accurately hear how much the tone of the instruments and scale being played can change the meaning of a song’s lyrics. 

But as you turn down your record players and phone speakers, don’t feel guilty for falling into the way music is made to manipulate us. Remember that as listeners and fans, we allow ourselves to be susceptible to this brand of manipulation. I have a playlist for about every ‘core’ memory, every ‘era’ of my life on Spotify; some make me nostalgic or happy, and some make me cry or dance. The way the music itself is produced and recorded allows us to be receptive to a change in emotions, but our own need for relatability leads us to connect emotionally with the songs and bands we love. Our human minds try to construct an idea of what the exact message of lyrics or a riff means in our own lives. So just like a real toxic relationship, we project our problems or daydreams into music and expect to feel better.  We attach feelings to them and stories behind their narrative! A song is only as deep as you make it. Music mathematically can change how we feel, yes, but depending on how much you relate to the singer’s screams or their shoe-gaze-like guitar, you eventually let yourself become vulnerable to the manipulation.

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