Your Mind On Music: How Songs Can Shape Our Thoughts

There's no doubt that music can brighten a dark day, or remind us of a past love, or spark a creative idea. But can music make decisions for us? Can it bring us to the brink of suicide? Can it cure us of ailments? 

While researching techniques of manipulation for my show Mind Reader, I compiled a playlist that referenced music in society that may be responsible for instances of mind control. You can find the  MUSIC playlist here. Each track was chosen for a specific reason - some have a direct relationship with thought control, some reference urban legends around the idea, and some are a nod to government programs that detail nefarious tactics used to control our minds.

Aside from these songs association with this fascinating concept, they were also compiled simply as some of my favorite music to listen to while shaping some of my new ideas. They elicit a spectrum of creative moods: joy, sadness, hope, and beauty. And I hope they do the same for you. Enjoy.

Piano Concerto No. 23 in A Major, K. 488: II. Adagio

The "Mozart Effect" was a term coined in the pop-psychology world following a study that questioned music's ability to make us smarter. The original study, published in 1993, sites that there seems to be "correlational, historical, and anecdotal relationships, between music cognition and other 'higher brain functions', but no causal relationship has been demonstrated between music and cognition... as pertaining to... mathematical or spatial reasoning." 

So while Mozart may not have an effect on our ability to solve a complex math equation, there's no denying it's still astonishingly beautiful.

Hello Bluebird

Music and lyrics by Cliff Friend, published in 1926 and performed by Judy Garland, this song is merely a nod to an unethical governmental program called Project Bluebird - which was eventually rolled over into the infamous CIA program MK Ultra. While there is much conspiracy around these programs, the government has released declassified documents detailing the experimental ongoings of Project Bluebird. 

According to these documents, these once covert government programs experimented with "polygraph, drugs, and hypnosis to attain the greatest results in interrogation techniques." Some have speculated the government went beyond exploring interrogation tactics and also had their hand in techniques of mass manipulation (on their enemy and their own) by inducing multiple personality disorders and false memories. This is most famously depicted in the film The Manchurian Candidate. 

Szomorú Vasárnap

Written in 1932, Hungarian composer Rezső Seress' song Szomorú Vasárnap (Gloomy Sunday), has become known as the "Hungarian Suicide Song." Upon listening, the song is said to have been the cause of hundreds of suicides in Hungary and around the world. Now while much of this is unverifiable, the folklore surrounding this classical song has prevailed. Could it be that Szomorú Vasárnap is the perfect mix of notes to lead the mind to suicidal thoughts? Or is it just a deeply melancholic song made during The Great Depression? When suicide rates were skyrocketing due to the hardships of a buckling global economy? Whatever the case, the fact that people believe that a song can cause this behavior means that music clearly wields a great power over the mind. 


Imagine it's late at night and you're high out of your mind and you stumble upon an idea (or as I call them "highdeas") that is so bizarre it just might work. Then you listen to this track by The Beatles and you hear a faintly jumbled John Lennon at the end and think, "what the hell was that?!" Then you sit on your floor and eat crackers and hummus for the next two hours while watching the ceiling move. This is exactly how John Lennon first happened upon what is now called "backmasking" (minus the hummus part). 

Often associated with satanic coercing, intentional backmasking (as heard in this Beatles song) was popular in the '60s and '70s. Backmasking cultivated a now famous urban legend, "Paul is dead," regarding Paul McCartney's rumored death. While backmasking supposedly isn't subliminally influencing our thoughts, it still excites me to know bands like The Beatles crafted secret messages for fans as a way to create a laughable conspiracy around their music. 

Chocolate Jesus

Music can actually change the way something tastes. Check out this article on how the taste of chocolate can be manipulated just by listening to two different clips of sound. And yes I just gave you an excuse to eat some chocolate. So while Chocolate Jesus, by Tom Waits, is not exactly going to control your mind it might just remind you that your senses can be skewed by the sounds of a simple melody. 

Tainted Love 

The next time you're in a grocery store, wine shop, or clothes store pay attention to what you're hearing. You are, more likely than not, listening to a playlist compiled by hundred of thousands of marketing dollars. Multiple studies have suggested that playing slower tempo music in retail environments leads people to spend more time in the store and purchase more versus faster songs. Same goes for restaurants. One study showed that people ate slower and spent higher amounts on alcohol while slow music played and ate faster when the BPM was higher. So, can the 142 beats per minute of Tainted Love by Soft Cell make you run away? Maybe so.

I Shall Not Be Moved

The notion that music has healing powers is ancient. There is plenty of research out there that suggests music therapy can help everything from language difficulties, cognition, and motor control. I Shall Not Be Moved written by Mississippi John Hurt and performed here by my favorite musician Andrew Bird, is a song about resilience. One study suggests that "after novice pianists have just a few weeks of (music) training, for example, the areas in their brain serving hand control become larger and more connected. It quickly became clear that music can drive plasticity in the human brain, shaping it through training and learning." The brain is resilient and adaptable and it's limits of plasticity are still unknown. When John Hurt wrote the lyrics "I shall not be moved" I imagine it was to emphasize that we are ever-changing, adaptable beings with the power to change, heal, and grow. 

I Wish I Knew (How It Would Feel to Be Free) + Mississippi Goddamn

Concluding this playlist with two songs by Nina Simone feels right. If there was ever an example of someone whose music can move people and cultivate action, Ms. Simone is a fine example. I Wish I Knew (How It Would Feel to Be Free) was written in 1967 by noted jazz pianist and educator Dr. Billy Taylor and Mississippi Goddamn was written by Nina herself shortly after; these pieces of music would ultimately become anthems of the Civil Rights Movement. Further proof that music can move a nation to take action.

Fight Distraction- 3 Books To Help You GET FOCUSED.

John Henry Fuseli - The Nightmare

John Henry Fuseli - The Nightmare

It's no secret that I dabble in the art of distraction. But that doesn't mean I've managed to master my own concentration. More often than not I feel held down by some incubus (hence the painting above). We live in a world where your time and attention are the most valuable commodities, and it's becoming nearly impossible to stay focused on any one task. Or to even motivate yourself in the first place. So here are a few books that have helped me snap out of the hypnotic triggers of modern life and hone in on my self and my work. 

1. The Shallows - Nicolas Carr


I found this book while browsing a book store in London a few years ago. I remember feeling so overwhelmed by the shear amount of choice that I almost gave up the yearning to read in the first place. I'm glad I stuck to my guns. Because eventually amongst the endless pop psychology and self help titles littering the shelves I found this insightful book. In The Shallows, Carr captures your attention and then tells you how to get it back. This book goes beyond the tired "Internet is consuming us" line. Carr does a deep dive into the why. And how to cope and manage digital distractions so you can take back your attention and refocus. The big take away for me was this simple idea; you need both time to collect information and time to process it. Carr manages to shed light on the inner working of "interruption technology" but also provide guidance on how to let your thoughts ripen. 


While it sounds more sci-fi than "psy-non fi", The Fourth Dimensional Human is a well written treatise on identity and time as it's viewed through a digital lens. Less about distraction and more about how to cope with the digital self. Scott talks of how our "timeline" on our social feeds gives us a sense that time is never ending. A notion which immediately distracts us from the dark thoughts of our own mortality (and keeps us addicted). He speaks candidly about how our face to face interactions are "...half familiar, reminiscent of what you already know." Speaking to the idea that in real life we become avatars for our digital selves. 

It's helpful to know more about the ways of being in the digital world so that you are better prepared to honor the time in the physical one. 


I'm a big fan of Adam Phillips' writing. I can't recommend him enough. And although Missing Out isn't about distraction per se - it does tackle a thought we all experience from time to time as a result: FOMO (Fear Of Missing Out).

Digital content and social webs create many problems for us. One problem heightened exponentially by the internet is the fear that you are not living your best life. Tortured by your friend's vacation photos of them and their perfect spouse - or inundated with content from people you admire leaving you feeling empty and uninspired. Phillips speaks about "getting it" and "not getting it" and the important ways in which we think about these concepts. Phillips discusses frustration (the emotion that brought me here) and how to more openly discuss it with others to prevent the fantasizing of an ideal scenario to satisfy our longings. 


The Intermission

The Intermission

There's a brief moment right after the first half of a play where one sits in contemplation. The first act is over and the beginning of the end of the play is fast approaching. This solitary moment is often distracted by trips to the bathroom or the concession stands. But the savvy few know that this moment is built into a show to give you time to process what you've just experienced. To allow you a moment to readjust and refocus your perceptions. A moment of false finality. In the hopes that when the real finale comes you revel in it. 

Competing For Your Attention

Seeing a handful of my friends and colleagues appearing on competitive reality TV shows every week has given me a major case of FOMO. I’ve struggled with the notion of auditioning many, many times. I’ll be the first to admit that I often think that by not participating I’m ceasing to stay relevant. I tell myself “It’ll be good exposure” or “my friends and family will see me on TV and know I’m successful!” It stings even more when those same friends and family seem to constantly poke, “why don’t you go on America’s Got Talent?” Their intentions are undoubtedly kindhearted. But the notion lingers — why don’t I?

The intention behind this post is partly to write out my thoughts (as an exercise to better understand them) and partly to continue the discussion with those that might disagree. When it comes to experiencing magic, do shows like Americas Got Talent (or competition shows designed specifically for magicians like Wizard Wars and Penn & Teller Fool Us) do more harm than good, for both its audience and its acts?

At the heart of any reality competition show is, of course, attention. More specifically, mass attention: a way for an artist from, say New York, to stand out from the rest when they normally are drowned out by the noise of the other acts in their big city. It can be a great way to get exposure to the masses, but sadly this attention is often temporary. You could go viral and be on everyone’s screens for a couple days, and in rare cases you could even glean a few great (even well-paid) opportunities from it. But then what? Far too often the desire for immediate attention outweighs the drive to be a more robust artist. Creating long lasting impressions on an audience may take more than a seven-minute stint on a highly edited talent show, especially in magic — which in our culture is already riddled with novelty. Sadly the drive to create sustainable narrative falls to the weigh-side when all you have to do is be a seven minute spectacle.

Take a show like Fool Us, where the judges are legendary professional magicians- surely they have a sense for great magic, right? Absolutely. But sadly that’s not the premise of the show. The show is based on one criteria: fool them. Perform a trick that whizzes by their first guesses and you’re golden. Despite the few fleeting comments from Penn on the artistry of the contestants, it sends a simple message to the masses — are you good enough to fool them? As if, that’s all we have time for.

As my friend, author Douglas Rushkoff notes in his book Present Shock,

“The more of this kind of media we enjoy, the more spectaculary cruel it must be to excite our attention, and the better we get at evading the moral implications of watching the spectacle.”

I’m afraid magic is becoming like most of the quickly consumed content out there: boiled down and exploited for its ability to capture the attention of its audience for the mere fact of capturing their attention; not necessarily to do anything with it. After all, our attention is the most valuable commodity. Much like the scroll culture of Twitter, Facebook and Instagram, the shift to a shorter, transient, “now-entertainment” must occupy the empty space in our brains. The acts competing for your attention end up concentrating on (and one-upping) what others are doing rather than focusing on the quality of their own artistry. Their art is now made up of these bite sized, undercooked bursts of spectacles. Standing out from the crowd has now become the goal and not just a pleasant result. Talent, I fear, has become formulaic and seems to be defined by how many likes, votes and views can be procured. The shows that promise us the ability to stand out from the noise have now become the noise. But maybe that’s just how it works now and I’m missing out.


*Originally posted on Medium on 10/1/2015