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.