What features of songs can cause personal and social harm?
If something has the power to help us, it also has the potential for harm. From medicine, surgery, and hands-on therapies to dietary supplements and food, all have a spectrum of actions.
Energy works much the same way. As Einstein said, everything in our world is energy, and it influences us in ways that range from subtle to violent.
Music can be a powerful force too. In humans, as in all animals, certain song components, or traits, are vital for optimal performance, generally for health, survival, and on a basic biological level for sexual selection. These include song rate, repertoire variation, as well as song length and amplitude. Scientists sometimes refer to these traits as honest signals. (In songwriting, when a great song just feels great, these are some of the reasons that make it so.)
The joy of feel-good music is well known, but what about the potential harm? Most dangerous is the art of musical deception — the power of using music to market products and services. This often unleashes the power of music by using it to encourage people to do and buy things that are unhealthy and/or don’t really need. Is this using music as a weapon?
In addition, studies show that violent music can increase aggressive thoughts and feelings; even humorous violent songs increase hostile, aggressive feelings. When used purposely to induce aberrant behavior, is this weaponized music?
Hostility, aggression, and war are glorified in our society, with martial or military music playing a major role. War is defined as a state of armed conflict between different nations, states, or groups, and in 2021 global conflicts included 174 nations with only 23 countries living in peace.
Children are taught about war and aggression early in life — from fighting and shooting to pretend death, and some version of good versus bad that somehow rationalizes killing. (Many children’s books, from popular fairy tales through required high school reading also expose children and adults to a significant amount of violence.)
Whether children’s games, music, movies, or other violent media, research shows content can affect behavior. Moreover, children of all ages exposed to violence, whether directly, indirectly, or just hearing media reports, can raise the risk of longterm behavioral problems, including aggression. This should be an important message for all, especially those who influence children.
No doubt, even the earliest wars had strong music to help drive them.
We certainly don’t want to ban music, books, or movies, but when the risk of violence increases, it’s time to rationally assess the situation, avoid treating symptoms, and look at the big picture. Prevention is a proactive approach, and much preferred over waiting for a traumatic event like a school shooting to occur and then reacting to it. (See my related music video, Lookin’ the Other Way.)
Much of society’s war worship comes with a long history of strong, powerful emotion using both music and lyrics to help drive the messages into the memories of the mind. As such, music can also convey strong political statements. Music is the backbeat of marching songs, unification, parades. It also helps portray the glory in war movies. National anthems often depict war. Some classical music, such as Tchaikovsky’s "1812 Overture," does too — even without lyrics. Also written that year was the U.S. National Anthem, “The Star-Spangled Banner,” which includes aggressive music and lyrics.
People do weaponize music.
There are plenty of pro-war songs among the charts of country, rock, hip-hop, and other popular music. Likewise, there is a long a history of antiwar songs in all societies (one of mine is called Marches).
Here are four specific components of music that can be weaponized to trigger stress and aggression.
- Volume. Excessively loud music goes beyond damaged hearing. It induces stress that can cause brain- and bodywide hormone and neurological imbalance.
- Lyrics. Like other media, songs with violent lyrics can trigger aggressive behavior.
- Tempo. Fast-paced driving music (think of the gym) could rev up the sympathetic nervous system, raising the heart rate. This no pain no gain stress could quickly impair brain and body function.
- Pitch/frequency. Around 1939, musicians began tuning instruments to a frequency of 440 hertz (Hz) instead of 432 Hz. Since then, many in music claim the original tuning of 432 Hz is superior and use it instead. Studies now show that music at 432 Hz offers a wide range of health benefits, including reduced stress, over the more stressful 440 Hz.
The accrual of physical, biochemical, and mental-emotional stress not only can impair brain and body function but that of our natural stress-coping mechanisms. Adding weaponized music to this vicious cycle can increase the risk of aggression and other behavioral problems. Helping to remedy this proactively includes improving overall health.
To paraphrase a popular political statement: Music doesn’t kill people; people kill people.
Anderson CA, et al. Exposure to Violent Media: The Effects of Songs with Violent Lyrics on Aggressive Thoughts and Feelings. J Personal Soc Psychol; 84 (5).
Calamassi D, Pomponi GP. Music Tuned to 440 Hz Versus 432 Hz and the Health Effects: A Double-blind Cross-over Pilot Study. 2019;15(4).
Maffetone P, Laursen P. Decision-Making in Health and Fitness. Front. Public Health. 2019. doi.org/10.3389/fpubh.2019.00006.