Backwards messages

Are bands corrupting young people by burying subliminal messages in music, audible only when played backwards?

Many modern songs include lyrics that parents might not want their children to hear. As well as this obvious form of corruption, some people have worried that songs played backwards contain subversive messages – the practice of ‘backmasking’.

In one notable case, the heavy rock band Judas Priest were taken to court when two of their fans committed suicide after listening to one of their records. The judge decided that it was impossible to conclude that listening to the music had caused the fans to kill themselves – there was no good evidence that music had such power to influence, and adolescents with a predisposition to suicide might be attracted to Judas Priest’s style of music.

Music played backwards was pioneered by The Beatles in the 1960s, and triggered a persistent rumour that Paul McCartney had died (the song ‘Revolution 9’ supposedly included the phrase “turn me on, dead man”).

The backmasking controversy took off when Christian commentators in the USA began to find what they thought were satanic messages in rock music. A prime target was Led Zeppelin’s classic ‘Stairway to Heaven’, which was supposed to make reference to Satan. Even such middle-of-the-road acts as Electric Light Orchestra and Styx were accused of attempting to pervert the young. Famously, Queen’s ‘Another One Bites the Dust’ was accused of including a pro-marijuana subliminal message.

With CDs it is difficult to play songs backwards, so from the 1990s onwards the furore died down. Ironically, death metal bands began deliberately including backwards anti-Christian messages in their music (Cradle of Filth’s ‘Dinner at Deviant’s Palace’ includes a backwards version of the Lord’s Prayer).

Others lampooned the accusations: Pink Floyd’s 1979 song ‘Empty Spaces’ includes the message: “Congratulations – you’ve just discovered the secret message.” The band Mindless Self Indulgence recorded a song exhorting people to misbehave, in the midst of which were backwards messages including “respect your parents”, “clean your room” and “do your homework”.

Psychologists have found that backwards messages are difficult to identify unless specifically pointed out to listeners. Several studies have found no evidence that messages affect the attitudes or behaviour of listeners. Psychology professor Mark D Allen concluded that “delivering subliminal messages via backward masking is totally and ridiculously impossible”.

Artists such as Aphex Twin have used new digital technologies to embed images in music. In the late 1990s, using spectral analysis software that visualises music, Aphex Twin (Richard D James) included pictures of himself in the track ‘Mathematical Equation’.

About this resource

This resource was first published in ‘Music, Mind and Medicine’ in June 2009 and reviewed and updated in July 2014.

Music, Mind and Medicine
Education levels:
16–19, Continuing professional development