Imagine that you’ve lived your entire life without knowing music existed in the world. There has always been sound, but it’s never been arranged rhythmically enough for you to even imagine the concept of music. Sounds like a bland life for sure, but bear with us for a second.
Now picture walking into a club and there is music playing. This new rhythmic arrangement of sound baffles you, but it’s not nearly as strange as how the people in the club are behaving: their bodies moving together as one unit, all of them facing the man controlling the music who bobs his head to the beat as if to set the pace for everyone else. It’s as though this new sonic phenomenon is holding the collective will of everyone in the club, imploring them to behave as it sees fit.
You, never knowing music and its effect on people your whole life, would call this mind control. And you wouldn’t be entirely wrong.
Music has a hold on its listener, and it’s a hold we grant it willingly. No matter the genre, tempo or structure, we experience music the way we do because it sets off manic light shows in the neural receptors of our brain. Music excites our nervous system, triggers memory and emotion, elongates our sense of space and time, puts us in touch with our unconscious thoughts and belief systems, our deep joys and deeper sadnesses. Our obsession with music almost can’t be helped; it operates on everything that makes us human.
Electronic music is of particular interest in this regard. More so than other genres, electronic music relies heavily on the “trance state”. The “trance state” is not limited to music; it’s simply a mode of consciousness accessed when all neural functions are at or approaching their peak, thus allowing the mind to be ultra receptive to outside stimuli. A running back will access this state when he’s sprinting to the touchdown line; a heart surgeon depends on it when he’s in the operating room; Da Vinci couldn’t have painted the Mona Lisa without it.
In Electronic music, a “trance state” is achieved through the repetition of loops. The same sonic arrangement is played over several bars with subtle variations between, until the next phase of the song is reached. Then it’s usually back to loops for a while, and so on. The song builds until the beat drops; the loops bring the listener gradually into a deep trance state, prepping their receptors for a dopamine overload when new sounds and arrangements are introduced.
Admittedly, this style of composition is extremely satisfying. It exaggerates and plays upon the ebb and flow of musical genres that precede it, elongating the ebb, thickening the flow, and crushing our minds with sick drops from the heavens.
Still, given how electronic music is unique in how tightly our minds are prepped for the song’s drop, we can’t help but ask the question: could this formula lead to producers taking advantage of their listeners? Is this happening already?
With the rise of electronic music (and in effect, the bedroom beat maker), there are a lot of producers out there, all of them using various methods to compose. There are also known ways to subliminally affect listeners through sound. The most notable example of this is through binaural beats.
A binaural beat is essentially an auditory mirage perceived when two pure-tone sine waves with frequencies lower than 1500 Hz — with less than a 40 Hz variation between them — are presented to the listener through headphones. The headphones are key, since the two frequencies need to be heard through each ear.
Though it still needs some research before escaping the swamp of pseudoscience, binaural beats are widely believed to improve cognitive function by using specific frequencies to operate on targeted brain waves. Try it yourself — find a good alpha wave binaural beat session, play it lightly through your headphones while studying. See if things don’t get a touch harder when you take them off.
Binaural beats seem much more of a help than they are a detriment, but who’s to say those are the only subconscious altering sounds out there? How do we know there aren’t sound waves that, if arranged specifically, can make you yodel along to a beat, or brush your teeth all day? Or worse?
What if, right now, there’s an evil bedroom producer out there (let’s call him DJ Evil), who knows he can one day achieve world domination if he gets his hand on the right sine waves? Are we a short time away from becoming yodelling sheep who brush our teeth at the clubs?
A wild conspiracy theory, sure. It’s hard to fully dismiss, however, since human progress has only touched the surface of potential in all fields, including music. DJ Evil, if you’re out there, just know: we’re onto you.