Why Dictators Hate to See Us Moved by Music

Iran’s ultimate supremo, the Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, gave a remarkable endorsement to music this week, declaring it “not compatible with the highest values of the sacred regime of the Islamic Republic.” He didn’t exactly mean to praise song, but if music is a threat to the sort of murderous theocracy over which Mr. Khamenei presides, well then here’s to music.

The ayatollah didn’t just denounce Western music (which he has done before) but music-making of any and every sort. Instead of wasting time practicing scales, he declared, “It’s better that our dear youth spend their valuable time in learning science and essential and useful skills.” The kind of enrichment he’s interested in isn’t the sort you get in a concert hall.


Songs made me spend.

Though the lament is framed as a concern about youngsters frittering away their precious time, I suspect Mr. Khamenei’s real complaint is rooted in the same disquiet authoritarians have long felt about music—that it affects people profoundly and can’t be controlled.

There’s no doubt that music affects us—perhaps in surprising ways. A new study published in a journal called The Arts in Psychotherapy tested which was more effective in treating mild depression, reclining on a sofa talking to a psychiatrist or simply listening to Bach, Corelli and Mozart. Few of the patients involved (who were drawn from a clinic in Oaxaca, Mexico) were initially interested in spending any time with old Wolfgang Amadeus, but in the end they not only came to enjoy the experience, but benefited from it. The overwhelming majority of the patients listening to classical music reported feeling better two months into the therapy. Not even half of those getting traditional tell-me-about-that psychotherapy saw any improvement.

In an effort to explain these results, the researchers surmised that listening, at least to music with structure and challenging complexity, facilitates “brain development and/or plasticity.” It might have helped, in treating depression, that the patients were given a cheerful earful: Bach’s “Italian Concerto,” as opposed to, say, Samuel Barber’s “Adagio for Strings” or the doleful “Dido’s Lament” by Henry Purcell.

Just how directly can music manipulate our emotions, and even our actions? The website of the science magazine Miller-McCune has been gathering up recent research attempting to demonstrate that music is instrumental. There is a French study just out from the journal Psychology of Music showing that jeunes femmes are more willing to give out their phone numbers after listening to romantic tunes. The young ladies exposed to “neutral” compositions were less open to propositions.

This follows on a study done last year showing that men buy more roses when a florist pipes in love songs. Also from France comes a study published in the International Journal of Hospitality Management suggesting that if a restaurant plays an empathetic soundtrack stacked with “pro-social” ditties customers tend to tip better.

These represent a modern behavioral-science version of John Dryden’s bold declaration, “What passion cannot Music raise and quell!” All of which suggests we would be wise to be wary of music, sucker bait that it is.

But if music is such an effective tool for manipulating people, why isn’t it wholeheartedly embraced by the tyrants in Tehran?

Where would the manipulative arts be without incidental music to give the consumer a shove, whether it’s the anxious undercurrent reality TV uses in the tense build-up to sending someone home; the ominous serial-killer chords employed by slasher flicks and political attack-ads; or the achingly mournful indie-rock that “Grey’s Anatomy” relies on every week to make its viewers reach for the third Kleenex. What propagandist would pass up such power?

The rub is that, though music may be controlling, it isn’t controllable. Even the honest artist looking only to achieve an immediate effect in his audience can’t know just what it is that any one person is feeling.

Composer Paul Hindemith thought that the best his brethren could do was evoke in listeners the “memories of feelings.” He argued that an audience couldn’t be expected to actually “feel” all of the various emotions of a symphony that jumps around from mood to mood.

What is it, anyway, to feel a response to music? We all have the experience, but it remains something of a mystery. In the new book “The Music Instinct: How Music Works and Why We Can’t Do Without It,” Philip Ball notes: “Very often, we may recognize music as having a particular emotional quality without it actually awakening that emotion in us.”

If we do have some visceral, emotive response to a song, it may not have that much to do with the music itself. The emotions triggered by hearing the song you danced to at your wedding are likely to depend on whether your marriage is still intact. This poses problems for the propagandist, who can’t count on his patriotic anthem not to curdle in the ears of abused people trying to divorce themselves from the state.

For all the problems with music in our time—cookie-cut karaoke pop, sterile atonal highbrow modernity, singing competitions, Justin Bieber, Auto-Tune—the art still somehow manages to make despots nervous. That calls for a fanfare.

Eric Felten, Wall Street Journal


Full article and photo: http://online.wsj.com/article/SB10001424052748704017904575409221080857124.html