I remember the moment exactly. I was sitting on my bed, listening to my iPod when the song “Unfaithful” by Rihanna began to play. Like hundreds of times before, I found myself singing along to the lyrics. However, for some indescribable reason, this time I realized what I was singing about. The lyrics describe a woman having an affair and, not only does she cheat on her boyfriend, she blatantly lies to his face about it. This song promotes infidelity and lying yet, to my surprise, I had never noticed its message before. Since then, I have questioned the influence song lyrics have on the thoughts of listeners. If lyrics have the ability to infiltrate the minds of listeners, can the messages hidden in the underlying strains of lyrics affect not only thoughts but the ideology of society?
One question that has perplexed humanity for hundreds of years is how lyrics affect listeners. Philosophers such as Aristotle, Plato and Socrates discussed the effect of music on a human’s emotional state and behavior as well as the negative repercussions on such behavior. Aristotle wrote that “music directly imitates the passions of the [human] soul… and if over a long time [the human] habitually listens to music that rouses ignoble passions, his whole character will be shaped to an ignoble form” (The Philosophers). jEarly philosopher Boethuis maintained this position, emphasizing that “music is a part of us, and either ennobles or degrades our behavior” (The Philosophers). From these statements, we can conclude that the early philosophers understood and were wary of the effects of music on individual listeners.
Exploring the effects of song lyrics on today’s twenty-first century society is a relevant undertaking. It will come as no surprise that people listen to music on a daily basis. More often than not, song lyrics become stuck in our heads, and people find themselves doomed to continue singing those same lyrics until they become dizzy from the incessant repetition. The phenomenon of getting a song stuck in your head is called an “earworm,” according to Victoria Williamson, Sagar Jilka, Joshua Fry, Sebastian Finkel, Daniel Müllensiefen and Lauren Stewart. In anarticle titled “How do “earworms” start? Classifying the everyday circumstances of Involuntary Musical Imagery,” the authors note, , “Involuntary Musical Imagery (INMI) or ‘earworms’ describes the experience whereby a tune comes into the mind and repeats without conscious control” (Williamson et. al. 259). The article elaborates how “involuntary, spontaneous cognitions are common, everyday experiences” and how “musical imagery is associated with a unique form of spontaneous cognition” (Williamson et. al. 259-260). Because such a phenomenon is “common” and takes place in the mind, one can assume that it affects all music listeners indiscriminately (Williamson et. al. 259). Since all listeners are at risk, scientists are pursuing the potential long-term effects of song lyrics on listeners in today’s popular music. However, before scientists are able to address the types of long-term social effects due to song lyrics, they must first analyze different types of lyrics.
Tobias Greitemeyer at the University of Sussex studied the effects of songs with prosocial lyrics in comparison to songs with neutral lyrics. According to Greitemeyer’s research, pro-social songs are defined as songs with lyrics that attempt to promote positive—or “prosocial”— thoughts and behaviors (Greitemeyer 1501). Through his study, Greitemeyer discovered that, when both prosocial and neutral songs were introduced to subjects, the songs with prosocial lyrics did indeed produce prosocial thoughts and stimulated positive helping behavior. Ultimately he concluded that, if prosocial songs influenced behavior in a positive way, increased exposure to such lyrics could possibly have tremendous impacts on the actions of society. With this logic in mind, one can speculate that increased exposure to songs with antisocial lyrics could generate negative, antisocial thoughts and behaviors in listeners.
A study conducted by Brian A. Primack, Erika L. Douglas, Michael J. Fine and Madeline A. Dalton focused precisely on the consequences of negative, antisocial behavior through research on teen sexual activity. They speculated that strong sexual references in song lyrics, especially those in rap music, could be one cause of early teen sexual activity (Primack et. al. 511). Primack and his associates credited a song’s general popularity as one possible reason for such rampant sexual activity. (In this case, popularity can be defined as how frequently a particular song is played in everyday life.) They reasoned that, with increased popularity, song repetition would increase, and the sexual messages conveyed through lyrics would become quickly and unconsciously engrained in the brains of listeners. Thus, sexual lyrics absorbed by the brain could cause increased sexual behavior. While the research presented by Greitemeyer, and by Primack and his colleagues, contains valid evidence correlating song lyrics and behavior of listeners, more research is required to substantiate the claims that song lyrics cause human behavior or that lyrics are responsible for the peaking levels of young adult sexual activity.
In order to determine whether or not song lyrics have the ability to affect human behavior, we must first understand how song lyrics affect the human brain. As Norman Weinberger argued in his study titled “Music Research in Behavior and Brain,” “Sound waves enter the ear as complex pressure waves... reach[ing] the brain’s auditory cortex … The more a cell discharges to a sound, the more tuned it is to the eliciting frequency” (Weinberger 48). Based on this evidence one can conclude that the more frequently one listens to a particular song, and the more frequently the song is discharged to particular brain cells, the more likely that song lyrics will become engrained in the brain and could thereby result in negative behaviors.
Therefore, songs deemed especially popular may be especially dangerous. Primack et al defined a song’s popularity as the frequency with which songs are played in daily life. Two songs currently considered popular are “One More Night” by Maroon 5 and “Give Me Everything” by Pitbull. These lyrics, according to the evidence found in Primack et al’s study, could produce severe consequences on the actions of listeners. In “One More Night” Maroon 5 sings, “Yeah I stopped using my head/ Trying to tell you no, but my body keeps on telling you yes/ I'll only stay with you one more night/ And I'd be waking up, feeling satisfied but guilty as hell” (Maroon 5, 2012). These lyrics promote uninhibited sexual activity as well as a lack of self-control. Likewise, the lyrics to Pitbull’s “Give Me Everything” promote wild sexual escapades with little thought behind the consequences of such actions through lyrics as Pitbull sings, “I want all of you tonight so give me everything tonight/ Can't promise tomorrow, but I promise tonight” (Pitbull, 2011). If the evidence procured from the Greitemeyer and Primack studies stands to reason, these lyrics may ultimately become absorbed in listeners’ consciousness to incite rampant sexual activity.
An interesting counterargument to the idea that song lyrics influence behavior has been presented by S. Ali and Zehra Peynircioğlu from the Department of Psychology at American University. Ali and Peynircioğlu divided music into two groups, classifying music as containing either positive or negative emotion. Whereas Greitemeyer focused on a connection between the act of listening and behavior, Ali and Peynircioğlu focus on melody (Ali and Peynircioğlu 516). Ali and Peynircioğlu found that “in all cases [of their experiment], melodies of songs were more dominant than the lyrics in eliciting emotion” (Ali and Peynircioğlu 511). A study conducted by Jon Morris and Mary Anne Boone from the University of Florida similarly focused on the effect of melodies. They found that “The ‘messages’ of music are more affective than cognitive, for example calm or sedate music decreased subjects’ anxiety, and the structural elements of music such as major (happy) and minor (sad) modes influenced the listener’s feelings” (Morris and Boone 518). They even found that “in some cases, music appears to increase emotional response” (Morris and Boone 518). These messages are carried through the melodies of the songs listeners are exposed to. The findings discovered by Morris and Boone support the evidence first raised in Ali and Peynircioğlu’s studies, which leads to the conclusion that lyrics are not the only aspect of songs that influences listeners.
As seen from the evidence compiled in this essay, all aspects of music, song lyrics and melodies, can affect those who listen. These effects could even affect listener thought and behavior. Song lyrics and melodies may be more powerful than previously assumed and the messages contained within an individual song’s lyrics or melodies can have negative effects on a listener’s actions. However, the only way to know for certain is to continue the discussion of the effects of these aspects on human behavior. This continued discussion begs the question: because negative song lyrics and melodies can have a negative response on the listener, could song lyrics and melodies generated from music alter the moral compass of each listener?