Timeline: Politics and Music

Dec 31, 2018

Music has always been used as a tool in political campaigns.

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In 1800, President John Adams was up for reelection. His supporters wrote this song “Adams and Liberty” like a 19th century viral marketing campaign. The lyrics were written to a familiar tune “To Anacreon in Heaven.” It’s the same tune that was used a few years later to set the lyrics of “The Star Spangled Banner.”

In 1840, presidential hopeful William Henry Harrison’s campaign produced booklets, called songsters to be used at their political rallies. These were like hymnals using familiar melodies, new lyrics and even three-to-four-part harmony. John Philip Sousa wrote “The White Plume March” in support of the 1884 candidate James Blaine. Even Broadway legend Irving Berlin tweaked the song “I Like Ike” in support of General Dwight Eisenhower.

The media landscape today is quite different than it was in 1952 or 1800. Every election cycle we’re bombarded by advertising from candidates on television, radio and online. They have 30-to-60 seconds to make their case, whatever that might be. The producers of these advertisements know that the human brain reacts to music in just a few thousandths of a second. What better tool could you use to create an instant mood?

There's nothing wrong with using music as a political tool. However, since we respond so quickly and viscerally to musical stimulus it's important to pay attention to the message being presented, not just the sounds that accompany it.

Over 97% of political ads use music, that’s according to The Wesleyan Media Project which analyzed over 700 ads that aired during the 2012 election cycle. They categorized the music from each ad as either ominious, uplifting or sorrowful. It’s important that the music match the tone of the ad. A quick google search will show you that there are multiple outlets, companies and composers writing music specifically for these political ads. You can purchase the tracks royalty free at a competitive rate. They’re often catalogued with titles like “Staying the Course,” “We Can Do It Together,” “Forgotten Children” or “Can’t Be Trusted.” There are hundreds of options. It makes it easier for the producers to choose what music to accompany their message.

Every campaign, regardless of political party, uses music to reinforce or underscore their message; whether that music is background for an advertisement, a playlist for a political rally or a live performance given in support of the candidate. I recently stumbled across the website Trax on the Trail. This blog employed a team of political scientists, musicologists, sociologists, communication specialist and the like to explore the use of music and sound on the campaign trail in 2016 from every angle. On that website you’ll find essays about “Hillary Clinton’s Girl Power Anthems” and “The Reception of the musical Hamilton in the age of Donald Trump.” You’ll also find a feature called Trail Trax, a database of over 8000 musical entries catalogued by artist, candidate, genre and type. You can trace the various musical tactics used by the candidates over the course of a campaign.

There’s nothing wrong with using music as a political tool. However, since we respond so quickly and viscerally to musical stimulus it’s important to pay attention to the message being presented, not just the sounds that accompany it.

Timeline is an exploration into the development of Western music.