Going Backwards

I’ve attended lectures by skeptics at a few conferences by now; one of the more popular presentations involves mentioning the funny side involved in the phenomenon of ‘backmasking’.

Certainly Weird Al finds it funny too, when he ‘remembers Larry’, although he deliberately hides those messages. It’s when our mind makes meaning of genuinely garbled reversed songs – then it becomes of interest to science, skeptics and the credulous.

I personally think the topic of backmasking could presented a little better by such speakers. It involves taking a different approach to the topic of ‘the way we mishear messages in songs and mistakenly assume weird things about them’.

Probably the easiest to find online (inspired by Dr Richard Wiseman’s presentation at TAM3) is the ‘Stairway To Heaven’ reversal, demonstrated by Dr Michael Shermer on the TED site. It’s a useful concept to discuss with students; the technique in which a sound or message is played backwards from a track that is meant to be played forwards. It reflects how our senses can be fooled, how we are all subject to cognitive biases.

Sometimes they’re intentional (great comedy selection here from backmaskonline.com) and sometimes they prompt bizarre accusations of the satanic sort (Religious Tolerance.org gives some excellent examples of these myths, including some religious rants on the issue – “if we are weak in our convictions our moral values can be changed subliminally by suggestion in rock music, TV, radio, newspapers, magazines, posters, billboards, etc.”).

Research into what makes things ‘subliminal‘ is naturally ongoing; the notion of manipulating our senses by design is just too alluring to ignore, especially in advertising. I did notice this recent investigation on national flags helping to moderate political attitudes, but backwards messages don’t influence behaviour when featured in rock music nor are they consciously or unconsciously understood.

If there was a top ten of backmasked songs, then naturally “Stairway to Heaven” by Led Zeppelin would be the first – it’s been used in all three presentations I’ve seen. Yet I don’t like using it in my classes.

I’ve found that using that particular example poses some problems with my students, who sometimes consider it to be confirming the phenomenon of ‘hidden messages’ or ‘satanic lyrics’ rather than paying attention to the garble that’s produced before the ‘alternative’ backwards lyrics are shown. After all, that’s the argument made by people who claim that there are messages within ‘evil rock music’.

Therefore I suggest using this example of a hymn being misheard and subtitled instead, which is available on YouTube and produced by the comedian Adam Buxton (www.adambuxton.com). I find it has been more successful in getting the message across about how we mentally fill in the blanks to create meaning. I wrote to him personally and said that I was hoping to use it in my classes and he was really enthusiastic and appreciative! Do check out the rest of his work online.

The “Original” lyrics of the song are as follows – I usually provide students with a copy beforehand and encourage them to look at them whilst listening to the song and then looking up at the subtitles to compare.

Blessed city, heavenly Salem,
vision dear of peace and love,
who of living stones art builded
in the height of heaven above,
and, with angel hosts encircled,
as a bride dost earthward move;

from celestial realms descending,
bridal glory round thee shed,
meet for him whose love espoused thee,
to thy Lord shalt thou be led;
all thy streets and all thy bulwarks
of pure gold are fashioned.

More recently I was sent the following subtitled song – the song is in Hindi but substitutes English words for what was is misheard. “Minor Bun Benny Lava”! Of course, many people have probably done this with songs in error (I still think that “Our Lips are Sealed” is about forbidden love for an aquatic mammal – “Alex the Seal“).


Vokey, J.R. (2002). Subliminal messages. In J.R. Vokey & S.W Allen (Eds.), Psychological sketches (6th ed., pp.223-246). Lethbridge, Alberta, Canada: Psyence Ink.

Vokey, J.R & Read, J.D. (1985). Subliminal messages: Between the devil and the media. American Psychologist, 40, 1231-1239.

Vyse, S.A. (2000). Believing in magic: The psychology of superstition (2nd ed.) New York: Oxford University Press.

Winer, G. A., Cottrell, J. E., Gregg, V., Fournier, J. S., & Bica, L. A. (2002). Fundamentally misunderstanding visual perception: Adults’ beliefs in visual emissions. American Psychologist, 57, 417-424.

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Filed under Cool stuff, Education, Paranormal, Skepticism, You Tube

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