Minor or Major? The Subtle Influence of Music in Maine's Political Campaigns

Oct 24, 2014

PORTLAND, Maine - You've probably noticed there's an election fast approaching. We've seen debates, speeches, rallies, and fundraisers - and, of course, a plethora of political advertisements on TV. But have you noticed the music behind it all? From fiery convention speeches to the latest attack ad, a good piece of music helps to sell the message.  

Paul Christiansen is a musicologist at the University of Southern Maine who's spent hours investigating the role of music in politics - from television ads to convention soundtracks.

Audio from ad: "Seen this ad from Michaud's people? It's not true. The media know Gov. LePage supports Social Security."
 
"It's got this b-flat minor chord," Christiansen says, "and it's got a b-flat repeating up above." Christiansen says one of the most effective uses of music this season is in this 30-second spot known as the "Truth" ad. It spends the first 20 seconds villifying Democratic opponent Mike Michaud with a dark, minor key, and a repeating b-flat that's reminiscent of a Morse code mayday.

And then Gov. Paul LePage shows up on screen.

Audio from ad: "Gov. LePage helped create over 20,000 private-sector jobs, protecting seniors, creating jobs. Our governor, Paul LePage."
 
"The b-flat minor suddenly becomes B-flat major," Christiansen says. "This trope of going from minor into major is a trope that goes back to Beethoven's Fifth Symphony. It's a sort of triumph over adversity."

The musical message is clear.  Whether you're aware of it or not, Christiansen says the musical cues in political material are effective; they're designed to make people feel something, without necessarily knowing why.

"To be quite frank, it's an attempt to manipulate viewers for emotional reasons one way or the other," he says, "whether it's trying to introduce some sadness or sort of a maudlin feeling, or sort of joyful positive music for the candidate that they're advocating for."

Paul Christiansen demonstrating the dark chords heard in the LePage "Truth" ad.
Credit Jennifer Mitchell

And nowhere is this more obvious than at a campaign rally. (audio from song) This is the song that followed Sen. Susan Collins off the podium at this year's GOP Convention. (rap music) The music came as something of a surprise to Colby College government professor Dan Shea, who says he was expecting something that would underscore Collins' image of stability, hard work, and reliability.

"It could be that they're trying to attract young voters to the campaign," Shea says. "Maybe they're doing well with older voters and this is a group they're after."

So what are campaign managers actually thinking when they cue up a song? "You want to look for themes that have to do with victory, and fighting the good fight and winning and being patriotic," says Bob Mentzinger, who was a consultant and spokesperson for Democratic candidate Cynthia Dill in her 2012 run for U.S. Senate, a race she ultimately lost to independent Angus King.

"You kind of know your audience a little bit, so you try to cater to them," Mentzinger says. "In Cynthia's case, she picked out a great song by Des'ree, 'You Gotta Be.' You know, it has a strong woman's voice to it, and I think she was very interested in reaching that demographic."

And Paul Christiansen at USM says if you want to go straight to the heart of a demographic, doing it with music might be the most expedient way.

Audio clip: "My name is Bruce Poliquin. I'm running for Congress." (Playing in the background, Tom Petty, "I Won't Back Down.")

Paul Christiansen: "For Republicans, it's been a trope for quite a while now that we're not going to back down to the liberals, and we're not going to back down to the Democrats. We're going to stick to our principles."

Audio from Senate candidate Shenna Bellows' campaign, with Fleetwood Mac, "Don't Stop Thinking About Tomorrow."

Paul Christiansen: " 'Don't Stop Thinking About Tomorrow' - it's like, 'Hey, we're looking into the future.' And I think for Shenna Bellows it makes sense, because Susan Collins ran in 1996 and she promised she would only serve two terms and she's gone back on that. I think she's saying, 'Hey, you know, let's have someone new in there.'"

Audio from Mike Michaud campaign with John Cougar Mellencamp, "Small Town."

Paul Christiansen: "Mike Michaud using the 'Small Town' song by John Cougar, basically implied is that: 'I worked in the mill. I get you people. I understand. I'm with you. I'm one of you.' "

But does any of this really matter? Paul Christiansen at USM says yes - he hypothesizes that music can affect people in ways they don't even understand. Dan Shea at Colby College says maybe. No election has ever been won or lost on music alone, but he says, those inspiring campaign songs probably energized a few people to go out and knock on doors.  And that little bit of extra effort might pay off big for someone on Nov. 4.