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The Music Behind Political Ads


Midterm elections are a month away and it’s time to ready ourselves for a steady stream of television and radio ads by politicians and special interest groups. Whatever your political stripe, we can all agree that political ads, especially negatives ones, can be irritating. To make matters worse, this year’s political ads are already more negative than those that aired in 2012 and 2010.

How will you survive this onslaught of ads?

Next time try putting your music knowledge to the test.

If you closed your eyes, how long would it take you to realize that the campaign was negative? Probably not long. The music would likely be slow, filled with low and repetitive notes. Sometimes the music is overpowered by snares drums, suggesting a militaristic tone. Other times, the music can be overly synthesized, a subliminal message of a dystopian future.

Matthew Nicholl, a professor at Boston’s Berklee College of Music, knows about these tactics and power of music to persuade people. He composed music for several political campaigns including the presidential aspirations of Ronald Reagan, George H.W. Bush and Bob Dole and says that despite the fact that music is considered background music, its role is vitally important.

“And you can tell no matter who shows up on screen … we need an immediate cue that this is the bad guy, this is the Terminator,” Nicholl told radio station WBUR. “We see him on the screen, the music says, ‘Wait, this is not warm and fuzzy, this is stuff to worry about.’ ”

Californians, however, can take comfort knowing that their state isn’t filled with the most negative ads. That dubious honor goes to Wisconsin. We’ve included a political ad from that state’s hotly contested gubernatorial race. What do you think of the music?

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