Backmasking, or backward masking, is an audio technique in which a voice message or series of sounds is recorded backward onto an audio track intended to be played forward. Backmasking is a conscious process done by an individual with the intention of reversing pieces of the audio. Backmasking is different from phonetic reversal, in which a reversed word happens to sound like another word.
While backmasking entered its experimental phase in the 1950s, the technique was popularized on the Beatles’ 1966 album Revolver, which included backward instrumentation. Since that time, many other artists have utilized backmasking for aesthetic, comedic, or satiric effects. “Clean” radio edits often employ backmasking to censor profanity or offensive phrases in explicit songs. Playing audio tracks backward was a relatively simple matter in the era of vinyl LPs and magnetic audio tape. Since the introduction of CDs, the ability to play audio tracks backward has become difficult without the use of special equipment or software, and interest in discovering hidden messages in songs has declined.
Backmasking has been a controversial issue among Christians, especially in the 1970s and 1980s, when various Christian groups claimed that satanic messages were being inserted in secular music via backmasking. Most musicians deny the use of backmasking to promote Satanism. However, the fact is that backmasking has been used by some bands to deliberately insert messages into their music. Whether or not those messages pose a threat to listeners is up for debate.
Opponents of backmasking allege that hidden messages have a subliminal effect on the listener as the subconscious attempts to decipher the backward sounds. There are two problems with this argument. First, subliminal messages only succeed if the recipient is already considering or planning to do what is being suggested. Further, studies have shown that auditory subliminal messages have little to no effect on the listener.
Second, the human brain is predisposed to search for patterns, a psychological phenomenon called pareidolia. Pareidolia is the perception of a familiar pattern, such as language, where no pattern actually exists. We have all experienced this phenomenon, whether it is finding an animal in the clouds, seeing a man in the moon, or hearing a hidden message in a song played backward or at a higher or lower speed than normal. When an audio track is played forward or backward, the listener’s mind will try to make sense of what is being heard. Thus, a person could perceive words that were not intentionally inserted.
Some claims of backmasking in songs, where the artist has denied the use of backmasking, could be a simple case of pareidolia; if a person is looking for certain words in the reverse audio of a song, he will probably find them. In other cases backmasking has definitely been used, and the musicians have admitted it. Ultimately, a Christian’s life will not be affected by backmasking in songs unless he or she searches for it and allows the hidden message to fester in the mind.
While backmasking need not be a major worry, we should still be aware of what kinds of music we allow to occupy our minds. The Bible teaches that whatever the mind dwells upon will sooner or later come out in a person’s words and actions (Philippians 4:8; Colossians 3:2, 5). Second Corinthians 10:5 says we should “take captive every thought and make it obedient to Christ.” More important than finding out if a song has backmasking is considering the lyrics of songs and how the music affects us personally. If anything leads us down a path that does not glorify God, that thing should be avoided.