Backmasking (also incorrectly known as backward masking) is an audio technique in which sounds are recorded backwards onto a track that is meant to be played forwards. Backmasking is a deliberate process, whereas a backward message may be unintentional. Backmasking has been a source of much controversy, especially related to supposed subliminal messages in rock music.
The belief in the existence and efficacy of backward satanic messages probably derives from allegations made at witch trials of the mocking of Christianity by saying prayers backward, at the witch's Sabbath.
Backmasking first became famous with the Beatles. It first appeared in the late 1960s as a result of an accidental tape mixing error by John Lennon in the Beatles' song 'Rain'. He liked it and left it in. Just before the band's break-up in 1970, DJ Russell Gibb initiated the infamous 'Paul Is Dead' urban legend (a rumour that Beatle Paul McCartney had died) by playing certain Beatles records backwards to reveal hidden messages. One album in particular, The Beatles (often called The White Album) was said to contain backwards messages. Intentional gibberish at the end of 'I'm So Tired' was supposedly 'Paul is dead, man, miss him, miss him...' Likewise, the repeated words 'Number nine, number nine, number nine...' in 'Revolution 9' were supposedly 'turn me on, dead man, turn me on, dead man...' backwards.
Probably the most well-known example of alleged backmasking is found in rock group Led Zeppelin's 1971 song 'Stairway to Heaven'. If a portion of the song is played backwards, then supposedly words beginning with 'Here's to my sweet Satan' can be heard. But Swan Song Records issued the statement: 'Our turntables only play in one direction—forwards'. And Led Zeppelin vocalist Robert Plant denied the accusations in an interview:
|‘||To me it's very sad, because 'Stairway to Heaven' was written with every best intention, and as far as reversing tapes and putting messages on the end, that's not my idea of making music.||’|
British heavy metal band Judas Priest was sued over a 1985 suicide pact made by two Nevada schoolboys. One of the two boys survived, and the lawsuit by their families claimed that a 1978 Judas Priest album contained hidden messages. The words 'Do it' were allegedly audible when the record was played backwards, and the letters S U I (supposedly for 'suicide') are in the sleeve artwork. The case was dismissed after evidence was introduced that the boys had grown up in 'violent and depressed' surroundings, and after the band demonstrated that other, nonsensical, backwards messages could be found if one exercised enough imagination. Judge Jerry Carr Whitehead ruled in favour of the band, saying: 'The scientific research presented does not establish that subliminal stimuli, even if perceived, may precipitate conduct of this magnitude.' Judas Priest members also commented that if they wanted to insert subliminal commands in their music, killing their fans would be counterproductive, and they would prefer to insert the command 'Buy more of our records'.
In 1981, Styx was accused of putting the backwards message 'Move Satan move in our voices' on the song 'Snowblind'. This prompted the band to compose the rock opera 'Kilroy Was Here', about a future where rock and roll is outlawed by moralists.
In some films, the voice of a Satanic character is made by reversing and reducing the speed of any voice. Thus one might suppose that either this technique started from backward messages, or that a voice played in slow motion has a Satanic tone in American culture.
Since most people do not listen to their music backward, the belief in such messages seems to be predicated upon one or two false notions. Either 1) the brain can be influenced subliminally by garbled words whose meaning is directly grasped by the subconscious or 2) the conscious mind translates clear speech into reverse speech where the 'true' meaning is understood by the subconscious mind. In either case, the subconscious mind allegedly then directs the conscious mind to believe bad things or do bad deeds. There is no evidence that such mechanisms exist.
It is worth noting that, given a randomly generated series of syllables spoken in a variety of accents, a two-syllable pair that can be liberally interpreted as 'Satan' is very easy to generate. Therefore, any individual with a small amount of creative interpretation skills could play virtually any song with vocals backwards and uncover 'Satanic messages'. This fact has been exploited by defense attorneys in 'backwards messaging' court cases, who often disprove allegations by 'uncovering Satanic messages' in songs by Christian artists, most famously Amy Grant.
The journal Science published an article in 1981 by Remez, Rubin, Pisoni, and Carrell called 'Speech Perception Without Traditional Speech Cues'. By playing what they called a 'three-tone sinusoidal replica', or a complicated sine wave sound, they found that people were able to perceive speech, when in fact there were no traditional speech sounds present in the signal.
In 1985, university psychologists John R. Vokey and J. Don Read conducted a study using Psalm 23 from the Bible, Queen's 'Another One Bites the Dust', and various other sound passages made up for the experiment. Of the 300 people tested, less than 10% claimed they could hear any messages. When a particular phrase was cited beforehand and the subjects prompted to listen for it, 90% were able to hear it, even when the phrase was not intentionally recorded. Vokey and Read concluded that if backmasking did indeed exist, it was ineffective. Their volunteers had trouble even noticing the backmasked phrase when the tape was played forward, were unable to judge the type of message (whether it was Christian, Satanic, or commercial) it contained, and were not led to behave in any certain way as a result of being 'exposed' to the backmasked phrase. Due to this research, Vokey and Read were later called upon as expert witnesses in the above-mentioned trial involving the band Judas Priest. Researcher and science columnist Michael Shermer calls the process 'priming' where the brain is told to 'see' or 'hear' something which increases the likelihood that the percepts will obey the concepts.
If they were subliminal messages played forward, then scientists agree that the brain could and would process the information. But scientists are also convinced that the brain cannot decipher backwards information unless it is specifically engaged for that purpose. Therefore, even if backmasking did exist, it would be useless. Therefore, overwhelming evidence supports the conclusion that such messages do not exist, and if they did they would be useless, and even if they weren't they are almost assuredly accidents aided by the power of suggestion. But still, this rumour will not die. A listener will comment, 'I heard the message, and it's really there.' This is faulty reasoning. If the message is a phonetic accident, then the message is not really 'there', instead, a series of sounds that are similar to the phrase are all that are embedded in the lyrics. If the message is really there, then it cannot be an accident, for a phonetic reversal of the lyrics does not produce the correct vowel and consonant sounds for the phrase in question. So unless one believes that the message is there on purpose (despite the overwhelming evidence to the contrary), one must conclude that the message is not 'there', purposefully or accidentally.
Producer and music engineer Andy Johns, has said that not only is subliminal 'backmasking' a myth, but that there was no such nonsense while he was present. Certainly, since the advent of the 'backmasking' scandal, groups such as Electric Light Orchestra and Pink Floyd have used the technique to poke fun at people who would actually play records backwards. Most of the bands named in such accusations tend to ignore the outcry, for as Johns commented in Rolling Stone magazine, there's absolutely no arguing someone out of something they really want to believe. But the idea of backmasking is uniformly considered ludicrous by musicians and producers alike, and they're the ones that would be responsible for the process.
- '1979 Swan Song Press Release' in Andy Fyfe (2003) When the Levee Breaks: The Making of Led Zeppelin IV. Chicago: Chicago Review Press. pp. 146, ISBN 9781556525087
- Robert Plant interview with J.D. Considine, 'Life in a Lighter Zeppelin', Musician, December 1983, pp. 69 
- 'Speech perception without traditional speech cues' in Science 1981 May 22; 212(4497):947-9
- The Vokey & Read experiments
- Telephone to the Dead. michaelshermer.com. Retrieved on 2010-03-05.
- 'The music is reversible but Time is not. Turn back, turn back, turn back.' - Electric Light Orchestra, 'Face the Music' at the start of the song 'Fire on High'.
- 'Congratulations. You have just discovered the secret message. Please send your answer to old pink, care of the funny farm.' - Pink Floyd, 'Empty Spaces', at the end of 'Good-bye Blue Sky'.