Even watching from my living room in Warrensburg MO, I could feel the electricity and the energy in the room. Flashing lights, yelling crowds, waving hands, American flags flying, smiles and cheers all around. President Obama and his family walking out on the blue-floored stage. He had just won the 2012 Presidential election and was all smiles, getting ready to deliver his victory speech. But he didn't walk out to cheers alone. He and his family walked out as Stevie Wonder's "Signed, Sealed, Delivered" blared through the speakers.
Then there was Mitt Romney's concession speech. There was still electricity in the room. There were cheers, smiles, waving flags, flashing lights, and yelling crowds. But no music. No crowd-energizing tunes blaring through the speakers as Governor Romney thanked the crowd and approached the podium.
This subtle difference had a tremendous impact. Of course there's a big difference in emotions and energy when giving a victory speech versus a concession speech. But the choice to use music or not—and which song to play—that was no accident.
The Obama team used music to help support and enhance the group's energy and excitement. It's not a new idea. From an anthropological standpoint, music has been used by many cultures for thousands of years as a way to energize groups of people. It acts as sort of a group glue to keep everyone on the same, enhanced emotional plane. In his seminal book The Anthropology of Music, Merriam (1964) talks about music's role in functioning as an emotional release for a large group of people. He gives the example of Flathead Indians using music and dance "as an expression of emotional release from the essentially hostile culture which surrounds the Flathead and through stressing cultural values it gives an opportunity in a sanctioned situation to release the hostility the Indians feel" (pg. 222). In other words, they used group singing and dancing as a way not only to support their cultural values, but also to release hostility-related anger.
Music has a role not only in expressing emotions, but also in supporting social bonding. There is emerging neurobiological evidence to support this. It has been suggested that music releases oxytocin, a "feel good" chemical implicated in peer group bonding and reduces testosterone levels, leading to less aggression (Huron, 2003). Releasing oxytocin while reducing testosterone levels supports greater group cohesion and social bonding.
Finally, it's not an accident that the Obama team chose a song titled "Signed, Sealed, and Delivered" for the victory speech. It wouldn't surprise me if, one, Stevie Wonder is a musical favorite of the Obamas. Second, the title and lyrics send a message to the American people. One message is that they followed through on their promise to get re-elected and continue moving forward (the victory is "signed, sealed, and delivered"). A second message can be gleaned from the chorus:
Here I am baby / Signed, sealed delivered, I'm yours / (You got my future in your hands)
Through his musical choice, President Obama may be letting us know that he is America's now for the next 4 years. He is ours, signed, sealed, and delivered.
Huron, D. (2003). Is music an evolutionary adaptation? In I. Peretz & R. Zatorre (Eds.) The Cognitive Neuroscience of Music (pp. 57-75). Oxford: Oxford University Press.
Merriam, A. P. (1964). The Anthropology of Music. Chicago: Northwestern University Press.
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