Does Your Political Bias Determine Your Music Use?

Adam Pleiman
November 19, 2020

alf-bird, half-human, the sirens of Greek mythology are maidens that lure sailors within earshot to their land, and inevitably— their death. That is, unless you are Odysseus and have cleverly tied yourself to a pole so you can hear the sweet song without the grim consequences. This got me thinking, if I could give my kids earplugs and tie myself to the basketball pole every time the ice cream truck came around, we would all consume far less ice cream. The core of this idea is that sound and music can spark an audience to action. As mythical sirens lure sailors, an ice cream truck attracts children. It boils down to one key concept: Know your audience.

In a recent sonic identity project for a cable news network, we conducted our usual competitive audit. This exercise helped us understand the landscape and find ways to differentiate our client’s sound from their direct competition. We analyzed the use of sound and music across major US broadcast, cable news, and smaller networks. We looked to define how each network presented themselves through sound FX (SFX) or music, as well as each individual program within the network. We sought to uncover any correlation between the network’s sonic identity and their respective programs.

Our client was an unbiased, opinion-free network, so weighing our analysis against other networks with a perceived low bias and high reliability — was a high priority. In doing this, we spotted a few unexpected, and compelling, trends.

Unsurprisingly, networks that had perceived high reliability and lower political bias used mostly verbose, orchestral themes with varying levels of drama. Once you start heading into higher bias networks, this changes — and things start to get interesting. Once we start heading left toward CNN, MSNBC, Vox, and Vice, the orchestral elements start to melt away and electronic-based, beat-forward music begins to emerge. On these higher-bias networks, the occurrences of contemporary EDM, Pop, Hip-Hop (as well as more independent styles of music) are much higher than lower perceived bias networks. If we went right, into Fox News/Newsmax territory we found a higher use of Rock and Country music.

What does this mean? It’s safe to say that audience size and expectation play a role in how we express our brand. Larger, less-biased broadcast networks use grandiose orchestral music ( à la John Williams) to express the credibility of their brand because their audience is massive and expects to hear reporting that weighs all sides equally. This means that the music used must be approachable by the largest sample of the population and not play into trends that could be associated with specific demographics. The smaller, more bias-driven networks have the luxury of understanding that their audience is a division of the larger sample and are able to cater their sound more directly to their viewer’s expectation. 

Building an understanding of your audience’s expectation remains at the center of creating an experience that resonates with them. When you deliver against this expectation time and time again, that connection gets stronger along with their loyalty.

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