Music can be many things to many people: a saviour in times of trouble; a pick-me-up in times of mild irritation; a bonding experience; a catharsis; a personal victory theme. Yet for all the emotional ends to which we put it, sometimes a song can have a purely practical application that you never expected. Here are some of the strangest uses for music we've found.
1. Saving lives
Back in the mid-90s, long before Despacito was even a glimmer in Luis Fonsi's eye, pop had another great Latin crush: the Macarena. Muscle memory may have you doing the moves just thinking about it, but nostalgia is far from the only function of Los Del Rio's world-conquering dance hit. The Macarena could, in fact, save your life. Researchers at the University of Barcelona recently discovered that humming the 1996 UK No.2 hit could help first aiders to keep to the correct rate of chest compressions while performing CPR.
"The Macarena is the most famous song in Spain, and probably one of the most well known in the world,” said Professor Enrique Carrero Cardenal, "and the beat of the chorus of the song is 103bpm, a correct rhythm for performing the rate of compressions.” People imagining the Macarena did significantly better at keeping the correct rhythm than those doing CPR in silence (though the best effect was achieved with a smartphone metronome app). For those without an app and also without a taste for Spanish dance pop, other 103bpm alternatives include Your Body by Christina Aguilera, Rock DJ by Robbie Williams or Crazy by Seal.
2. Keeping planes aloft
Any DJ knows how to clear a dancefloor, but it takes a special talent to clear a runway. Gloucestershire Airport found their tarmac continually plagued by birds, which can cause a serious risk during takeoff and landing. Traditional bird-scaring methods proved useless, so the airport resorted to novel tactics including fireworks and staff waving bin-bags around their heads to imitate birds of prey.
Perhaps not surprisingly, that didn't work either, and so a van with a loudspeaker on top was enlisted to blast out bird distress calls. Soon after - as airport head of operations Darren Lewington told the Gloucestershire Echo - they found an even better deterrent: Nutbush nemesis Tina Turner: “When our bird distress noises weren't working properly, they turned the tape player on, and that day it was Tina Turner who scared the birds away.”
Which leads us to wonder... having been scared river-deep, mountain-high, did the birds find themselves asking What’s Dove Got to Do With It? Or maybe they were singing I Don’t Wanna Flight?
3. Arousing pandas
Pandas: adorable, but notoriously bad at the whole natural selection thing. Unless, of course, they’re actually really good at it and they’ve just evolved to be so unbearably cute that we can’t help but cater to their every whim. Even if that's the case, though, zoos around the world have found it tricky to get the vulnerable (but no longer endangered since 2016) mammals to reproduce, with desperate keepers resorting to extra bamboo, exercise, mood lighting and even “panda porn” (showing the animals videos of other pandas mating).
In 2013, the Huffington Post reported that staff at Edinburgh Zoo were trying to capitalise on female panda Tian Tian’s annual two days of fertility by switching male panda Yang Guang’s listening from classical to smooth radio, with Marvin Gaye’s Let’s Get It On being a special request made by his handlers. A spokeswoman told the Daily Mirror that Marvin’s soulful sound did appear to soothe Yang Guang, whose name means “Sunshine”. Sadly, despite the enduring seductive power of Marvin, Tian Tian and Yang Guang are yet to reproduce.
4. Carrying secret messages
In 2010, Colombia’s Farc guerrilla group were holding hostages in their jungle bases. Desperate to get word through to his captured men that help was on the way in the form of commando raids, Colonel Jose Espejo tasked ad executive Juan Carlos Ortiz (who had been driven out of the country by Farc) with crafting a message sure to get through to the soldiers but remain unnoticed by their captors.
As reported by The Verge, Ortiz’s team hit on the idea of hiding a Morse code message in a hit song, Mejores Dias (Better Days), performed by session musicians Natalia Guiterrez Y Angelo. The lyrics relate to the hostages’ situation: "In the middle of the night / Thinking about what I love the most / Although I'm tied up and alone I feel as if I'm by your side / Listen to this message brother”. After that last line, a subtle Morse message camouflaged among the other instruments beeps out "19 people rescued. You’re next. Don’t lose hope." The song was added to state radio playlists, and the message got through, directly leading to the rescue of some of the hostages. The last were released in 2012, and in 2016 Farc signed a peace deal with the government, ending 52 years of war.
Songs have also been used to identify numbers stations – stations set up specifically to broadcast coded messages to intelligence agents operating in foreign countries. One of the most famous British numbers stations, the Lincolnshire Poacher, was named for the short bursts of an English folk song transmitted between the number sequences to identify the station. Other stations have used the same identifying tactic, including a station believed to be Egyptian that could be recognised by Jean Michel Jarre's Magnetic Fields Part 1.
5. Scaring off pirates
It’s not just birds that are easily spooked by pop: it seems pirates can be scared off by a blast of Britney Spears. The British navy has ships constantly in patrol off the east coast of Africa to keep pirate crews at bay and protect shipping from kidnap and ransom attempts. Some of the warships resort to unconventional weapons – turns out some people take Britney’s messages of personal liberation very seriously indeed.
"These guys can't stand western culture or music, making Britney's hits perfect," officer Rachel Owens told Metro in 2013. "As soon as the pirates get a blast of Britney, they move on as quickly as they can." Oops!... I Did It Again and ...Baby One More Time proved the most effective Britney numbers, and were so effective that the warships rarely needed to fire their guns. Steven Jones, of the Security Association for the Maritime Industry, rather unkindly added, "I'd imagine using Justin Bieber would be against the Geneva Convention."
6. Ideological warfare
Relations between the two Koreas have thawed this year in the wake of the Pyeongchang Winter Olympics, and, in April, South Korea called a halt to several years of blasting K-pop - the country’s super-successful musical export, currently being spearheaded by BTS - across the demilitarised zone at North Korea.
The point of the beat bombardment – which included music by acts such as Girls' Generation, IU and Bigbang – was not just to annoy the North Korean soldiers, but to break through the Pyongyang regime’s media and cultural stranglehold with messages of individual freedom. In 2010, the South respond to the North’s sinking of a warship with a broadcast of the song HUH (Hit Your Heart) by girl group 4minute: "I do what I want and I do it my way". By 2015, the North had had enough, telling Seoul to turn the speakers off or face war, and bullets were exchanged across the border. In April this year, the South finally pulled the plug on the pop, ahead of a summit between Kim Jong-un and South Korean president Moon Jae-in, in order to “ease military tensions and create a peaceful mood for the meeting".
7. Soothing stressed dogs and plants (but not termites)
Last year, a study in the scientific journal Physiology & Behavior found that playing different genres of music to dogs kept in shelters had markedly different effects on their stress levels. Motown, pop and classical reduced the dogs’ anxiety a little, but the best genres for pacifying pooches turned out to be soft rock and reggae. In particular, Bob Marley proved to have been a dog whisperer, among his many other talents.
It’s also long been known that the right kind of music can stimulate plant growth, with classical being particularly effective. More aggressive genres such as rock, meanwhile, have been shown to stimulate the chomping activity of termites – perhaps those living in wooden houses should beware heavy riffs.
8. As a signal for revolution (or a sign of disaster)
The Eurovision song contest of 1974 is mainly remembered as the year that ABBA won with Waterloo, but it's also the start of another great story. Portugal’s entry, E Depois Do Adeus ("And After, the Farewell") by Paulo de Carvalho, didn’t exactly set the continent alight, sharing last place with Germany, Switzerland and Norway. But just two weeks after the contest, it took its own place in history. Portugal had been under the far-right, colonial Estada Novo dictatorship since 1933. On 22 April 1975, the radio station Emissores Associados de Lisboa played E Depois Do Adeus at 11.50pm – a sign for military rebels to begin the coup that would become the Carnation Revolution, the start of Portugal’s transition to democracy.
A year later, in Vietnam, Bing Crosby’s White Christmas was played on armed forces Radio at 3am as a signal for US military to begin the final evacuation of Saigon.
As well as revolution and evacuation, certain songs can signal that a country has gone into crisis mode. In the UK, all radio stations have procedures and playlists to follow in the event of national catastrophe. When the blue "obit lights" start flashing, all stations should have a pre-prepared playlist of soothing, inoffensive music. “If you ever hear Haunted Dancehall (Nursery Remix) by Sabres of Paradise on daytime Radio 1, turn the TV on," Chris Price of BBC Radio told the Huffington Post in 2011. "Something terrible has just happened." Recounting the difficulty of finding appropriate music to play in the hours immediately following the news of 9/11, he stressed the importance of preparation for the worst: "Having a good hour's worth of harmless, lyric-free tunes to hand buys you time while you work out what to do next."
9. As a wake up call, on-planet or off
One of the most common alternative uses for pop songs is to drag us more gently from the arms of slumber than the usual red-alert sound of most alarm clocks. There’s a wrong and a right way to do this. Nobody wants to be jerked away by death metal or gabber, but anything too mellow is likely to have you hitting the snooze button and falling right back asleep.
Thankfully, psychology PhD candidate David M Greenberg teamed up with Spotify to produce a playlist of the ultimate wake-up songs. The key, apparently, is a slow build, a strong beat, and an uplifting message. The songs included on the playlist included Coldplay’s Viva La Vida or Death and All His Friends, Walking on Sunshine by Katrina and the Waves and, rather more obviously, Wake Up by Arcade Fire and Lovely Day by Bill Withers.
Keeping your body clock timely is even harder in space, and for many years, astronauts on Nasa’s shuttle programmes and the International Space Station have been woken by carefully chosen music. "You don't want to play a dirge or something uninspiring,'" Chris Hadfield, chief mission control CAPCOM (capsule communicator) at the Lyndon B Johnson Space Center in Houston, Texas, told Details magazine in 2000. "You want to get them going in the morning."
The first wake-up song played by Nasa was Jack Jones’s Hello Dolly in 1965. Since then, David Bowie’s Space Oddity and Elton John’s Rocket Man have been popular choices, as has Dean Martin’s Going Back to Houston. Other up-and-at-em-in-zero-gravity tracks have included R.E.M.’s Shiny Happy People, the Star Wars and Rocky themes, Adam Clayton and Larry Mullen of U2’s take on the Mission: Impossible theme, the Thompson Twins’ Doctor! Doctor! and, brilliantly, Heartbreak Hotel as covered by Houston-based all-astronaut rock 'n' roll quartet Max-Q.
10. Timing operations
We all know from hospital dramas that the best surgeons like to maintain their focus with a spot of classical music while wielding the scalpel. In a 2010 film for BBC News, real-life doctors revealed how they make their music choices. Soothing music is good, more aggressive or melancholic sounds are bad, as you might expect, but, consultant anaesthetist Dr Sanjay Gulati also revealed, the playlist is your friend: "the shuffle function on the iPod is a dangerous one - all sorts of things can creep up". Wise words: no one’s going to appreciate PP Arnold’s The First Cut Is the Deepest as they drift off.
Consultant urologist Ben Challacombe, meanwhile, revealed that music can play a more direct, practical role in surgeries like a robot-assisted prostatectomy, during which he favours a playlist of five songs all about five minutes in length to keep him to schedule: “If I take my head away from the robot, it stops working, therefore I can use audio cues for timing rather than having to look up towards the clock”. Challacombe’s favoured tracks included Catatonia and Queen, but, he concluded, "Another One Bites the Dust wouldn’t be a very sensible idea. And of course, no one would ever allow me to play Sade’s Smooth Operator.”