Are there subliminal messages in music and do they influence us?

In reference to many Beatles songs that say "Paul is dead" when played backwards

There have always been claims that music, particularly rock music, contains subliminal messages influencing the behavior of unknowing listeners. Of course there are messages in song lyrics when played in the intended forward form, such as Michael Jackson's " Black or White" which try's to close the gap between racial differences and Soul Asylum's "Runaway train" shedding light on the sad and overlooked topic of missing children, but what about messages encoded in the lyrics backwards. Are there messages or words embedded in songs that speak to us on an unconscious level? According to some, there are. The term "backmasking" was given to describe this phenomenon and since it was first discovered, there has been much controversy over whether or not it really exists or if it actually has any sway over our behavior (Vokey & Read, 1985).

The following studies have been conducted by John R Vokey and J. Don Read from the University of Lethbridge to test whether or not words can be perceived consciously when heard in reverse and if they affect our behavior.

Test of comprehension in backwards lyrics or phases
To test if people could comprehend what they were hearing in backwards music, an experiment involving the famous poem Jabberwocky by Lewis Carroll was used. It has been reported that when played backwards, this poem is riddled with meaningful words.
The experimenters recorded the poem backwards and identified 12 different areas that could be considered meaningful sequences. They then conducted a test on two different groups of people where 6 of the 12 phrases were shared with group one none of the 12 phrases were shared with group two. After listening to the poem both groups were asked if they could hear any meaningful phrases.

The findings:

83.1% of group one participants having been given 6 of the 12 phrases before listening to the poem reported that they could hear the phrases that they were asked to listen for.

Group two participants were unable to identify any meaningful phrases in the reversed poem after listening to it 4 times. The experimenters then shared the same 6 phrases with these participants and asked them to listen to the poem a fifth time.
81.5% of the people reported being able to hear the phrases they were asked to listen for but only after they were given the phrases.

This evidence suggests that messages in the lyrics can only be heard when told to look for them and that people put their own meaning into what they hear (Vokey & Read, 1985).

The following is a sound clip of the Jabberwocky played forward and then played backwards. See if you can hear any meaningful phrases.

Jabberwocky forwards
Turn up the volume to hear clearly Jabberwocky backwards

Two of the phases found in the backward recording were "Saw a girl with a weasel in her mouth" and "I saw Satan"

Here are two songs that have been recorded backwards supposedly containing subliminal messages. Listen to the songs with your eyes closed first as they do have writing to tell you what your hearing. See if you can hear the words without reading the suggested lyrics and then listen to them again while reading along. Britney Spears "Hit me baby, one more time" Led Zeppelin "Stairway to heaven"

Testing the conscious comprehension
Another test conducted by the same experimenters was to play a phrase forward to a person and then play another phrase backwards that contained the same number of words, but with varying number of syllables. This experiment was done to see if people could correctly identify the number of words in a phrase played backwards. Most people think that they can identify were one word stops and another begins based on a pause in the phrase. This is not always the case. Most words blend together when spoken and the pauses are actually emphasized on the syllables of a word. The hypothesis was that people would identify words based on the frequency of the pauses and that when played a phrase backwards, they would identify more words then there really were. This was found to be true after the data was collected. As a second part to this experiment, the people were read a word that may or may not have been part of the backwards phrase and then asked if they thought it was a word they had heard. They concluded that 55.8% of the time they could correctly identify if the word was used or not.
This in combination with the first part of the test suggests that it is possible to hear a word or two in a backwards phrase, but that it would provide very little meaning to the forward message (Vokey & Read, 1985)..

A test of the unconscious influences
In this test a group of participants were asked to identify whether or not the speaker in the backwards recording was a male or female. It was found that 98.9% of the time they were successful in identifying the gender of the speaker.

The same group was then asked to identify the phrase in the recorded message as a statement or a question. The participants were correct only 52% of the time.
These results show that the group scored little over the expected 50% chance of getting it right (question or statement) suggesting that they were unable to associate any meaning to the backwards words although they were able to differentiate between the male and female voices.

Another test was conducted for the phase "Jesus loves me, this I know". the participants were asked to listen to this statement backwards and then place it in one of 5 categories:
Nursery rhyme
Only 19.4% of the participants placed the phrase in the correct category which was very close to the expected 20% chance. This experiment as well as the further demonstrates that people are unable to perceive meaning in backwards messages (Vokey & Read, 1985).

Although words can be heard in music when played in reverse, it is nearly impossible to consciously identify them or interpret their meaning. When played in their intended forward manner, no backward messages can be consciously heard. As for whether or not they effect our behavior, these studies suggest that they do not. Of course everyone is entitled to their own opinion and thoughts about "backmasking" and many strongly believe that messages in music do effect our actions.