Audio Reversal In Popular Culture

The human brain with all of its capabilites and control has difficulty with one thing: time. It can only understand it when it goes in one single direction. To us it's forward; to other particles in the universe it's sideways, or tangential, or even crooked. When we are presented with something where time has been changed more than just slightly - reversed, for example - it seems nothing but completely foreign and incomprehensible. Only in the past 50 years has man even been able to hear sounds in reverse. These new sounds are not based in our reality, and to the uninitiated, quite scary. It's no wonder reversing of sound in popular culture has been linked with Satan or other devilish conduct - that's how most cultures deal with things they can't comprehend.

Here I'd like to dispell the myths and analyze the reversal of sound and audio for what it really is: mostly a bunch of unintelligible garbage that makes no sense to our brain unless we look so closely into it we're not seeing the forest for the trees. The accidents that make up phrases in reverse are revealing only that our minds can put together anything if we work hard enough. To quote Jules Renard: "Look for the ridiculous in everything and you will find it."

Engineered Reversal

Since the beginning of recorded music, musicians have been able to add features to their music that they weren't able to in the past. Multiple tracks, multiple takes of one apparently continuous track, acoustic control, and so on. The physical reversal of sounds also brought a completely different feature to recorded music, the most 'strange' of which was reversal of voices or vocal tracks. The ability to 'hide' phrases of spoken words in the music ('there' but actually not 'there'), became something that popular artists would take advantage of.
The examples below are actual engineered reversals of vocal tracks, meaning that they were recorded forwards and then reversed in either the recording or mixing process with full intention.

Perhaps the first purposely reversed vocal track came from, not surprisingly, The Beatles. While recording the song "Rain" in April of 1966, producer George Martin wanted to do something 'extra' to John Lennon's vocals. He took a bit of the lead vocal from the four-track onto another tape machine, reversed it, and recorded it back onto the tape. John was amazed at the results and kept it that way ever since.
The idea for reversing tracks came from the experiments they were doing only days earlier recording "Tomorrow Never Knows" by speeding up and slowing down the tape, as well as reversing tracks, just to hear what they sounded like.

"When the rain comes they run and hide their heads." (164k AIFF)

Darling Nikki
One of the more popular engineered reversed tracks comes from Prince's 1984 masterpiece, "Purple Rain". It opened many an eye to the idea of reversed vocals, simply because it was not surrounded by music - it was a multi-tracked complete vocal passage by itself at the end of side 1 of the LP, bare to the naked ear. During live shows, he would use this track in it's proper direction for incidental music during costume and set changes.
The message itself has religious overtones, contrasting directly with the overtly-sexual "Darling Nikki" which precedes it. Was the reversal meant to invert the message itself, or was it meant to hide an apology?

"Hello. How are you? I'm fine 'cuz I know that the lord is coming soon. Coming, coming soon." (906k AIFF)

Empty Spaces
Pink Floyd's masterpiece "The Wall" has been cited among many as a large influence upon 1970's grandeur arena rock. All in all, it is a very powerful album, telling the story of an rock star's growing introversion and impending implosion.
The song "Empty Spaces" contains a heavily-buried engineered reversed vocal in the beginning minute or so, that is described as a 'secret message': "Congratulations. You've just discovered the secret message. Please send your answer to old pink, care of the funny farm..." which seems to drift off under the music, possibly with the word "Chalfonte" added, but it sounds like a different voice altogether.

"Congratulations. You've just discovered the secret message..." (293k AIFF)

Frank Zappa
Frank Zappa was well-known for his musical experimentation, but few people know of his work with altered voices, both reversed and pitch shifted, in some of his songs. There is a web page dedicated to this very subject.

What is Phonetic Reversal?

Phonemes are a way of describing units of sound in the spoken word. Since all of the examples of sound in this paper are in English, the American English phoneme table is used to describe the vowels and consonants that combined together will describe any spoken sound in English.

American English Phoneme Table
AE - bat UW - boot f - fin r - ran
EY - bait UH - book g - gain s - sin
AO - caught UX - bud h - hat S - shin
AX - about OW - boat J - jump t - tin
IY - beet AW - bout k - kin T - thin
EH - bet OY - boy l - limb v - van
IH - bit b - bin m - mat w - wet
AY - bite C - chin n - nat y - yet
IX - roses d - din N - tang z - zen
AA - cot D - them p - pin Z - measure

Reversed phoenemes
When these phonemes are reversed, they can become a totally different set of sounds. Some of the vowels become what normally are combinations of vowels, and some consonants simply disappear behind other letters:

AE -> same UW -> same f -> same r -> same
EY -> 'yeah' or 'YE' UH -> same g -> glottal stop s -> same
AO -> same UX -> same h -> same S -> same
AX -> same OW -> 'wuh' or 'WO' J -> same but short t -> 'HT'
IY -> same AW -> 'wah' or 'WA' k -> 'HK' T -> same
EH -> same OY -> 'yoh' or 'YO' l -> same v -> same
IH -> same b -> 'HB' m -> same w -> same
AY -> 'ya' or 'YA' C -> same n -> same y -> depends on following vowel
IX -> same d -> 'HD' N -> same z -> same
AA -> same D -> same p -> 'HP' Z -> same

The vowels with motion in the mouth have the motion reversed, which results in vowel sounds that do not exist by themselves in English, and could be interpreted as multiple vowels.
Most consonants stay the same, but most notable are those that start suddenly - 'b', 'd', 'k', 'p' and 't'. The air that normally follows the burst of the sound turns around and sounds like an air valve closing suddenly, with a different ambience. Sometimes the consonant is so weak that the air seems to just stop suddenly with no discernable way of ending, just disappearing. The letter 'y', possible the most variable of the consonants, acts more like a vowel in this case, depending mostly on the following (or preceding) vowel sound.

Combining reversed phoenemes
The combination of reversed phonemes in English results in yet more complication. In most cases the end result cannot be estimated from the initial sounds, because of many factors.
1. Slang - in most English phrases, words are strung together for ease of speaking. Certain consonants are lost, vowels shortened, etc. Phonetic analysis of the word as it is properly spoken usually has very little in comparison to how it is spoken in real life, and can even depend upon how the word is used in the phrase itself.
2. Pitch - The English language uses pitch to designate ends of phrases, emphasized words, etc. When these are reversed, the whole sense of the phrase is misdirected - the emphasis goes to a certain syllable (or combination of phonemes) which when reversed adds to its unusual rhythm.
3. Human experience - the most undefinable of the result of combined reversed phonemes is how they are combined in the human mind to form something discernable. Correlations with known slang words, changing vowels, and numerous other things are added or removed in order to interpret the vocal sound to something understandable. As we will see, this factor plays almost the biggest role in 'secret message' finding...

Example: Revolution 9
The simplest of examples (and one of the most popular) comes from The Beatles' "Revolution 9". Throughout the piece is a spoken phrase repeating "number nine" in a slight British accent:


Note the removal of the 'r' in number , the deep swell in vowels in 'nine', from 'au' to 'i' sounding more like 'nauighn', and the addition of the vowel sound at the end. The pitch of the voice is very important as well - the note stays nearly the same throughout 'number', but rises quickly in 'nine', and ends on a high pitch for the final vowel sound.
When reversed at the phonetic level, the result is:


The heavy pitch drop at the beginning stretches out the first vowels, which come across as two words because of the different vowel sounds from the British accent, and the reversed consonants in 'number' separate the words as well:


...which has been loosely translated in the English language to "Turn me on dead man".
By loosely I mean that many of the consonants are dropped (which is usual for this phrase in slang): the starting "t" is dropped, the "r" is dropped (normal for British accents), the "m" is dropped, the first "d" in "dead" is dropped (usually combined with the preceding consonant anyway), the "b" changes to "d" (a very close relation as well), and the vowel sound for "man" changes from "AE" to the lazy-sounding "UX".

There are many things in place here. It's not just that the words themselves that, when reversed, translate directly to a phrase in English. The accents used in speaking the phrase, the pitch of the phrase, the consonants or vowels that are added or dropped as a result of the slang have to be taken into account before the speech is actually reversed. After the reversal, the listener can make many correlations to known words (a normal thing in human behavior) as a result of missing consonants, different-sounding vowels, etc. All in all, it's not necessarily a science. The connections made from the human experience add to the unpredictability of the results, as you will see in the following analyses.

Phoenetic Reversal in popular music

Another One Bites The Dust
Queen's only dance hit generated a little bit of attention when it was alleged that the song contained a reversed message: "It's fun to smoke marijuana".

"Another one bites the dust" -> "It's fun to smoke marijuana"

This, if it is not already obvious, is a complete accident. The reversed phrase barely resembles "It's fun to smoke marijuana" distinctly - it would be better translated to "'s fun-a scout mare-wanna". However, the important consonants exist to make the correlation between the two easy to do. The phonetic analysis is somewhat complex - it is left as an exercise to the reader.

Stairway to Heaven
Led Zeppelin's epic "Stairway To Heaven" creates possibly the most amazing phoenetic accidents known in popular music. To further the mystery around the song, a little background is necessary.
Led Zeppelin had it's popularity in the 1970s mostly in the grass-roots rock and roll community. Influences for the band included J.R.R. Tolkien books, mystical folks stories, and the like - most of which had paganistic overtones, easily interpreted by the public as closely satanic. The growth of Led Zeppelin seemed mystical in itself - though minimal promotion was done by the group's record company Atlantic Records, the group's popularity spread by word of mouth, something not usually expected or calculated.
The song "Stairway To Heaven" became a legendary song in rock and roll music culture. Stranger than the fact that it was the most-played track in radio history, stranger than the fact that the song's length was nearly 8:00 (most radio stations played nothing over 4:00), stranger than the fact that it is a staple of rock and roll guitar players everywhere, was the way the lyrics were written. Robert Plant, the lead singer and lyric writer described it: "I just sat down next to Pagey (Jimmy Page, guitarist) while he was playing it through. It was done very quickly. It took a little working out, but it was a very fluid, unnaturally easy track. It was almost as if - uh-oh - it just had to be gotten out at that time. There was something pushing it, saying 'you guys are okay, but if you want to do something timeless, here's a wedding song for you."

What makes this song truly amazing on another level is that in a stretch of nearly one minute, you could find 7 different consecutive phonetically reversed "phrases" seeming to refer to the same subject: Satan. Never in the history of popular music has this happened before or since.

  1. "Your stairway lies on the whispering wind" -> "'cause I live with Satan"
  2. "The piper's calling you" -> "the lord turns me off"
  3. "And it makes me wonder" -> "there's no escaping it"
  4. "There's still time to change the road you're on" -> "here's to my sweet Satan"
  5. "Yes there are two paths"... -> "there is power in Satan"
  6. "It's just a sprinkling for the May Queen" -> "he will give you, give you 666"
  7. "There's a feeling I get" -> "i gotta live for Satan"
Knowing how difficult it is to get one phrase to phonetically reverse into something understandable, but to get seven phrases, consecutively, in a passage of lyrics that forward seems almost disturbingly pagan, all related to a similar subject, in a song that led it's life the way it did, has truly been unmatched.

The facts above lead, not surprisingly, to a mystical conclusion that had many a music critic pondering and related back to many stories about popular music: in order to succeed, you had to sell your soul to the devil. The late great blues guitarist Robert Johnson (a big influence on Led Zeppelin) had many stories around him about his drifting lifestyle, amazing guitar playing, notorious seduction of women, and selling his soul to the devil in order to succeed at them. Did some sort of evil force play a part in the writing of "Stairway To Heaven"? When reversed, does it literally translate to "Stairway To Hell" in more ways than one? As mystical and far from logic as it seems, the conclusion seems appropriate!

Engineered Phoenetic Reversal

As a special effect, artists have recently tried a technique known as engineered phonetic reversal, which is recording a set of phonemes will full knowledge of what they will sound like when reversed.
This technique is not easily calculated, and to my knowledge has only been attempted by a few filmmakers. One was for the comedy series "Airplane!". The best example, however, goes to David Lynch for his late 1980's television series, Twin Peaks. In the series, an unknown existence known as the Black Lodge contains characters, mostly evil, that speak very strangely; with a sort of accent not known - " if they were from Mars..." - and add to the freakish aura around the scenes.
Twin Peaks featured the Black Lodge only twice in the series - once in the third episode, and once at the second season closer, which turned out to be it's last. The engineered phonetic reversal was done differently each time:

1. Michael Anderson, acting as one of the characters in the Black Lodge, knew how to speak phoenetically backwards by ear. He taught some of the other actors/actresses involved in the scene, and they recorded the scene as he spoke the lines as he interpreted them backwards. Because the language was hard to understand to those who didn't know the script, subtitles were added.

  1. "I've got good news! That gum you like is going to come back in style"
  2. "She's my cousin. But doesn't she look almost exactly like Laura Palmer?"
  3. "I feel like I know her, but sometimes my arms bend back."
  4. "She's filled with secrets. Where we're from, the birds sing a pretty song, and there's always music in the air."
A video (4.5MB) for the latter two quotes is available for viewing.

2. For the much longer and involved Black Lodge scene in the final episode, the actors/actresses spoke their lines and studied them in reverse ahead of time. When it was time to shoot the scenes, they read their lines in reverse as they had learned them, which made them much clearer.

  1. "When you see me again, it won't be me."
  2. "This is the waiting room. Would you like some coffee? Some of your friends are here. Hello, Agent Cooper. I'll see you again in 25 years. Meanwhile..."
  3. "Woo-o-o! Hallelujah! Hallelujah! Coffee. Coffee. Coffee. Coffee. Coffee. Coffee. One and the same."
  4. "Wow, Bob, Wow! Fire walk with me."
    Note: the first example of a phonetic palindrome!
  5. "I'm Maddy. Watch out for my cousin."
    Note: the "atch" in "watch" was overdubbed forwards because the reverse phoneme didn't work.
  6. "I saw the face (of) the man who killed me. It was my husband. Who's Annie? It's me. It's me. It's me. You must be mistaken, I'm alive."
  7. "Dale Cooper. Hahahaha! If you give me your soul, I'll let Annie live."
    Note the many awkward overdubs during the quick syllables.
  8. "Hehehe. I did not kill anybody."
Others to check out:
  • Jefferson Starship "A Child Is Coming", Blows Against The Empire
    "It's getting better" = "Son of Satan"
  • Electric Light Orchestra "Eldorado", Eldorado
    "On a voyage of no return to see" = "He is the nasty one/Christ, you're infernal/It is said we're dead men/Everyone who has the mark will live"
  • The Cars "Shoo Be Doo" Candy-O
    "Shoo be doo" = "Satan"
  • Black Oak Arkansas "When Electricity Came To AK" Ronch And Roll
    "Satan, Satan,... He Is God"


Big Secrets/William Poundstone/1983 William Morrow & Company, Inc./Chap 26: Secret Messages On Records