Everyone knows the joke; Q: What do you get when you play New Age music backwards? A: New Age Music. But is it really true? I tried this on a couple of the most famous songs in our genre. I have not been able to find out where this joke originates from. If anyone knows, please write a comment.
It seems to be a joke mostly among musicians. The joke cannot be older than the New Age music term itself, of course, so it is not older than 50 years. Perhaps it came about during the golden age of New Age music in the 1980s? Or is it older, when different kinds of tapes made playing backwards easier? Who knows. But more importantly; is it true?
The Art of Backmasking
Playing music backwards is called backmasking, and it a science which many great people, from Thomas Edison to the Beatles, have been interested in. If you want to know more about this noble art, see the Wikipedia article on the topic here.
We start this somewhat scientific project by listening to the first release in our genre – Music for Zen Meditation and Other Joys by Tony Scott from 1964:
Copyright The Verve Music Group, a Division of UMG Recordings, Inc.
As you can hear, the sound is not very different from normal to backwards playback. It is not identical, that goes without saying. Still the sound and atmosphere is kept intact. You can indeed listen to this album backwards! It is not the same, but you get an idea what it is all about.
Copyright Mercury UK
Mike Oldfield’s Tubular Bells (1973) is another story (note: I here use the 2003 version). The famous intro does not sounds the same backwards. That said, there has been so many versions of this piece that playing it backwards does not make it strange or unfamiliar – just different. The atmosphere seems to be there, hidden like a ghost. Perhaps Mike Oldfield should release an official backwards version? We need an exorcist here, that’s for sure.
Copyright Pony Canyon Inc
Kitaro’s Silk Road theme (1981) gets a bit more strange. But it is easy to identify.
Copyright In This Sound Recording Is Owned By Virgin Music, A Division Of EMI Music Germany GmbH & Co. KG
Enigma´s Mea Culpa (1990) shows how Gregorian chant sounds very much the same backwards – for us who don´t know Latin, Greek or other language commonly used in this kind of chant.
Copyright Warner Music UK Ltd
Enya’s Caribbean Blue (1991) does sound great backwards too! It is very much the same song. Enya’s vocal is not the same backwards (of course), so I choose the intro of the song here.
Copyright Yanni Wake Entertainment, under exclusive license to Sony Music Entertainment
I wanted to use something new as well – so I took the opening track to Yanni’s Truth of Touch. Is it the same? No. But it is so different that it is an entirely different song? Not really.
The case at hand here is really simple; synth pads, piano, strings and flute have a steady sound, starting and closing on the same frequency. When playing backwards, the sound is almost the same – even though the notes have changed. It is not the same with drums and vocal. Drums backwards sound strange, because the pressure is skewed; from high to low (normal), to low to high (backwards). Vocal with words backwards is just gibberish, while humming or chanting sound somewhat the same.
The conclusion is; yes, the joke is true; some New Age music played backwards is still New Age music! You can listen to it “both ways” and still get the song’s atmosphere. Artists should start charging double prize since it almost like you get two albums for the prize of one…