The agony and the ecstasy (okay, only the agony) of music as torture

Music as torture?…No, I’m not talking about the latest Justin Bieber record. I’m talking about music used as a weapon. To torture people. This post’s about to get a little dark. It’s such a fascinating topic, though…

I saw a documentary (‘Songs of War’, by Al Jazeera) about this phenomenon on ABC a while ago. The documentary was about music being used on prisoners in detainment camps in Guantanamo Bay during the ‘war on terror’. Because of this practice, the use of music for torture has made its way into the public eye over the last few years. Music use for interrogation has been banned by the UN, but heresy statements by ex-prisoners suggest it’s still being used today (personally, I wouldn’t put it past the American military to do this). Prisoners in the documentary said they were strapped down in chairs and blasted with jackhammer-loud music, including tunes by Slayer, Eminem, Metallica, AC/DC – and even Sesame Street and Barney songs (ultra creepy). This music was played at very loud volumes for hours or days on end, causing sleep deprivation and extreme emotional reactions (some prisoners say they would have attempted suicide if any method were available to them). Prisoners also said that patriotic/culturally offensive songs were often chosen, like “White America” by Eminem or “Born in the USA” by Springsteen – deliberately chosen to break their spirits. A public statement from Captain John Kirby pretty much denied all this, saying that music was used as a ‘disincentive’, but that it wasn’t torture. Kirby declined to mention which music was played, or if the method is still in use, but said, “It’s done in a measured way, in keeping with our obligation and commitment to treating detainees humanely.”

Something I found really interesting was one particular style of music torture mentioned by detainees. The military would sometimes play two contrasting songs (of different tempos, keys, etc) simultaneously to prisoners. For example, a metal song playing up against a Sesame Street tune. Can you imagine? I’m not surprised that this would drive someone mad, in extended doses. Dissonance is a really powerful weapon. It’s even been classified as ‘evil’. Between the Middle Ages to the end of the Renaissance, the tritone (a restless, quite dissonant-sounding interval) was de-classified as a chord, and effectively banned from music use. Some reports say that musicians were excommunicated by their churches if they even played this chord (although this is widely considered to be an exaggeration now). Nevertheless, the tritone was nicknamed ‘the devil’s chord’, and its sound has always been associated with a scary, ominous mood. (Just watch any horror movie and listen to the score). Dissonance, even in a musical context, seems to quantitatively affect us humans, creating an emotion or physical feeling of unease.

Director of the Human Rights Project at Bard College, Thomas Keenan, has said that the same reason people love music is why it’s an effective tool for torture. “It is music’s capacity to take over your mind and invade your inner experience that makes it so terrifying.” I’ve never (thankfully) been in a position of being tortured, but listening to music you don’t like can seriously feel torturous on its own… Think about it, some of those prisoners are from completely different cultural backgrounds. They might never have heard rock or heavy metal music before, and certainly not blasted at ear-splitting levels for hours on end. My older co-worker, who prefers retro-style pop, finds most heavy metal absolutely excruciating to listen to. She told me it seems to physically give her a headache. I myself actually left a store I was shopping in the other day, because a Reece Mastin song was playing. I couldn’t stand it – really, truly hate this guy’s music. Especially this awful, awful song.

This might sound like I’m making a joke, but I’m not. I do like some pop music, but this guy’s music is bad on every level to me. Every instrument in the music is playing the worst kind of uncreative, boppy pop. The bassline pisses me off. The overall sound is so shiny and bouncy that it cuts through me like a dagger. Reece’s voice is gratingly bright and loud, and the melody is horribly unlikeable, yet somehow extremely catchy. The song makes me feel truly uncomfortable listening to it. Oh, and of course the lyrics are terrible. Ugh!! “Maybe rock and roll is here to stay”. Yes, it probably is Reece. But you and your ear poison aren’t! Never! *breathes heavily * I wish I could just avoid this song, but working in a shopping mall, I probably hear it at least once a day somewhere.

As Jennifer Senior from New York Magazine writes, there are physical reasons for exactly why music can be torturous to humans. Especially when humans listen to music from different cultural backgrounds that they can’t ‘predict’:

“Loud music can’t be shut out in the same way that loud speech can. Neurologist Oliver Sacks, author of the book Musicophilia, once referred to “musical brainworms, the annoyingly repetitive musical phrases that may run through one’s mind for days on end.” That’s partly what makes effective pop music.

But, strangely, what makes effective “acoustic bombardment” is the very unfamiliarity of the music to non-Western ears. “Our brains automatically process music and try to figure out what comes next,” says Daniel Levitin, a psychology professor at McGill and author of ‘This Is Your Brain on Music’. Because the brain can’t help but anticipate music’s next steps, “any Western music would have done the trick,” he says. “These were tonal structures the detainees’ brains can’t figure out. They kept trying, and they kept failing. Just as if I made you listen to Chinese opera, it’d probably drive you crazy.”

…“One thing that makes music so powerful is that it activates circuits in the brain that are not under conscious control,” says Richard Friedman, a professor of psychiatry at Weill Cornell Medical College. “It has the power to augment all human drives, including aggression.” Some of the music soldiers used to torture detainees is the same they used to pump themselves up before battle—one thinks of that scene in Fahrenheit 9/11, with the fellows talking about listening to Drowning Pool’s “Bodies” as they rattled along in their tank. Whether it’s a soundtrack for a battle or one for torture, both work. “In each instance,” says Friedman, “you can use music to facilitate the process.””

(I suggest reading the whole article here, it’s very detailed – *Sidebar – oooh that got me so mad, that scene in Fahrenheit 9/11. The American soldiers sitting in their comfy tank, listening to metal music as they shot innocent people with long range weapons. Like life was a video game. Grrrr.*

As also mentioned in the above article, there has been backlash and protest from musicians who do not want their music to be used in this capacity. Musos such as Roseanne Cash, Trent Reznor, R.E.M, Pearl Jam, Rise Against, The Roots and Tom Morello joined the National Campaign to Close Guantanamo.

REM’s statement said: “We have spent the past 30 years supporting causes related to peace and justice – to now learn that some of our friends’ music may have been used as part of the torture tactics without their consent or knowledge, is horrific. It’s anti-American, period.” (Predictably, James Hetfield was quoted as being “proud” to hear Metallica was chosen to represent American “freedom of speech”. And then backtracked and said he hoped he wouldn’t be “attached to some political statement because of that”. What a douche. He’s such a right winger but always tries to hide it – even though it’s extremely obvious)

Anyway – despite most of those kids’ best efforts, Guantanamo Bay remains active today. Make of that what you will.

By Bec Wolfers


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