Posts Tagged 'music'

The weaponization of music

Sir Thomas Beecham was once asked if he had ever conducted any Stockhausen. His quick reply: “No, but I’ve trodden in some.” Beecham made no bones about his dislike of the German composer’s spiky oeuvre, an opinion probably shared by many of us. Jarring and tuneless as much of Stockhausen sounds, his music was created to express something, even if, as Stravinsky has said, all it achieved was to express itself. The hapless listener exposed to it for any length of time may feel he or she has undergone martyrdom, but Stockhausen would have been shocked and affronted to learn that his music was being piped into a prison cell for no benign purpose.

I am not aware that the CIA has subjected any of its “clients” to Stockhausens’ aleatory serial compositions, but there is ample evidence that certain kinds of music have been used extensively both as torture and as a weapon of war. Although much has been written on this subject, there is scarcely a mention of it in the literature of medicine or psychology, another of those gaps in clinical knowledge that leave one with questions about possible ideological determinants. Yet a simple Google search will quickly provide answers for anyone wondering what the songs of Britney Spears, Eminem, AC/DC, Bruce Springsteen, Metallica and Nine Inch Nails have in common with the theme tunes of the children’s television shows Barney and Sesame Street. The disturbing truth is that all have been used to break people – to degrade them and crush their will to resist.

Suzanne Cusick’s article Music as torture / Music as weapon traces current practice back to experiments conducted in the 1940s by US, British and Canadian intelligence at Yale, Cornell and McGill. Researchers discovered that sonic disturbances – so called “no touch” torture – induced feelings of helplessness and could be more effective on prisoners than beatings, starvation or sleep deprivation. Armies have been jangling the nerves of opponents with acoustic weapons since the battle of Jericho, but the deliberate use of recorded music in psy ops and as an instrument of torture is a recent development of the American military. Cusick also points to other disturbing historical precedents, not least the cruel musical rituals at Nazi concentration camps.

The choice of music, chiefly metal and rap at full blast, is frightening enough with its repetitive thrashing, high distortion, and guttural invective. One could imagine a 12-tone quartet or free jazz being equally effective. But, as Adam Shatz observes in a recent article in the London Review of Books, not many military interrogators listen to Stockhausen or Cecil Taylor. The choice of torture music generally reflects the taste of the torturers. To hear a selection of the kinds of music preferred by the US military, see this post from last May on Blog Me No Blogs. Mother Jones has also published a “torture playlist.” Jonathan Pieslak has recently published a book on American soldiers and music in the Iraq war in which he recounts the sonic attack on Fallujah in 2004 and how soldiers would get pumped up or “crunked” for combat with the same tunes they later projected towards the enemy using a Long Range Acoustic Device.

A year ago Reprieve, a British human rights law group and the U.K. Musicians Union launched Zero dB, a “silent protest” over the use of music in interrogations. Through zero dB, musicians are speaking out against the use of music for torture and calling on the American administration to outlaw it. There is a growing list of musicians objecting to the practice and calling for the humane treatment of prisoners. This list includes Tom Morello of Rage Against the Machine and Trent Reznor of Nine Inch Nails.

Andy Worthington, writing on AlterNet, reports that some artists (for example, James Hetfield of Metallica) have been supportive of the use of their music by the military. Others, like Eminem, AC/DC, Aerosmith, the Bee Gees, Christina Aguilera, Prince and the Red Hot Chili Peppers, have chosen to remain silent.


Allbright B. Am I a torturer? Mother Jones 2008 Mar. Available from:

Bayoumi M. Disco Inferno. The Nation 2005 Dec 7. Available from:

Cloonan M. Bad vibrations. New Humanist 2009 Mar/Apr;124(2). Available from:

Cusick SG. Music as torture / music as weapon. Revista Transcultural de Música / Transcultural Music Review 2006 Dec;10. Available from:

Cusick SG. “You are in a place that is out of the world. . .”: music in the detention camps of the “Global War on Terror”. Journal of the Society for American Music 2008 Feb;2(1):1-26. Available from:

Davies C. Torture music leaves no marks but destroys minds. Reprieve [Online]. 2009 Jun 15. Available from:

Ford P. Music and torture. Dial “M” for musicology: music, musicology and related matters [Online]. Available from:

Pellegrinelli L. Scholarly discord. Chronicle of higher education [serial online] 2009 May;55(35):B6-B9.

Pieslak J. Sound targets: American soldiers and music in the Iraq war. Indiana University Press; 2009.

Ross A. Futility music. The New Yorker [serial online] 2008 May 29. Available from:

Shatz A. Short cuts. London Review of Books [serial online] 2009 Jul 23;31(14):21. Available from:

Stafford Smith C. Torture by music. New Statesman [serial online] 2006 Nov 26. Available from:

Worthington A. A history of music torture in the War on Terror. AlterNet [Online] 2008 Dec 17. Available from:


My Tweets

My Delicious Bookmarks

PubMed Logo

Blog Stats

  • 73,373 hits