Traditionally thought of as soothing and relaxing, or at least pleasurable in some way to the subjective listener, music can also be the cause of pain and suffering.
You have probably heard that classical and other music is sometimes used to disperse loitering adolescents at malls, as in the case in New Zealand a couple of months ago when Barry Manilow songs were blasted to alienate and drive away unwanted teens. But that is nothing compared to the US armed forces' use of music as a form of torture against detainees in US operated detention centers in Iraq, Afghanistan, and Guantanamo Bay. It has been reported by journalists and human rights advocates that the music of such artists as Eminem, Nine Inch Nails, Queen, Rage Against the Machine, Britney Spears, and even Barney and Sesame Street tunes have been blasted at deafeningly high decibels as a means of physical torture in interrogation at these centers.
Not surprisingly, word of these tactics has shocked many, including the artists whose music was unknowingly appropriated, and has resulted in the formation of an organization, UK non-profit group Reprieve, to protest the use of music as torture and to make sure it never happens again. Reprieve is supportive of the anti-torture initiative called Zero dB that is hoping to bring an end to the technique by gathering the support of musicians whose songs are used in controversial interrogation techniques by US forces. So far they have gotten overwhelming support from outraged artists including Tom Morello of Rage Against The Machine and Lars Ulrich of Metallica who was interviewed recently on the topic by Rachel Maddow on MSNBC. Sesame Street composer Christopher Cerf's reaction is captured in the video news report below, courtesy of AP, that also includes an interview with former detainee Donald Vance.
Outrage and consequent discussion on the topic continues and tomorrow the Goethe Institute in New York is holding a conference on music as torture at the Bard College Center for Curatorial Studies in Annandale-on-Hudson, NY that sounds interesting from both a human rights and an academic standpoint. It raises fundamental questions about the relationship between music and torture (perhaps not widely considered up until now) and forces us to rethink our preconceived notions about both music and the infliction of pain on humans. Tomorrow's conference promises a gathering of musicians, human rights lawyers, and scholars of music, art history, and philosophy who hope to "develop a vocabulary for assessing the nexus of noise, pain, violence, questioning, and power," according to the organizers.
For historical purposes it should be noted that it is the UK armed forces who are credited (discredited?) with pioneering the use of music as a form of torture. Back in the early 1970's, during the British Army's occupation of Northern Ireland, UK armed forces employed white noise as a weapon against Republican (IRA) detainees. This is one of the occurances of music as violence documented in the recommended book Dark Side of the Tune: Popular Music and Violence by Bruce Johnson and Martin Cloonen, published in December by Ashgate Publishing.