Music in psychological operations

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Music has been used in psychological operations. The term music torture is sometimes used by critics of the practice of playing loud music incessantly to prisoners or people besieged.

The United Nations and the European Court of Human Rights have banned the use of loud music in interrogations.[citation needed] The term torture is sometimes used to describe the practice. While it is acknowledged by US interrogation experts that it causes discomfort, it has also been characterized by them as causing no "long-term effects."[1]

Music and sound have been usually used as part of a combination of interrogation methods, today recognized by international bodies as amounting to torture.[2] Attacking all senses without leaving any visible traces, they have formed the basis of the widely discussed torture in Guantanamo and Abu Ghraib. They were, however, devised much earlier in the 1950s and early 1960s, as a way to counter so-called Soviet “brainwashing”.[3] They include:

  • sensory deprivation
  • stress positions
  • sleep deprivation
  • food and drink deprivation
  • continuous music or sound

Instances of use

"These people haven't heard heavy metal. They can't take it. If you play it for 24 hours, your brain and body functions start to slide, your train of thought slows down and your will is broken. That's when we come in and talk to them."[1]

United States

"When the United States invaded Panama in December 1989, Noriega took refuge in the Holy See’s embassy on December 24, which was immediately surrounded by U.S. troops. After being continually bombarded by hard rock music, including Van Halen's hit song Panama,[6] and “The Howard Stern Show” for several days, Noriega surrendered on January 3, 1990."[7][8]

United States

According to the FBI:[9][10]

"W[itness] observed sleep deprivation interviews w/strobe lights and loud music. Interrogator said it would take 4 days to break someone doing an interrogation 16 hrs w/lights and music on and 4 hrs off. Handwritten note next to typed synopsis says "ok under DoD policy".

"Rumors that interrogator bragged about doing lap dance on d[etainee], another about making d[etainee] listen to satanic black metal music for hours then dressing as a Priest and baptizing d[etainee] to save him - handwritten note says 'yes'."

"W[itness] saw d[etainee] in interview room sitting on floor w/Israeli flag draped around him, loud music and strobe lights. W suspects this practice is used by DOD DHS based on who he saw in the hallway."

The Washington Post, quoting a leaked Red Cross report, wrote:[11]

"The physical tactics noted by the Red Cross included placing detainees in extremely cold rooms with loud music blaring, and forcing them to kneel for long periods of time, the source familiar with the report said."


According to Amnesty International:[12]

"Detainees have reported being routinely subjected to cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment during arrest and detention. Many have told Amnesty International that they were tortured and ill-treated by US and UK troops during interrogation. Methods often reported include prolonged sleep deprivation; beatings; prolonged restraint in painful positions, sometimes combined with exposure to loud music; prolonged hooding; and exposure to bright lights. Virtually none of the allegations of torture or ill-treatment has been adequately investigated by the authorities."


On January 12, 1998 the Supreme Court of Israel declined to ban the use of loud music as an interrogation technique.[13]


According to recent research, the Greek military Junta (1967–1974) used the above-mentioned combination of interrogation techniques, including music. This took place in the headquarters of the Special Interrogation Unit of Greek Military Police (EAT/ESA), Athens. New interviews with survivors, held there in 1973, talk about the use of songs, popular hits of the time: these were played loudly and repeatedly from loudspeakers as the detainee had to stand without rest, food, drink or sleep.[14]

Popular culture

In the book A Clockwork Orange by Anthony Burgess and the subsequent film based upon it, a rebellious teenager is subjected to brutal experimental brain-washing techniques that as an accidental side-effect cause him to feel physical pain if he listens to certain pieces of classical music.

In Back to the Future, Marty used music made by Van Halen to scare his dad, George McFly, awake, implying that since that kind of music did not exist in that time, it would scare him.

In Apocalypse Now, a helicopter squadron plays classical music, Richard Wagner's Ride of the Valkyries, over loudspeakers on-board their helicopters while attacking a Viet Cong village, as a form of psychological warfare.

In The Drew Carey Show, Mimi played "Panama" by Van Halen repeatedly to drive Drew and friends from his house.

In an episode of the hit USA television show Burn Notice Sam Axe plays loud music to a prisoner to break his will.

In the film The Men Who Stare at Goats, a take-off of the Barney & Friends ending song "I Love You" is played in the cells of Iraqi detainees as a form of torture.

In the TV series Homeland, death metal is used to keep a prisoner awake.

In Power Rangers Megaforce, Emma sings a song to help the rangers defeat Dischord.

Public awareness of the use of this technique is widespread enough that it can be used in satirical attacks on popular culture:

"Hollywood — Several days after Paris Hilton announced that she will release a music album, the Pentagon has decided to buy 50,000 copies of her upcoming album to use against insurgents in the volatile Anbar province in western Iraq."[15]

Royalty payments

The Guardian reported that the US military may owe royalty payments to the artists whose works were played to the captives.[16][17]

Musicians' protests

On 9 December 2008 the Associated Press reported that various musicians were coordinating their objections to the use of their music as a technique for softening up captives through an initiative called Zero dB.[18][19] Zero dB is an initiative against music torture set up by legal charity Reprieve, which represents over thirty prisoners in Guantanamo Bay. Zero dB aims to stop torture music by encouraging widespread condemnation of the practice and by calling on governments and the UN to uphold and enforce the Convention Against Torture and other relevant treaties. The initiative is backed by the Musicians Union which is calling on British musicians to voice their outrage against the use of music to torture.

Musicians and the wider public are making their own silent protests against music torture which are being shown on Zero dB. A series of silent protests and actions are planned through 2009. Participating musicians will include minutes of silence in their concerts to draw their audience's attention to the USA's use of deafening music against captives.

According to the Associated Press FBI agents stationed at Guantanamo Bay reported that the use of deafening music was common.[19] According to the Associated Press Guantanamo Bay spokesmen Commander Pauline Storum:

"...wouldn't give details of when and how music has been used at the prison, but said it isn't used today. She didn't respond when asked whether music might be used in the future."[19]

Among the musicians united in their objections were Christopher Cerf, a composer for the children's show Sesame Street, and Tom Morello of Rage Against the Machine and Audioslave.[19] Others include Massive Attack,[20] R.E.M., The Roots, Rise Against, Rosanne Cash, Pearl Jam, Bonnie Raitt, Trent Reznor, Billy Bragg, Michelle Branch, Jackson Browne, T-Bone Burnett, David Byrne, Marc Cohn, Steve Earle, the Entrance Band, Skinny Puppy[21] and Joe Henry.[22]

The Associated Press reported that Stevie Benton of the group Drowning Pool commented:[19]

"I take it as an honor to think that perhaps our song could be used to quell another 9/11 attack or something like that."[19]

On December 13, 2008, Benton issued an apology on the band's MySpace page about his comment on musical torture, stating his comment had been "taken out of context".[23]

See also


  1. 1.0 1.1 1.2 1.3 "Sesame Street breaks Iraqi POWs". BBC. May 23, 2003. Retrieved 2007-11-27.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  2. UN Committee Against Torture 1997 “Concluding observations: Israel. 09/05/1997.”
  3. McCoy, Alfred W (2006). A Question of Torture. CIA Interrogation. From the Cold War to the War on Terror. New York: Henry Holt and Co.pp.
  4. A.L. Bardach, Jac Chebatoris (May 19, 2003). "Periscope". Newsweek. Retrieved 2007-11-27.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  5. "The Love's not mutual". Newsweek. May 26, 2003. Retrieved 2007-11-27.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  6. [1]
  7. "Ret. Lt. Gen. Marc Cisneros to Discuss Capture of Former Panamanian Dictator with A&M-Corpus Christi Students". Texas A&M University. September 19, 2007. Retrieved 2007-11-27.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>[dead link]
  8. Ronald H. Cole (Winter 1998–1999). "Grenada, Panama, and Haiti: Joint Operational Reform" (PDF). United States Department of Defense. Retrieved 2007-11-27.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  9. "Guantanamo Bay Inquiry (released under FOIA)". Federal Bureau of Investigation. Retrieved 2007-11-27.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  10. Dan Eggen, R. Jeffrey Smith (December 21, 2004). "FBI Agents Allege Abuse of Detainees at Guantanamo Bay". Washington Post. pp. Page A01. Retrieved 2007-11-27.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  11. Josh White, John Mintz (December 1, 2004). "Red Cross Cites 'Inhumane' Treatment at Guantanamo". Washington Post. pp. Page A10. Retrieved 2007-11-27.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  12. "Iraq: Torture not isolated -- independent investigations vital". Amnesty International. April 30, 2004. Retrieved 2007-11-27.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  13. Gwen Ackerman (January 12, 1998). "Israel refuses to ban loud music torture". Birminghan Post. Retrieved 2007-11-27.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  14. Papaeti Anna (2013). “Music, Torture, Testimony: Reopening the Case of the Greek Military Junta (1967–74).” the world of music (special issue): Music and Torture | Music and Punishment 2:1(2013), guest edited by M. J. Grant and Anna Papaeti, pp. 73–80.
  15. "U.S. MILITARY TO ATTACK INSURGENTS WITH PARIS HILTON ALBUM". Dateline Hollywood. Retrieved 2007-11-27.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  16. "Gitmo's Greatest Hits". Light Reading. 2008-07-21. Retrieved 2008-07-21.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles> mirror
  17. Sean Michaels (2008-07-09). "Music as torture may incur royalty fees". The Guardian. Retrieved 2008-07-21.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles> mirror
  18. "Zero dB web site". Retrieved 2009-10-29.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  19. 19.0 19.1 19.2 19.3 19.4 19.5 Andrew Selsky (2008-12-09). "Musicians protest use of songs by US jailers". Associated Press. Retrieved 2008-12-09.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles> mirror
  20. You Tube video
  22. "Musicians Standing Against Torture". New Security Action. Retrieved 2009-10-29.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  23. "Drowning Pool official MySpace blog (Stevie Bentons Apology)". December 14, 2008. Retrieved October 21, 2011.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>

Further reading