Exploring Music's Complexities

Music in Psychological Warfare

The Sinister Side of Music


Over the Centuries much has been written describing the short and long-term effects of music both pleasurable and sinister.  Consensus seems to indicate that, in most cases, music provides beneficial effects including reducing stress and improving athletic performance and learning.   In the military music is used as a moral booster, to control formation and to alert the troops. For most, music is a pleasure seeking behavior because it makes one feel good.

However, music does not always produce pleasure. Discussions related to the use of music as an irritant date back Centuries. Joshua used trumpets, George Washington, and Andrew Jackson used drums, and Santa Anna played El Deguello (Show no mercy) (1, 2).

Modern incorporation of music in psychological warfare was noted during World War II, Manuel Noriega’s barricade, and during the Branch Dravidian holdout in Waco, Texas.  Music was used for torture at the beginning of American operations in Afghanistan and Iraq and included use of heavy metal and children’s sing-along songs.

 What is it about this music that makes it an #effective weapon?   

Human ears compress very loud sounds to protect the delicate components of the middle and inner ear.  If ones ability to perceive increases in loudness is exceeded, proportional increases in the signal sent by the eardrum may cause it to tear causing the victim unable to hear (3).  Tinnitus can result from listening to music at high volumes or amplitudes. #Tinnitus is a buzzing in the ears that ranges from slight to severe. Tinnitus is a highly subjective condition; some patients claim to perceive sounds of animals or even popular songs. Music’s effect depends on the loudness of the sound not the quality of the music (4).

Given sufficient exposure, long-term exposure to loudness can cause insanity (4).  If the use of heavy metal music is alternated with sing-along kid’s music the change in musical tones for long periods may produce psychological trauma (2).

Quoting from the Wall Street Journal, “Donald Vance, who was imprisoned for 97 days at a U.S. military detention center in Iraq and is now suing the U.S. government, claims that interrogators there subjected him to a nonstop barrage of recorded music that made him suicidal. “It sort of removes you from you,” he told an Associated Press reporter. “You can no longer formulate your own thoughts when you’re in an environment like that.” (6).

#The Journal of the Society for American Music discusses the use of music in Iraq and Afghanistan as a means to induce disorientation without the use of physical force.  They provide an interesting list of effective songs including:

Bruce Springsteen’s “Born in the USA”
Christina Aguilera’s “Dirrty”
Nancy Sinatra’s “these Boots were Made for Walking”
AC/DC’s “Shoot to Thrill” and “Hells Bells”
Anything by Barry Manilow
Barney the Dinosaur’s “I Love You’  (7)

Reports identify  “I Love You,” by Barney the Purple Dinosaur as the most overused song in psychological warfare.  This song is a successful tool because it is grating.  Quoting the Guarding,  “In the torture trade, this is called “futility music,” designed to convince the prisoner of the futility of maintaining his position.”  (5).

The U.S. Government released a list of 35 artists whose music had been used in #interrogations of detainees at #U.S. military detention centers, including the one at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba.

The artists listed are:
AC/DC; Aerosmith;
Barney theme song (By Bob Singleton);
The Bee Gees,
Britney Spears;
Bruce Springsteen;
Christina Aguilera;
David Gray; Deicide; Don McClean;
Dr. Dre; Drowning Pool;
Hed P.E.;
James Taylor;
Limp Bizkit;
Marilyn Manson;
Matchbox Twenty;
Meow mix jingle;
Neil Diamond;
Nine Inch Nails Pink;
Prince; Queen;
Rage against the Machine;
Red Hot Chili Peppers;
Sesame street theme music (By Christopher Cerf);
Stanley Brothers;
The Star Spangled Banner;
Tupac Shakur. (8).

Given all the controversy over the use of music as a weapon of #torture, a White House spokesman was quoted saying music has not been used as an instrument of torture since 2003. (8).

The UN and the European court of Human Rights have banned the use of loud music in interrogations.  NATO has also responded in a less specific manner.  Saying: “The first task of a loudspeaker message is to gain and hold the attention of the target audience. Means of achieving this include the use of jingles, local music…[In radio operations] A wide range of program formats are available to the broadcaster, including drama, music, news, talks and discussions. Careful target analysis will make it possible to identify and exploit those types of program which are most favored by the intended audience (8).


  1. Adam Piore, “PSYOPS:  Cruel and Unusual, Newsweek, 19 May 2003.
  2. Friedman, H.A., The Use of Music in Psychological Operations.  http:www.psywarrior.com/MusicUsePSYOP.html.
  3. Levitin, Daniel J.  This is Your Brain on Music.  The Science of a Human Obsession.  A Plum Book, 2006.  p70.
  4.  Positive and Negative Effects of Music.  http://www.ehow.com/about_5316884_positive-negative-effects-music.html
  5. Welcome to “the disco.” The guardian.  http://www.theguardian.com/world/2008/jun/19/usa.guantanamo.
  6. Musical Torture Instruments.  Can Being forced to Listen Really be that Painful?  The Wall Street Journal.  http://online.wsj.com/articles/SB123456310592185753.
  7. Gallagher, Danny.   6 songs Used to Torture & Intimidate., http://mentalfloss.com/article/22075/6-songs-used-torture-intimidate.
  8. The Use of Music in Psychological Operations.  http://www.psyawarrior.com/MusicUsePSYOP.html.
  9. Aaron Copland.  Film Music.  http://puffin.creighton.edu/fapa/Bruce/ONewFilm

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