Have you ever got a song stuck in your head that you just can’t seem to shake? That catchy piece of music on a recurrent loop in your brain, also known as an earworm, may seem torturous but pales in comparison to actual sound torture employed for military purposes. Sound torture is a type of psychological warfare used to break the will of prisoners using loud music or white noise. While many of us use music to escape or even center ourselves, it can also be used as an instrument of torture under the right conditions.

Sound Torture During The Iraqi War

After details emerged regarding the U.S. military’s use of torture during the Iraqi War, common methods of physical torture, including “waterboarding,” hooding, and physical abuse, came under immense national and global scrutiny. The use of torture remains a widely debated issue when it comes to the treatment of military detainees. Music torture is currently banned by the United National Convention Against Torture, but it is still permitted under U.S. law. The United National Convention Against Torture defines torture as:

any act by which severe pain or suffering, whether physical or mental, is intentionally inflicted on a person for such purposes as obtaining from him, or a third person, information or a confession, punishing him for an act he or a third person has committed or is suspected of having committed, or intimidating or coercing him or a third person, or for any reason based on discrimination of any kind, when such pain or suffering is inflicted by or at the instigation of or with the consent or acquiescence of a public official or other person acting in an official capacity.

Errol Morris’s 2008 documentary “Standard Operating Procedure” focused on abuse and torture of prisoners at the Abu Gharib prison in 2003 by U.S. soldiers. A clip from the film features a U.S. soldier explaining the use of deafening music to have a psychological impact on prisoners of war.

So-called “no touch” torture is by many considered more humane compared to waterboarding or hooding, but it's just as effective when it comes to coaxing information out of military prisoners. Other forms of “no touch” torture that are combined with sound torture include sleep deprivation, controlling the temperature of interrogation rooms, and violating the prisoner’s religious or cultural beliefs. Even though the prisoner is not harmed physically, human rights activists still find these techniques to be a violation of basic human rights.

How Sound Torture Works

Certain interrogation reports highlight the use of loud music reaching upward of 79 decibels for weeks and even months. Heavy metal music, such as Metallica’s “Enter Sandman,” Rage Against the Machine’s “Killing in the Name Of,” and Deicide’s “Fuck Your God,” often ends up on the CIA’s “torture playlist.” However, the most popular song used to torture prisoners at Guantanamo Bay and other detention centers in Iraq or Afghanistan was “I Love You” by Barney the Purple Dinosaur.

In addition to the ear-splitting decibel level, the music’s content is often chosen to offend the prisoner’s cultural beliefs. Sergeant Mark Hadsell from the U.S. Psychological Operations Company (Psy Ops) told Newsweek:

"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."

Although it may illicit the desired psychological effect of weakening the mental state of detainees, vice president of the Psy Ops Veterans Association Rick Hoffman said the interrogation technique has no long-term effect on the prisoner. Still, soldiers who are required to undergo sound torture for 45 minutes as a part of training would rather not do it again.

No matter how loud the music is or what its lyrics are about, the result is the same: the incessant use of music to cause discomfort among prisoners. Music used to break down the resistance of an enemy during interrogation is described as “futility music.” Professor Suzanne Cusick from NYU studied the effect of music torture in her 2009 paper, "'You are in a place that is out of the world. . .': Music in the Detention Camps of the 'Global War on Terror.'" She describes futility music as a technique used to persuade a detainee that resistance to interrogation is futile.

History of Sound Torture

Sound torture is nothing new. In fact, using sound to psychologically attack an enemy has roots in the ancient Aztec culture. The Aztec “Death Whistle” served a variety of purposes from human sacrifice rituals to warfare. During a siege on enemy territory, the Aztecs warriors would sound the “Death Whistle” in an effort to cause their enemies psychological discomfort before the impending battle. The skull-shaped tool produces a terrifying screech that has to be heard to be believed:

The U.S. has also employed sound torture outside of the Iraqi War. In December 1989, Panama’s military dictator Manual Noriega took refuge in the Vatican Embassy a few days after President George Bush launched Operation Just Cause, an invasion of Panama aimed toward overthrowing Noriega. The U.S. military broadcasted a playlist that included Led Zeppelin, Black Sabbath, Guns N’ Roses, and Van Halen’s “Panama” over a military radio station.

While General James D. Thurman said music acted as a “sound barrier” that would prevent journalists from listening in on negotiations with Noriega supporters, none could dismiss the psychological pressure it put on both the Vatican Embassy and Noriega. Noriega surrendered to the U.S. military on Jan. 3, 1990, after 10 days of listening to the hard rock playlist.

Between Feb. 28 and April 19, 1993, federal and state military and law enforcement in Texas executed what is now known as the Waco siege. The siege took place at the Mount Carmel Center that housed the Branch Davidians, a religious group led by David Koresh. Over the course of seven weeks, the FBI used an unconventional playlist that included Tibetan chants, Christmas carols, and Nancy Sinatra’s “These Boots Are Made for Walkin’” to weaken the will of besieged Koresh followers. In the end, a fire allegedly started by sect members killed 76 people, including Koresh.

Musicians Against Sound Torture

How do the musicians whose music is used for sound torture feel about this interrogation technique? Musicians whose songs have been featured on military “torture playlists,” including Trent Reznor of Nine Inch Nails and Tom Morello of Rage Against The Machine, have been outspoken over the treatment of prisoners at Guantanamo Bay and Abu Ghraib, especially when considering their music is used in the torture.

Reprieve, a British legal action charity that provides legal representation for Guantanamo Bay prisoners, launched the Zero dB (against music torture) initiative in 2008 to persuade musicians into standing up against the U.S. military and central intelligence agencies (CIA) use of their music as a torture device.

It’s difficult for me to imagine anything more profoundly insulting, demeaning and enraging than discovering music you’ve put your heart and soul into creating has been used for purposes of torture,” Reznor said in a blog post dated December 11, 2008. “If there are any legal options that can be realistically taken they will be aggressively pursued, with any potential monetary gains donated to human rights charities. Thank GOD this country has appeared to side with reason and we can put the Bush administration’s reign of power, greed, lawlessness and madness behind us.

Other musicians whose music has been used in this interrogation process don’t find it all that offensive. James Hetfield, co-founder of Metallica, whose music frequently pops up on reported “torture playlists,” is even proud that his music has been used by military personnel in the past.

We’ve been punishing our parents, our wives, our loved ones with this music forever. Why should the Iraqis be any different?” Hetfield said in a radio interview. “It’s the relentlessness of the music. It’s completely relentless. If I listened to a death metal band for 12 hours in a row, I’d go insane, too. I’d tell you anything you wanted to know.