When Music Tortures You

Aris Setyawan
Aris Setyawan
Posted undercultural studiescultureessayethnomusicologyetnomusikologiilmu budayamusicmusik

I just finished reading Can Music Make You Sick? By Sally Anne Gross and George Musgrave. The research they summarized in the book states that music not only has positive effects that are good for humans. Music can also have a negative effect on humans physically and mentally. These two researchers describe how the ambitions of musicians to gain fame in the music world actually torture them, physically and mentally.

Why is music so torturous? This is because music is arguably one of the branches of art that is directly related to our physical and mental. Music is a series of sounds arranged in such a way with various elements such as melody, harmony, timbre, tempo, rhythm, bar and scale so that it becomes a work. The music we listen to will be captured by our eardrums, then the brain translates the datum into impressions.

In their book Sally Anne Gross and George Musgrave describe how musicians are sometimes tormented in the creative process of their music. The effects of the torture were no joke, many musicians later experienced mental disorders.

In the end, it is common for us to know that many musicians then decide to end their own lives because they are no longer able to make peace with themselves. One example is 27 Club, the name for musicians who died of their own decisions, such as Kurt Cobain, Janis Joplin, Jimi Hendrix, to Amy Winehouse.

Throughout the history of human civilization, we’ve usually talked about the way music moves us—for joy, passion, excitement, moodiness, even anger—but music can also be used for much darker purposes. Music can be used to torture humans.

At least that’s what happened at the US government’s Guantánamo prison. In addition to gruesome forms of physical torture such as waterboarding, detainees—most of whom are accused of being terrorists, hailing from the Middle East and not having the right to defend themselves in court—are also tortured with music.

Music, like many art forms, is how we identify with our culture and our place in the world. Playing music that was intentionally made by American or foreign musicians to prisoners from the Middle East was intended to distance prisoners from themselves and their culture, as well as to exhaust them psychologically.

Using mostly hard rock and metal music, prisoners are inundated with sounds that are foreign to their ears and thus even more grate and isolate something they might be more suited to associate with.

In their 2014 report, Vox presented the long-awaited Senate Intelligence Committee torture report that was finally released to the public in 2014 revealing some of the horrific physical tortures carried out by the CIA. These include waterboarding, depriving detainees of sleep, and sexual harassment. The report also details the agency’s use of “voice disorientation techniques”. The report said the music boomed at the detainees for 24 hours.

In the report, Vox presented the testimonies of a number of former Guantánamo prison detainees. It was explained that the purpose of the sound disorientation technique was to bring down prisoners mentally and physically.

Imagine this scene! You are locked in a dark narrow room, and for 24 hours you are forced to listen to hard music (read: metal) with decibels that human ears can’t tolerate. Over time you will fall physically and mentally. You will lose your sanity. This is the purpose of torture through music.

What is interesting is the selection of the genre of music used to torture the prisoners. Specifically, metal and pop music were chosen. This is because both genres are closely viewed as “American music”, and these genres are certainly very foreign to prisoners who are culturally closer to the Middle East region.

Some of the metal music played included “Enter Sandman” by thrash metal band Metallica, “Fuck Your God” by Deicide, “The Beautiful People” by Marylin Manson, and “Bodies” by Drowning Pool.

Apart from metal, prisoners are also forced to listen to pop music, such as Christina Aguilera’s “Dirrty”, rapper Eminem’s “Kim”, to “Baby One More Time” popularized by singer Britney Spears.

Looking at the case of torture with music at the Guantánamo prison in Cuba, I then concluded that without the awareness to listen to it at your own choice, music can turn into torture. Not only for the prisoners at Guantánamo, but also for those of us who are forced to listen to music at high volume in coffee shops or cafes, in cramped elevator spaces, or on loudspeakers in public transportation or buses.

Conditions may not be as bad as in a prison. However, we have certainly experienced an incident when we were hanging out or eating at a cafe or restaurant, and the playlist of music playing there was not the music we liked, and unfortunately the music was playing so loud that we even had trouble hearing the voice of the opponent.

According to my understanding, it is also a form of torture. Because we don’t consciously choose to listen to that music and live it.

So, from now on it’s better for us to get used to listening to music better, more consciously, and more actively. So that the music does not become a torture. We must actively “listen” to music, and not just passively “hear” music.

Because when music tortures you, you should have full power to resist the torture in the form of sonic strikes. We are luckier because we can still choose, for example by leaving a cafe or restaurant that plays loud music, or reprimanding the waiter there to turn down the sound of the music playing.

Imagine the fate of the prisoners accused of terrorists in Guantánamo prison! They don’t have the same choices as us. When music tortures them, they can only surrender, submit to a super power country—which is said to be the world’s police—namely the United States.

Now, let’s listen to music that is not torturous. Music that is fun, uplifting and liberating.

Taggeddrowning poo;guantanamoguantanamo prisonmethodMusicmusic psychologytorturing

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