Music has the ability to move us emotionally and effect us physically, to boost spirits and make a crowd move as one – but this power can have unforeseen, and even unpleasant consequences

Writer Hettie Judah, illustrations Marcel Ceuppens

War is heavy metal

George Gittoes’ documentary Soundtrack to War explores the profound integration of music into the daily lives of Americans serving in Iraq. The iPod has allowed music to become omnipresent, and servicemen and women have become ingenious in wiring up tanks and other vehicles to speaker systems that play music from their MP3 players. Gittoes’ interviewees explained how they used to metal and rap music to psych themselves up to enter an environment in which – they felt – it was more than likely someone was going to try to kill them.

Many of Gittoes interviewees also composed and performed music while in Iraq, as a form of catharsis or self-expression. Servicemen performing freestyle for the camera noted wryly that the ‘tough guy’ street scenarios and gunplay described in commercial rap music were nothing compared to the horror of their own experiences of combat. One young soldier explained that he had begun composing gore metal songs shortly after having to remove the badly damaged body of a friend from a vehicle that had gone over an IED. While they distinguished between the ‘fantasy’ aspect of the music they listened to, and the hard reality of their service experience, the power of the music seemed, if anything, enhanced by its proximity to actual violence.


Complementary ground is covered by musicologist Jonathan Pieslak in his recent book Sound Targets, for which he interviewed army personnel about their relationship with music. Sergeant First Class C J Grisham explains the transforming power that music had on him: “War is so ugly and disgusting…. It’s an inhuman thing. It’s unnatural for people to kill people. It’s something that no one should ever have to do, unfortunately someone does. And we happen to be that someone sometimes. And so listening to music would artificially make you aggressive when you needed to be aggressive.”

While Gittoes’ documentary looks at music as a form of escapism and self-expression, Pieslak goes further in exploring the root of certain forms of music’s association with violence and warfare. He traces, in particular, the way that heavy metal became first the genre of choice for action sequences in movies, then in video games – (“It’s just great music to game to. Especially if you’re pounding someone’s flesh in or crashing someone’s car, nothing beats heavy metal,” notes Steve Schnur, of EA Worldwide video games), eventually becoming the soundtrack of choice to American army recruitment ads.

Music used in this way allows the listener to psych him or herself into a ‘role’ – in creating a soundtrack to actual action it feeds into the fantasy persona, allowing both a sense of personal power and an edge of unreality. The power of fantasy can become very specific. C J Grisham describes blasting Wagner’s Ride of the Valkyries from his truck during one attack in Baghdad, specifically evoking the famous helicopter attack from Apocalypse Now to simultaneously psych up his own soldiers and intimidate the Iraqi forces.

Let the bodies hit the floor

According to Pieslak, metal’s appeal functions on a number of levels. Its fanbase in America corresponds to a significant social demographic that the army recruits from – young white working and lower middle class males. Because of its use in the entertainment industry, it has associations with power, excitement and chaotic force. He also analyses the timbre and rhythms of some of the tracks most popular with the soldiers, and notes that they have a literally warlike sound. Examining the structure of Slayer’s Angel of Death he notes; “because these rhythms are articulated in ways that resemble gunfire, soldiers may feel empowered by the music that, for them, evokes the sounds of combat.”

Slayer’s Angel of Death

The empowerment experienced by soldiers while listening to heavy metal and rap music has also been turned outward, transforming the aggressive power of the music into a literal weapon. This took place notably at Fallujah in 2004, when military strategy for retaking control of the city involved bolting speakers onto the outside of the Humvees’ gun turrets and pounding out loud, relentless music to disorientate and exhaust the Iraqis as the soldiers surrounded the city. Since the music was being used as aggressive noise, the choice of the tracks used was left up to the soldiers on the ground and included AC/DC, Eminem and Guns n’Roses.

“Soldiers experiences have shown the transformative effect of music in combat preparation, and timbre has the power to bolster confidence and motivate listeners outside of themselves.” Pieslak concludes. “Paradoxically, the sound can irritate, frustrate, and psychologically break people down. It appears that metal, and to a slightly lesser degree rap, have the dubious distinction of being capable of both psychological effects,”

Listen for new weapons

In Sonic Warfare, Steve Goodman describes how a related strategy was used in the so called Urban Funk Campaign in the early 1970s during the Vietnam war, using helicopter mounted devices known as sound curdler systems. The curdler emitted high-decibel sound, rather than music specifically, and was also used in a strategy called Wandering Soul in which the voices of ‘ghosts’ of Vietnamese ancestors were broadcast above the treetops at night, to psychologically disconcerting effect.

Goodman also suggests that the British Ministry of Defence used “a device called the Squawk Box… during the troubles in Northern Ireland for crowd control.” The box, mounted on a Land Rover, would produce ultrasonic frequencies that when combined were “intolerable to the human ear, producing giddiness, nausea, or fainting or merely a “spooky” psychological effect.”

Goodman (better known as Dubstep artist Kode9) assumes a direct link between sound as a form of entertainment and sound as a form of oppression, regularly making reference to the “military entertainment complex”, but away from the deep theory and philosophy of academia, the connection between the two seems more like furiously dark irony than sinister cahoots.

Lost in music

While working on their album Heligoland, Massive Attack approached a number of artists whose work they admired to create short films to accompany an album track of their choice. Among these were Oliver Chanarin and Adam Broomberg whose photographic work over the last decade has often examined the complex position of the photographer in depicting human suffering. Having recently completed projects in both Iraq and Afghanistan, the duo initially proposed using the track Saturday Come Slow for a film about US Drones (remotely piloted planes).

Massive Attack’s Saturday Come Slow, featuring Damon Albarn

Massive Attack put them in touch with the human rights charity Reprieve that is currently running a campaign called ZeroDB to end the use of music in torture.  CIA run facilities in Iraq, Afghanistan, Morocco and at Guantanamo Bay in Cuba use extremely loud music to break down detainees. Those who have been through it explain that the relentless barrage has horrific psychological effects – they literally felt that they were losing their sanity.

“Massive Attack are very committed to ending capital punishment”, explains Ollie. “They started talking to us about the use of music in torture, they introduced us to Ruhal and it went from there.” Ruhal Ahmed is former Guantanamo Bay detainee who was submitted to interrogation techniques using high volume music – in the film of Saturday Come Slow he describes being short-shackled and blasted with cold air for up to two and a half days at a stretch with the constant sound of heavy metal music being interspersed with episodes of physical violence and intimidation.

Whereas metal had been used by the US soldiers for its supposed power as intolerable  – even diabolical – foreign music, this is clearly not the root of the devastating effect that it had in this instance. “Ruhal is an English kid; that music wasn’t a cultural barrage,” explains Ollie. “It was familiar – eventually that music becomes something completely abstracted.

Tracks used in this kind of interrogation have included music by Aerosmith, Rage Against the Machine, AC/DC, Metallica, Eminem, Nine Inch Nails, Britney Spears, Drowning Pool and even tunes from the kids’ shows Sesame Street and Barney. Ollie explains that Clive Stafford Smith, the founder of Reprieve was unable to get the American military to admit to using music in torture so filed a copyright infringement lawsuit to make them pay for the use of Eminem.

The Cambridge University professor interviewed in Saturday Come Slow explains that the nature of the music used in torture is less a factor than the volume and quality of the sound – distortion from cheap speakers used at top volume was likely to be more of an irritant than the music itself, and continued exposure to noise at high volumes can cause permanent damage to the ear.

Chopped Liver‘s Adam Broomberg and Olivier Chanarin’s Saturday Come Slow

The film specifically focuses on the effects of sound and vibration on the human ear, but Ollie still finds it hard to divorce the notion of music as noise from music as something created and expressive. “Music is something that we all associate with joy or pleasure,” he explains. “That transformation is so horrifying – that the beautiful thing becomes something intolerable.”

Sound Targets: American Soldiers and Music in the Iraq War, Jonathan Pieslak (Indiana University Press, 2009) – Available here

Sonic Warfare: Sound, Affect and the Ecology of Fear, Steve Goodman (MIT Press, 2010) – Available here