Music History

A Short History of Using Music as a Weapon and Torture Device

TheConversation takes a look at the times throughout history when music was used for evil purposes.

There is of course variation in the types of music different people would consider punishment. When merchant ships reportedly were using Britney Spears’ music in the fight against Somali pirates off the coast of Africa, Steven Jones, of the Security Association for the Maritime Industry, said: “I’d imagine using Justin Bieber would be against the Geneva Convention.”

We could all jokingly volunteer “naff” music for inclusion in these punishments and deterrents – but the truth is that the (mis)use of music quite often does breach International Human Rights Conventions, notably Article 5.

Acoustic bombardment

Music has long been systematically used a weapon of war. It was famously blasted out of loudspeakers in Nazi concentration camps to drown out sounds of gunfire, which might have led to panic or rebellion. Jolly music was also used as a “welcome” to greet new arrivals at the train station in Treblinka, deceiving them about the true nature of the camp. Official orchestras were a feature of many camps. Prisoners played for the benefit of officers and were treated better than ordinary camp prisoners, many feeling that they owed their survival to being in the orchestra.

Famously, when the former leader of Panama, Manuel Noriega, was taking refuge from US forces at the home of the Papal Nuncio in Panama City, the Americans blasted heavy metal at the opera-loving general. The New York Times reported that Noriega, exhausted and tormented by the deafening heavy metal music that troops were playing, surrendered on January 4 1990.

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Alan Cross

is an internationally known broadcaster, interviewer, writer, consultant, blogger and speaker. In his 40+ years in the music business, Alan has interviewed the biggest names in rock, from David Bowie and U2 to Pearl Jam and the Foo Fighters. He’s also known as a musicologist and documentarian through programs like The Ongoing History of New Music.

Alan Cross has 37909 posts and counting. See all posts by Alan Cross

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