Lily E. Hirsch wrote the book on how music has been used to prevent crime and torture people. Music in American Crime Prevention and Punishment that covers "police and community leaders' use of classical music in crime deterrence and punishment; the use of rap lyrics as prosecutorial evidence; allegations of music as incitement to violence; and the role of music in U.S. prisons and in detention centers in Guantanamo, Iraq, and Afghanistan." Yale law student Maggie Wang interviewed Hirsch for Culture Study:
How exactly has music been used as torture?
Sometimes it's for sleep deprivation — loud music keeping someone awake. The body breaks down from lack of sleep. But there are symbolic uses too, where the music of a woman might be used to torture a man of particular Muslim faith where there are prescriptions around music and the music of women. We saw that also in Nazi Germany, where a song by Wagner was used in the concentration camps to harass prisoners.
Particularly catchy music has also been used. One example from the War on Terror is Barney's "I Love You." It's very repetitive: an earworm that begins to fire on repeat. People talk about it as funny, but it can interrupt thought and interrupt a person's connection with the self, which is already under threat when you're under someone else's control. That emotional impact, that interruption of thought, can be just as destructive as a physical response like loud music hurting the eardrum and interrupting sleep.
Should the history of music as torture change our relationship with music at all?
It's a good reminder that music can be used in a lot of different ways. Because I've written about these topics, I have been asked, "Do you even like music?" I find that question wild, because I would think, if you do care about music, if you do love music, you want to know all that it can do. You want to know it in full. And part of knowing it in full is recognizing all these different ways it's used.
Where and when does the earliest documentation of music as a crime deterrent come from?
I've never tried to pinpoint the very beginnings of this besides the use of music to repel teenagers from storefronts and other public places, which seems like something a few people thought of in different ways. You even see it in movies where the hero wins by playing music and scaring someone off. But I did find the 7-Eleven to be one of the earliest institutions that came up with the idea of using music played outside to repel "loiterers"—teenagers, homeless people, anyone they deemed undesirable—and that dated back to, I think, 1985.
"When Music is Torture" (Culture Study)