This is the second part of a two-part post about the destructive capabilities of sound and sound design. Specifically, these posts talk about how sound design is used during war and the factors common to these uses. Maybe a look at such extreme usage will spur ideas of how sound design can be used in more constructive, peaceful ways.
From reading the previous post, you can see that the use of sound design in this context is both psychological and physical and it’s strength lies in being able to affect both the body and the mind; potent stuff! This is no less true for another, more sinister application: the use of sound in torture.
If the use of sound design in war strikes you as sinister, you may be shocked to learn that it is also used in torture. The idea apparently came from the North Koreans and Chinese who used sound to brainwash captives during the Korean War. The Americans realised how powerful this concept was and therefore conducted research into how it might be countered so they could defend themselves against it. This research actually ended up leading to the US using similar techniques employed by the Chinese and North Koreans and these techniques have been used at both Guantanamo Bay as well as the Abu Ghraib prison.
So, what has this torture consisted of? Well, reports say that very loud, aggressive music is played as an integral part of stress-based torture; loud sound is extremely fatiguing to listen to. On its own, the music serves to isolate the captive and draw them into their mind while learning dependence on their captor. Used for hours, the music keeps the captive awake and disoriented; the idea being that talking and divulging information will be seen as a release from the stress of not being able to rest and also of escape from the sound.
An interesting point to note about this audio torture is that Muslim detainees at these two prisons have also talked about how culture has played a part in their discomfort. Music has very different, religious meanings for a lot of Muslims and being subjected to intense rock and metal music offends their beliefs, which are at the very core of their existence. When paired with isolation and hopelessness, this imposition could be very powerful in changing thought patterns.
It is probably pretty obvious to you that very loud sound is very uncomfortable and you instantly want to remove yourself from it. However, something called dissonance also contributes and is used in sound design with great effect. Heard in much modern metal music, dissonance also produces an uncomfortable feeling. Sound is basically the vibration of air molecules and the speed at which they vibrate is called frequency. The frequencies of sounds that go well together have a mathematical relationship, one number is divisible by the other. When sounds are dissonant, this numerical relationship does not exist and our brain interprets this as uncomfortable, making it a great tool for violent, unsettling music! This effect comes from a cross between physiology and culture though: Our cultures train our ears to what sounds acceptable but the effect is directly related to how sound moves as well as the way our brain is structured in interpreting these sounds.
So, as with the militaristic uses of sound design as described in the previous post, torture also uses the basic power of sound as well as the psychological affects it has, creating an overall sound design. Too much of any sensory input is always painful so there is perhaps not much we can learn from this. But sound is very important to our psychological make-up; sound is always around us, we cannot easily switch it off like we can with sight and the fact that sound is a constant in our lives (even when asleep!) means it can easily obtain meaning when paired with emotion. Reverse these negative sounds to positive sounds and the affect remains. Think of a nice relaxing summer afternoon in a park; what can you hear? The gentle, hypnotising swish of the trees in a breeze; delicate birdsong and maybe even the calm of running water. Now, keep the scene exactly the same but replace those sounds with violent, uncomfortably loud smashes and crashes and have a think about how your mood changes. The emotional pairing and content of sound is driving the feelings you are experiencing.