Music can be used as a tool of psychological warfare. The term "music torture" is sometimes used to describe the practice. While it is acknowledged by United States interrogation experts to cause discomfort, it has also been characterized as having no "long-term effects".
Music and sound have been usually used as part of a combination of interrogation methods, today recognized by international bodies as amounting to torture. Attacking all senses without leaving any visible traces, they have formed the basis of the widely discussed torture in Guantanamo and Abu Ghraib. They were, however, devised much earlier in the 1950s and early 1960s, as a way to counter so-called Soviet "brainwashing". Methods of "noise torture" or "sound torture", which include the continuous playing of music or noise, have been paired with sensory deprivation, sleep deprivation, food and drink deprivation, and stress positions.
"These people haven't heard heavy metal. They can't take it. If you play it for 24 hours, your brain and body functions start to slide, your train of thought slows down and your will is broken. That's when we come in and talk to them."
"W[itness] observed sleep deprivation interviews w/strobe lights and loud music. Interrogator said it would take 4 days to break someone doing an interrogation 16 hrs w/lights and music on and 4 hrs off. Handwritten note next to typed synopsis says "ok under DoD policy".
"Rumors that interrogator bragged about doing lap dance on d[etainee], another about making d[etainee] listen to satanic black metal music for hours then dressing as a Priest and baptizing d[etainee] to save him - handwritten note says 'yes'."
"W[itness] saw d[etainee] in interview room sitting on floor w/Israeli flag draped around him, loud music and strobe lights. W suspects this practice is used by DOD DHS based on who he saw in the hallway."
"The physical tactics noted by the Red Cross included placing detainees in extremely cold rooms with loud music blaring, and forcing them to kneel for long periods of time, the source familiar with the report said."
"A former adviser to Hillary Clinton hired a Mariachi band to play outside of the White House in an effort to disrupt President Trump's sleep on Wednesday night."
"Detainees have reported being routinely subjected to cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment during arrest and detention. Many have told Amnesty International that they were tortured and ill-treated by US and UK troops during interrogation. Methods often reported include prolonged sleep deprivation; beatings; prolonged restraint in painful positions, sometimes combined with exposure to loud music; prolonged hooding; and exposure to bright lights. Virtually none of the allegations of torture or ill-treatment has been adequately investigated by the authorities."
According to recent research, the Greek military Junta (1967–1974) used the above-mentioned combination of interrogation techniques, including music. This took place in the headquarters of the Special Interrogation Unit of Greek Military Police (EAT/ESA), Athens. New interviews with survivors, held there in 1973, talk about the use of songs, popular hits of the time: these were played loudly and repeatedly from loudspeakers as the detainee had to stand without rest, food, drink or sleep.
In the book A Clockwork Orange by Anthony Burgess and the subsequent film based upon it, a rebellious teenager is subjected to brutal experimental brain-washing techniques that cause him to feel physical pain if he has similar violent thoughts to those that sent him to jail in the first place; as an accidental side-effect, he has the same response if he hears Beethoven's Ninth Symphony. Later, a man tortures him by locking him in a room where the symphony is played loudly.
In Apocalypse Now, a helicopter squadron plays classical music, Richard Wagner's Ride of the Valkyries, over loudspeakers on-board their helicopters while attacking a Viet Cong village, as a form of psychological warfare.
In an episode of the U.S. television show Burn Notice Sam Axe plays loud music to a prisoner to break his will.
In Power Rangers Megaforce, Emma sings a song to help the rangers defeat Dischord.
In the series 'Lost', drum and bass music is used to keep an islander's boyfriend awake and indoctrinated and tortured.
In one episode of 'The Flash' Cisco plays 'Never Gonna Give You Up' on repeat to Hartley get him to reveal information they need.
Public awareness of the use of this technique is widespread enough that it can be used in satirical attacks on popular culture:
"Hollywood — Several days after Paris Hilton announced that she will release a music album, the Pentagon has decided to buy 50,000 copies of her upcoming album to use against insurgents in the volatile Anbar province in western Iraq."
In Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy (film) a captured British intelligence officer under interrogation in a Soviet prison is subjected to disturbing sounds being repeatedly played through a pair of headphones
On 9 December 2008 the Associated Press reported that various musicians were coordinating their objections to the use of their music as a technique for softening up captives through an initiative called Zero dB. Zero dB is an initiative against music torture set up by legal charity Reprieve, which represents over thirty prisoners in Guantanamo Bay. Zero dB aims to stop torture music by encouraging widespread condemnation of the practice and by calling on governments and the UN to uphold and enforce the Convention Against Torture and other relevant treaties. The initiative is backed by the Musicians Union which is calling on British musicians to voice their outrage against the use of music to torture.
Musicians and the wider public are making their own silent protests against music torture which are being shown on Zero dB. A series of silent protests and actions are planned through 2009. Participating musicians will include minutes of silence in their concerts to draw their audience's attention to the USA's use of deafening music against captives.
According to the Associated Press FBI agents stationed at Guantanamo Bay reported that the use of deafening music was common. According to the Associated Press Guantanamo Bay spokesmen Commander Pauline Storum:
Among the musicians united in their objections were Christopher Cerf, a composer for the children's show Sesame Street, and Tom Morello of Rage Against the Machine and Audioslave. Others include Massive Attack, R.E.M., The Roots, Rise Against, Rosanne Cash, Pearl Jam, Bonnie Raitt, Trent Reznor, Billy Bragg, Michelle Branch, Jackson Browne, T-Bone Burnett, David Byrne, Marc Cohn, Steve Earle, Limp Bizkit, System of a Down, Disturbed, the Entrance Band, Skinny Puppy and Joe Henry.
On December 13, 2008, Benton issued an apology on the band's MySpace page about his comment on musical torture, stating his comment had been "taken out of context".