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Bad Vibrations: Investigating Sound As Terror
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Bad Vibrations: Investigating Sound As Terror

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Bad Vibrations: Investigating Sound As Terror
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ROBERT SIEGEL, host:

From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Robert Siegel.

MELISSA BLOCK, host:

And I'm Melissa Block.

People often talk about the healing power of music, the way a great song can put us at ease and even transport us, but music can do the opposite, too, just ask Steve Goodman. He's a London-based DJ and record producer. He's also a scholar who studied the military's use of sound on the battlefield and at Guantanamo Bay to hurt people.

NPR's Sami Yenigun has that story.

SAMI YENIGUN: Steve Goodman is a lot of different people.

(Soundbite of music)

YENIGUN: He's Kode9, a producer who on his new album, "Black Sun," sets rumbling bass lines under lyrics about a toxic world.

(Soundbite of song, "Black Sun")

Mr. STEVE GOODMAN (DJ and Record Producer): (Singing) ...seeing heavy black smoke ahead rising this overwhelming feeling of dread.

YENIGUN: Goodman is a DJ and record label owner whose time spent in the clubs of London during the last decade helped spark the global dance genre known as dubstep and taught him a thing or two about sound.

Mr. GOODMAN: From being a DJ and playing on various good and bad sound systems, I'm very aware of the fact that sound and music doesn't always create pleasure and enjoyment, and actually, sound has a very special power of irritation and creating bad vibes.

YENIGUN: Goodman's interests in sound led to a book called "Sonic Warfare," published by the MIT Press in 2009.

Mr. GOODMAN: We look at everything, in the book, from the military using acoustic weaponry to the way sound is used in branding and advertising, and the way intense sound is used by various music cultures around the world to kind of build collectivity.

YENIGUN: Goodman is also a doctor of philosophy, a professor at the University of East London, and he's part of a research coalition called the AUDiNT that explores the military's use of sound.

Toby Heys is a fellow researcher at AUDiNT and says one of the things they explored is how the U.S. military use sound at Guantanamo Bay.

Mr. TOBY HEYS (Researcher, AUDiNT): A lot of the detainees who were then interviewed after their detainment have spoken about the sonic torture as being the worst rather than the sexual humiliation, rather than the beatings. The worst thing that they went through often was the sonic torture.

YENIGUN: Other examples of military uses of sound will be on display at the Dead Record Office, an audio exhibition that, Goodman says, AUDiNT is creating for the Art in General gallery in New York.

Mr. GOODMAN: What we're doing is tracing or mapping these three phases of the history of acoustic weaponry. Firstly, starting in the Second World War, the U.S. Army - there was a division of the U.S. Army that were referred to as the Ghost Army, and part of what they were involved in is sonic deception, putting loudspeakers in the battlefield to create a false impression.

So we traced this from Second World War into, again, U.S. Army in Vietnam, in a division of psy ops, psychological operations, which was referred to as Wandering Soul, which involved helicopter-mounted loudspeakers playing simulated Buddhist chants, fabricated sounds of the dead ancestors of the Vietcong fighters speaking to them from the afterlife to try and persuade Vietcong fighters to surrender.

(Soundbite of chanting)

Unidentified Woman: (Foreign language spoken)

Mr. GOODMAN: So that's the second phase, and the third phase is what's starting to emerge now of the use of these ultrasound-driven directional audio speakers.

YENIGUN: Speakers that can actually rupture eardrums from a distance.

Nina Kraus is a neurobiologist at Northwestern University who studies the human auditory system. I asked her how sound triggers things like fear in the human brain.

Dr. NINA KRAUS (Neurobiologist, Northwestern University): Very effectively. So we know that our auditory system has direct connections to our limbic system, which is the system that modulates emotions such as fear.

YENIGUN: And Kraus says those connections are unique to each individual, so no two people will hear a sound in exactly the same way.

Dr. KRAUS: You know, because of the experience that a person has had throughout their lives using sound, now when any sound occurs - and in this case, emotionally salient sounds - then the nervous system will respond in a way that will particularly enhance the information-bearing elements of the sound.

YENIGUN: So rap and heavy metal may be music to some, but for others, they're literally noise.

Toby Heys explains how U.S. troops are using that in Afghanistan.

Mr. HEYS: Before they embark in conflict, they kind of, almost like an operating theater, they kind of cleanse the area, but it's like this kind of cultural cleansing, right? So they're playing heavy metal music. They're playing rap music. They're playing country music.

YENIGUN: Depending on your cultural experiences, the booming bass lines of, say, Kode9's music may sound either threatening or inviting.

(Soundbite of music)

YENIGUN: But Steve Goodman says that's what interests him about sound.

Mr. GOODMAN: There's a political dimension to sound and music that people often ignore that I call in the first book the politics of frequency, and the way certain frequencies change the way you feel, the way that certain frequencies resonate with different parts of your body and really just tap into the physiological and psychological dimensions of your experience. So it's really just to open up that other dimension of people thinking about music and sonic culture.

YENIGUN: For his next book, Goodman is asking musicians, advertisers and military personnel about their experiences with sound as a weapon.

(Soundbite of music)

YENIGUN: Sami Yenigun, NPR News.

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