The dark side of music: Using sound in torture

This feature is part of Music and Your Mind, a series exploring how music affects your brain. Read part 1 on behavior and part 2 on healing.


General Augusto Pinochet's authoritarian regime, in Chile from 1973 to 1990, was known for its kidnappings, imprisonments and torture. One prisoner remembers it all too well.
In 1975, then-24-year-old Ana María Jiménez was held without charges at the Villa Grimaldi -- one of the 1,168 political detention centers in Chile, known for the widespread use of torture there. Her experience was recorded in a paper by Chilean cultural historian and music researcher Katia Chornik.
    One night, by her own account, musician Jiménez was forced to sing a song by Roberto Carlos, the Brazilian singer-songwriter who voiced his support for Pinochet during a 1975 performance. When she refused, she was forced to spend the entire night in the rain.
    An estimated 94% of prisoners detained during the Pinochet era were tortured, according to the 2004 Valech report into political imprisonment and torture by agents of the state between 1973 and 1990. Common methods included electric shock, beatings, mock executions and witnessing the torture of others.
    But for some -- like Jiménez -- there was one more element of torture: music, Chornik says.
    The Valech report says music was used as a background to torture in eight detention centers, but Chornik's work shows that the use of music was more widespread; she found evidence of its use in 30 centers.
    Common songs of choice in Villa Grimaldi were "Un millón de amigos (A Million Friends)" by Roberto Carlos and "Gigi l'amoroso (Gigi the Ladies' Man)," made popular by Dalida, according to Chornik.
    The lyrics of "Gigi l'amoroso" praise the male character. The guards "sang the song, and they loved to feel like they were Gigi," Jiménez described. As they come to torture prisoners, they would announce, "here comes Gigi the ladies' man," she said. The guards would also put the song on at full volume while performing physical torture, she said.
    The song's use in torture, as experienced by Jiménez, links to the guards' "systematic use of sexual violence against women prisoners," Chornik wrote.
    The slang word "Gigi" was used to describe the device that generated electric shocks to torture prisoners.
    Jiménez remembers listening to others being punished and being subjected to the music day and night at full volume, which was "insufferable," she said in her account.
    Once someone goes through a torture center, they are are never the same, Jimenez said via Chornik.
    "Physically, I have been left with many problems: cardiovascular, respiratory, post-traumatic alopecia, kidney difficulties, severe dental problems," she said. And then there is the fear -- "that terrible feeling that never leaves you completely," Jimenez explained. "You are always thinking that you can be attacked. You sleep with many frights. The anguish for what is happening in Chile, it deeply marks you, and you live with a lot of anguish, even panic crisis on certain occasions."
    "Even so, you try to overcome yourself and continue in the struggle for justice and truth and punishment for torturers, from wherever possible," she added.
    Jiménez founded a choir in 2013 with other survivors, and it performs regularly in commemorative events in and around Santiago.

    The ability to cause great pain -- and humiliation

    Music has been used as a means of torture throughout history, as it has the ability to cause us great pain, said Morag Josephine Grant, a musicologist at the Reid School of Music at the University of Edinburgh in the UK.
    It had different goals, including political re-education, punishment or, in Pinochet's case, for dictatorships to assert their power.
    Music can cause pain because of its emotional and psychological functions, greatly affecting our self-identity and emotions, both of which are targeted in torture, explained Grant, adding no particular type or structure of music is more effective for torture.
    "It tends to be music that has some type of resonance within the particular political and cultural situation," she said. "The types of music that are used in torture contain a strong component of degrading and humiliating people."
    One example is female Jewish musicians forced to perform marches and classical music composed by the likes of Schubert and Bach at the Auschwitz-Birkenau