Subdetritus ~ august 2011

August 31st, 2011

This month in Subdetritus we look at the physical and psychological effect of music on people, specifically with regards to our good old friend – bass. Since the earliest day of sound system culture in Jamaica, there has existed a competitive strive towards having the biggest rig able to push out the maximum amount of bass. Sound systems are still judged on their ability to not only clearly represent all the frequencies of music to the ear, but also their ability for the music to be felt. To this end, quality sound systems are designed to emit frequencies well outside the range of frequencies that humans can hear. Above that range is known as ultrasound, and below the range is infrasound.

I distinctly remember my first visit to Fabric nightclub in London and that physical pressure in my chest and head from the bass during a Roni Size set in Room 2. While these kinds of systems are heaven to bass music lovers, the risk of permanent ear damage is very real and should be avoided with quality earplugs. Other symptoms of prolonged exposure to high volumes of low frequencies and infrasound can include disorientation, shortness of breath, anxiety and nausea.

Unsurprisingly, the physical and psychological effects of certain music and frequencies have been used by governments, military and police as sonic weapons. The use of sound to strike fear into enemies or prey has always occurred in nature by animals, and has long held a place in human conflict in the form of drums, trumpets, war cries and other taunts. During the ongoing wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, coalition forces reportedly blasted heavy metal from speakers mounted to vehicles in the battlefield and inmates at the US prison in Guantanamo Bay were allegedly exposed to extended, loud bouts of music from bands such as Metallica as a form of torture.  Similar tactics were used by the US military against General Noriega in Panama and the Branch Davidians in Waco, and are also used to disperse crowds and deter teenagers from hanging around shopping malls afterhours. Sufferers of Alzheimer’s disease react negatively to wrong notes played in a familiar melody highlighting the effects of music deep in the subconscious.

Much research has been poured into sonic weaponry that goes a little deeper than the above examples. A great chunk of the research into the effects on the human body from infrasound was conducted by NASA in the early 1960s to discover what affect the low frequencies created by rockets would have on astronauts during launches. The most infamous effect on humans comes from the so-called ‘brown note’. The brown note is a theoretical infrasonic frequency between 5 to 9 Hz that would cause a person to lose control of their bowels and soil themselves. While the idea is frankly tremendous, little to no scientific evidence actually exists to support the theory, though many have tried – including popular TV show Mythbusters but alas to no avail. Other weaponry applications include sonic booms or ‘sound bombs’, focused beams of high intensity ultrasound that can cause lung and intestinal damage in mice, and Long Range Acoustic Devices (LRADs) used to send instructions, warnings and deterrents to enemies over long distances.

If this field is of interest to you, I cannot recommend highly enough the book Sonic Warfare: Sound, Affect, and the Ecology of Fear by Steve Goodman – better known to bass music fans as Kode9.  Goodman’s book not only explores the application of sound and frequency in a military sense, but more broadly how acoustic forces affect populations in a political and social context by creating a “bad vibe”. Anyone who is even vaguely familiar with his label Hyperdub will attest to his fascination with interplaying rhythmic patterns and disorientating discordant harmony. The result is music that instils a pervading sense of dread or unease, but unfortunately won’t make you shit your pants.

By Brad Swob

(originally published in Time Off)

Categories: Articles, Swob | Tags: , ,

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