In the July 4 issue of The New Yorker, Alex Ross writes about the use of music in modern warfare/torture, noting that our visceral reaction to sound–both in a positive, therapeutic fashion, or in an aggrieved, stressful way–is unconscious, and therefore difficult to defend against. That said, he also observes that each person’s revulsion to an auditory signal is different: “Music therapy for a heavy-metal fan should involve heavy metal, not Enya.”
What most fascinates me about the various ways in which sound can be weaponized, however–as a non-lethal, deafening disarmament “sound cannon” or simply as a subconscious deterrent–is in the way in which it might be used to discriminate against people. Although the music that brings us pleasure and pain differs on an individual level, there are signs (or sounds) that upbringings within certain cultures or religions may make some things sound less and less like music to one’s ears. Most offensive is in Ross’s description of the assumedly harmless Mosquito, which “discourages young people from loitering” by emitting “sounds in the 17.5 to 18.5-kilohertz range, which, in general, only those under the age of twenty-five can hear.”
I’ve got no problem with a store choosing to play classical music in the hopes that it’ll chase away undesired clientele: such an effect works equally on all customers, just like a bar with a terrible or exceedingly niche DJ might discourage certain types of patrons. But targeting people based entirely on age seems unlawful; by contrast, imagine the invention of a device whose frequencies might cause those with arthritis–predominantly the elderly–to find themselves aching. We detest subliminal advertising because we feel that it cheats our eyes and minds and saps us of our free will; subauditory discrimination does the same. Here’s hoping that we listen to reason and ensure that we’re all on the same playing field when it comes to how our senses are toyed with.