Brown Notes and Sound Cannons: Surrender, or We’ll Hit You with Doris Day Again

     by Bradley Denton

     Wild Cards has never shied away from examining ignoble motives or behavior.  Characters who misuse their abilities are at least as common in Wild Cards as those who use their powers for good – and sometimes, those who use their powers for good are just as likely to turn around and do something heinous in the next paragraph.

     That’s why, after writing a Wild Cards World blog post about loud sounds in history, and then another about echo and reverb sound effects, I’m now going to turn my attention to the nastier side of noise.

     In my first earsplitting essay, “A Brief History of Loudness,” I discussed shock waves, which are noises with amplitudes so great that they aren’t even considered “sound” anymore.  Shock waves can result from natural phenomena such as volcanoes and earthquakes, or from artificial devices such as bombs and rockets.  They can be violent enough to flatten trees and blow up buildings, and can deafen or kill persons caught too close to their sources.  However, as devastating as they may be, shock waves tend to be side effects, rather than the primary purposes, of the devices that create them. 

     So that isn’t what we’ll be talking about this time around.  Instead, we’ll consider sounds that may or may not be “loud,” but that have deliberately been employed as weapons in and of themselves.

     That isn’t to suggest that every sound used as a weapon has been specifically created for that purpose.  For example, the songs of AC/DC, Van Halen, the Doors, and the Clash aren’t generally considered to be weapons-grade . . . but during the 1989 U.S. invasion of Panama, American troops executing “Operation Nifty Package” aimed Humvee-mounted loudspeakers blaring those bands’ songs (among others) at the Vatican embassy, where Panamanian strongman Manuel Noriega had taken refuge.  Opera-lover Noriega couldn’t take all of that rock’n’roll, and he eventually gave up – although it’s possible that Vatican diplomats cracked first and threw him out. 

     Similar uses of loudspeaker-blared music as weapons of war have included 1) Argentine tangos aimed at German soldiers during the siege of Stalingrad in 1942, 2) Doris Day tunes aimed at the Viet Cong during the Vietnam War, and 3) Nancy Sinatra’s “These Boots Were Made for Walkin’” aimed at the Branch Davidian compound near Waco, Texas, in 1993.  The sounds of heavy metal music, of tanks and artillery, of human screams, and of rabbits being slaughtered have also been employed in siege operations, with varying (and always controversial) results.

     The weaponization of music and other noises occurs at a more personal level when it’s used as a method of torturing individual captives.  The goal here is to assault a prisoner’s senses to the point where he or she will be willing to give up information in order to prevent further sonic assault.  Both high volume and endless repetition are involved, and some of the music employed in this fashion has included Metallica’s “Enter Sandman” and Barney the Dinosaur’s “I Love You” (which was reportedly used over and over again on “War on Terror” detainees at Guantanamo Bay).  Whether such methods result in worthwhile intelligence is questionable, and it’s been argued that that the only real value of these tactics lies in allowing captors to be cruel to their prisoners while claiming to have inflicted no physical harm.

     Whether it “works” or not, the use of loud, repetitive music and noise in psychological warfare and torture has been around for a long time.  But the technology for amplified sound-as-weapon took a leap forward after the October 2000 terrorist attack at the port of Aden, Yemen, on the U.S.S. Cole.  During that attack, personnel aboard the Cole were unable to determine whether an approaching vessel (which turned out to be packed with explosives) could hear their warnings to turn away, and that lack of certainty caused a delayed response that resulted in the deaths of seventeen U.S. sailors.  This led to the development of the “Acoustic Hailing Device,” or AHD, a powerful high-clarity loudspeaker that projects sound up to 160 dB (see “A Brief History of Loudness” for how decibels, dB, are measured).  Furthermore, an AHD can blast the sound of a human voice (or of a siren or music) in either a conical or omnidirectional beam that is always “in phase” – as opposed to the sound from a device such as a bullhorn or a conventional loudspeaker, which is “out of phase” and becomes more and more distorted with distance.  In other words, an AHD allows spoken messages or alarm tones to not only be heard, but to be clear and intelligible up to one and a half miles from their source.

     A number of world navies currently use AHD devices called LRADs, or “Long Range Acoustic Devices” (manufactured by Genasys, Inc.) as hailing devices at sea, and they are thus able to communicate with (and/or warn away) vessels that cannot be contacted by radio.  LRADs – some models of which look like large loudspeakers, while others look like big hunks of sheetrock in circular or rectangular frames – have also been used for mass communication on land during natural disasters and other emergencies.

     Those are pretty valuable and positive functions.  However, LRADs, often called “sound cannons,” have also been used for aural assaults and crowd control . . . although “crowd control,” in some cases, might be rephrased as “attacking peaceful protestors.”  Since an LRAD beam can be highly directional, and is typically over 135 dB in intensity (for comparison, a fire truck’s siren is about 120 dB), it can be fired into a cluster of human beings with painful effect.  Using a “siren mode” with a frequency of 2,000-4,000 Hertz (Hz), even a small “man-carried” LRAD often used by police departments will inflict severe discomfort within 20 meters, and can cause permanent hearing damage.  Larger, vehicle-mounted LRADs (also used by some police departments, as well as by the military) are even more powerful and can inflict damage at much greater distances.

     So far, lawsuits in both Pittsburgh and New York City filed by plaintiffs who claimed hearing loss from police LRAD use have been settled in the plaintiffs’ favors.  In the New York case, which cost the city $750,000.00 in 2021, the New York Police Department also agreed to refrain from using the LRAD’s “alert tone” in the future.  However, they stopped short of promising to refrain from using LRADs altogether.

     The NYPD may be thinking that they can avoid such lawsuits in the future by “turning down” their LRADs, since the pain and hearing loss an LRAD can inflict depend on both the volume (dB) and frequency range (Hz) of the sound emitted. The human voice has a normal frequency range of about 100-300 Hz, and a “regular” police or ambulance siren is somewhere around 750-1000 Hz.  So the LRAD’s “siren mode” (or “alert tone”) of 2,000-4,000 Hz is extremely high-pitched and painful.  But it’s still well below ultrasonic levels, which are levels so high-pitched that they can’t be heard.

     20,000 Hz is the upper frequency limit of human hearing, although many individual human beings have an upper limit well below that.  Most of us lose a chunk of high-frequency hearing range as we age . . . and that fact has led to the development of a device known as “the Mosquito.”  The Mosquito, though it has a maximum volume of only 108 dB, generates a high-frequency sound which is annoying and/or painful enough to drive away anyone who can hear it.  It has a range of about 200 feet, and two settings: One at 8,000 Hz, which can be heard by most persons of all ages (so a portable “Mosquito” might be used in “crowd control” situations against all participants), and another at 17,400 Hz, which can only be heard by children and teenagers.  The Mosquito’s marketing therefore promotes it as a fixed device for preventing teenagers from congregating in front of businesses where they might be considered a nuisance.

     The Mosquito is supposedly a harmless method of deterrence, but its harmlessness is a matter of debate.  For one thing, while teenagers and young adults can almost always escape the Mosquito’s 200-foot range if they find its tone painful, infants and small children could be at risk for genuine harm since their adult caretakers might not even be aware that any painful noise is present.  (This may also help explain why some small children and infants wail and scream on airliners.  They may be suffering as a result of high-frequency engine noise that adults can’t even hear.)  It has also been argued that high-pitched sounds like the Mosquito’s may disrupt a person’s inner-ear equilibrium even if no sound is consciously heard, thus resulting in dizziness, nausea, or permanent damage – not just to teenagers, but to anyone.

     Unsurprisingly, the American Civil Liberties Union takes a dim view of both LRADs and Mosquitos, and has concluded that “Proper research and evidence about acoustic weapons’ health effects is still lacking, despite their increased use in

recent years,” and that “The use of acoustic weapons in protests should be suspended, at least until such concerns are addressed.”

     However, the ACLU isn’t just talking about LRADs and Mosquitos, but also about supposed “infrasonic weapons” that would generate “very low frequency sounds that would be inaudible but could cause pain and disorientation.”  In this case, the ACLU is speaking out against a weapon that may or may not even exist yet.

     The possibility and potential of infrasonic weapons have been discussed for a long time.  The longstanding urban legend of the “brown note” or “brown sound,” for example, holds that a high-powered, inaudible wave of between 5 and 9 Hz will create resonance in a victim’s bowels, resulting in involuntary defecation.  The television show MythBusters attempted to investigate this notion using modified subwoofers in 2005, but concluded that it was nonsense . . . although it’s possible that the MythBusters investigators just couldn’t quite hit the “brown” note, but only managed “beige.” 

     However, even if the “brown note” doesn’t exist, it seems clear that “vibroacoustic syndrome” – that is, low-frequency sound creating unpleasant resonant reactions in mushy parts of the body – is a real thing.  The trick to weaponizing it lies in finding a frequency and intensity that will consistently produce the same results.

     There’s no clear evidence that has happened yet.  So far, although the Pentagon and other agencies have investigated and experimented with weaponizing infrasound, no actual infrasonic weapons have been proven to exist so far.  The key word there is “proven,” because in 2016 and 2017, American diplomats in both Cuba and China began reporting physical ailments and hearing loss that seemed consistent with infrasound attacks on their embassies.  Of course, both Cuba and China have denied any such attacks, and no source for the supposed infrasonic waves has ever been identified.  In fact, some investigators have suggested that, rather than infrasonic waves, ultrasonic waves or even microwaves (which are electromagnetic waves, a different beast altogether) might have been responsible for the diplomats’ troubles. 

     Nevertheless, in 2019, it was reported by the South China Morning Post (and then repeated by Fox News, the New York PostThe Epoch Times, and Popular Mechanics) that the Chinese Academy of Sciences had announced that China had developed the world’s first handheld infrasonic gun for riot control.  The effects of the weapon were reported to be “extreme discomfort, with vibrations in the eardrums, eyeballs, stomach, liver, and brain” – effects consistent with the injuries reported by the American diplomats in both China and Cuba.  So far, though, the lack of any apparent primary source for the report (the Chinese Academy of Sciences has no record of any such announcement in their online resources) suggests that, for now, we should classify China’s supposed “handheld infrasonic gun” as another brown-note urban legend.

     Nevertheless, both the LRAD and the Mosquito definitely exist.  They’re available to the military, to law enforcement, and – in the case of the Mosquito – to civilians.  So the odds that you’ll eventually encounter one of these weapons are considerably higher than zero, especially if you’re a teenager who likes to hang out in front of grocery stores, or if you’re a person of any age who decides to join a protest march.  

     In that case, if you happen to see something that looks like a large hunk of sheetrock mounted atop an armored vehicle, you might want to cover your ears.

     Or, if that doesn’t help . . . 

     Maybe just hope they play something by the Clash.