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Criminology and music

Dr Eleanor Peters

Have you ever considered the possible links between Music and Criminology? They may be two very different subject areas, but Senior Lecturer Dr Eleanor Peters believes there are many crossovers, and specialises her research on the impact music can have in the world of crime.

In 2019, Eleanor published her own book exploring this in detail, titled ‘The Use and Abuse of Music: Criminal Records’. We caught up with her to find out more about what ties music so closely to criminology.

Dr Eleanor Peters
Dr Eleanor Peters

“My interest in music as a subject for criminological study goes back a long way. I was born and raised in the Black Country, near Birmingham – famous for being the ‘home of heavy metal’. References to metal in the media and in academic texts have long-portrayed it as a misogynistic, devil worshiping cult followed by greasy working-class white young men – a picture I found unrecognizable from my involvement in a local metal scene.

My interest in how music relates to criminology began when I read about the use of heavy metal music as a method of torture and wondered why my beloved music was used in such a way. It wasn’t exclusively metal, though – the ‘Sesame Street’ theme tune was used by US intelligence services to torture detainees at Guantanamo Bay and Abu Ghraib. Although various types of music have been used to torture as part of enhanced interrogation techniques (more commonly known as ‘torture lite’), the use of heavy metal and rap by US forces was partly the result of the personal tastes of soldiers but also because of it being culturally alien to detainees. This use evidently breaches the UN declaration of human rights article 5, ‘no one shall be subjected to torture or to cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment’, as declared in both the Universal declaration of human rights and the Geneva Convention.

Characters from ‘Sesame Street’

It does not have to be heavy metal or children’s TV theme tunes; any music or noise over a certain volume can cause harm to humans. Hearing can become damaged when the frequency of a sound exceeds 20,000 hertz. It has been argued in academic circles that “in biological reality, noise is a source of pain. Beyond a certain limit, it becomes an immaterial weapon of death.” However, there are reasons why certain genres of music are more likely to be used in conflict situations and this is because metal and rap are known to project certain power relations or ideologies. Heavy metal is loud, fierce and to many, discordant with violent lyrics.

While the use of music as torture in Iraq and Guantanamo Bay is an obvious human rights violation, there are other forms of injustices that a criminological study of music can uncover. Even when specific laws are not being violated, the erosion of the protection of people’s rights in terms of freedom and autonomy, which is one of the most common social injustices, can be instigated by the state. The United Nations has had a Special Rapporteur in the field of cultural rights since 2009, which highlights the importance of human rights in artistic expression and freedom, and the knowledge that music can reflect more important messages about problematic social arrangements and practices, rather than just being entertainment.

Where music has perceived negative consequences, then censorship can be a perceived answer; in these cases, laws regulate and discipline popular culture. There are power issues at play in whose, when, and what music and sound is labelled as deviant and this can lead to an erosion of liberty. Heavy Metal has often been at the centre of debates about censorship and is banned or suppressed in several countries around the world. It is not just those less democratic countries where metal and other ‘deviant’ music is outlawed; for example, the alleged links between listening to heavy metal and suicide or committing violent acts has a long history. Following suicides and suicide attempts of American fans, Ozzy Osborne was sued in a US court over his song Suicide Solution, despite it being about alcoholism, and Judas Priest were accused of suicide-inducing hidden messages on their album Defenders of the Faith.

Judas Priest during a live performance

If censorship is conceived as the control of information and ideas, this can be explored through the example of grime music. A close relative of rap, grime has been deemed to be many things by the authorities, ranging from ‘violent and misogynistic’ and ‘responsible for deaths and riots’. The perceived problems associated with grime and other so-called ‘urban’ genres have led to a suppression of live events featuring these genres. It is difficult for artists to find venues to play in, partly because of the Metropolitan Police form 696, which despite being rescinded in 2009 due to concerns around racial profiling and the unfair targeting of specific musical genres on a racial basis, black promoters still feel discriminated against when trying to book clubs for gigs.

The way that music is used, suppressed or censored is an important area for criminologists to consider as this can uncover violations of the human rights of individuals and groups and reveal grave social injustices.

Dr Eleanor Peters

The continued social injustices that can occur through the use, abuse, and suppression of music have great importance to criminologists who are interested in how state and corporate power can be use against the most powerless in society. The erosion of freedom of expression for many musicians, the use of music as a means for the powerful to torture the powerless are areas that the discipline of criminology has much to contribute.”

If you’re interested in exploring the relationship between music and criminology, Eleanor brings her expertise and real-world experience as a youth justice worker into the classroom on third year module ‘Justice, Rights and the State’ and second year module ‘Youth Justice’. Find out more about our Criminology programmes and the wide range of modules available.