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In Oregon, the Sweet Sounds of Crime Reduction

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Classical music soothes the savage breast — at least that's the hope of law enforcement officials in Portland, OR. A new bill now in committee seeks to install speakers piping out classical music in some of the city's most troubled transportation hubs.

House bill 2909, put forward by Representative Jefferson Smith (D-Dist. 47), will bring classical music to light rail stations identified as high-crime rate locations in the Tri-County metropolitan transportation district of Oregon. Classical music is defined by the bill as "opera, chamber music, choral pieces and music requiring a full orchestra."

"It's cost effective, and people who respond to surveys like it more than they don't like it," commented Representative Smith. "The point for me is not even classical music on the transit line. For me it's looking at innovative and cost effective ways to do public safety."

A pilot project underway since November 16 has shown a 40 percent decrease in the number of calls to police from a station where classical music speakers have been installed. Police analysis of three other problematic stops, by contrast, shows an 18 percent increase in calls.

Smith won't humor any concern that the classical music violates a passenger's right to silence. "Standing at a busy transit spot has obviated the right to silence," Smith said. "The question is what kind of cacophony would you enjoy?"

Oregon's efforts are not the first to use classical music to attempt to provoke behavioral change. Similar efforts in Ireland, England, Australia and Canada have also seen lower crime rates following the installation of classical-music speakers in troubled locations. In America, the initiative has been taken up to varying degrees in Florida and Washington. In 2007, police at the Tacoma Mall Transit Center installed speakers on bus stop shelter roofs and high on poles. The position of the speakers proved critical after reported attacks with clubs and baseball bats.

"Clearly they didn't listen to enough classical music as a baby if they have that kind of rage," commented Portland police sergeant Pete Simpson, who has been involved in the project's implementation in Oregon.

Simpson notes the use of classical music to deter crime on Oregon's light rail system is part of a broader set of innovative local initiatives.

"Other strategies we're trying to employ include crime reduction through environmental design," Simpson said. "This means tree and bush trimming, putting lighting outside. Those kind of little things can have a positive effect on crime reduction." It is unclear if the music drives away people who would otherwise be prone to crime, or if it assuages such people of the desire to commit the crime in the first place. For Simpson, it is likely "a little of both."

"There's certainly the belief that, on the one hand, the soothing nature of music helps calm people down," Simpson said. "Then there's also the gang banger hanging out of the platform who doesn't want to listen to Mozart."

For musicologists, the relationship between music and behavior is a hot area of study. "There's a lot of research that tries to show a correlation between playing music and doing better in school," commented Jay Juchniewicz, assistant professor of music at East Carolina University. "Does music make you smarter? Yes, music enhances the brain activity. We have an aesthetic experience every time we listen to music, which speaks to the human condition."

But what is soothing for some could be gnashing noise to others, Juchniewicz points out. "Only a very small percentage of music sold in the United States is classical," commented Juchniewicz. "Why not throw country on there? Would country, hard rock or gospel have the same effect? It sounds to me like they chose classical as a deterrent."

Oregon's playlist to curb crime continues to evolve.

"I know there was discussion of using local artists and composers," commented sergeant Simpson. While Representative Smith won't have a direct hand in the playlist, he has some suggestions.

"You'll have the three B's," Smith said, referring to Brahms, Beethoven and Bach. "Also Mozart." Smith paused to consider additional names, adding, "I doubt Lady Gaga at this point."