Does Classical Music at Train Stations Really Deter Crime?

Monday, April 08, 2013

POLL: Should classical music be used to fight crime and loitering?

Move along, hoodlums. Antonio Vivaldi is playing at Newark Penn Station.

When New Jersey Transit upgraded the public address system at the Newark transit hub a year ago, they began piping in classical music along with the announcements on train arrivals and connections. The authority subscribed to a music service and station agents could select from different channels, which also include easy-listening and jazz.

The idea, said a NJ Transit spokesperson, is to relax customers "and make it more pleasant to traverse the facilities."

But in cities from Atlanta to Minneapolis and London, there's often a bigger strategy at work: turn on the great composers and turn away the loiterers, vagrants and troublemakers who are drawn to bus stations, malls and parking lots. Last month, the Associated Press reported on a YMCA in Columbus, OH that began piping Vivaldi into its parking lot, and claiming to disperse petty drug dealers as a result.

In this podcast, host Naomi Lewin asks why classical music in particular seems to be the weapon of choice – and whether it works.

"It's been used as part of a larger strategy of crime prevention through environmental design," said Jacqueline Helfgott, chair of the criminal-justice department at Seattle University. She noted that classical music is often accompanied by upgrades like better lighting, improved traffic flow or trimmed shrubbery in public areas.

Studies on the specific effects of music on criminal behavior are lacking. But Helfgott believes classical music is historically associated with "a cultural aesthetic that is pro-social as opposed to antisocial," making it a preferred crime prevention tool. Put another way, rowdy teenagers don't find classical very cool.

Nigel Rodgers, the head of Pipedown, a group that campaigns against background music in any form, believes the strategy presents a slippery slope. “Yes, young people commit crimes and it’s a problem," he said. "I do appreciate that. But we must seek out other pro-sociable ways of dealing with the problem rather than just squirt acoustic insecticide at young people.

"People who really like music of any sort don’t want to have it piped at them when they’re trying to talk, eat or shop when they don’t want it."

It's also worth keeping in mind that not all classical music works as a soothing agent. As anyone who has seen "A Clockwork Orange," knows, even Beethoven's Ninth Symphony has its dark associations.

In Columbus, OH, where the YMCA piped in Vivaldi, the strategy is being hailed as a success. A local business improvement district executive told the AP: "There's something about baroque music that macho wannabe-gangster types hate. At the very least, it has a calming effect."


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Comments [13]

Paul from Binghamton

Playing music in public spaces discriminates against those who hear the music played as alienating or as "not music." The argument here isn't that classical music will make people behave better; it's that it will keep "undesirables" away. Playing Vivaldi makes a space friendly to many older, whiter, richer folks and unfriendly to the "macho gangster types" (does that mean criminals? or just young black men?) mentioned in this story. Presumably playing certain kinds of pop music would have the reverse effect. So who exactly are we trying to discourage from occupying public space?

May. 14 2013 02:02 PM
Douglas from Los Angeles, California

Sometimes classical music is played in some courtrooms. For example, in one courtroom in the Los Angeles County Superior Court, in downtown Los Angeles, the judge's clerk plays the second movement of the Beethoven Emperor Concerto and it seems to defuse a tense atmosphere into a sense of quiet calm.

There is no reason why this music should not be played in jail, inmate reception centers, the county jailhouse corridors or in the state and federal prisons, probation office and other government buildings, like the DMV, etc.

Apr. 13 2013 07:24 PM
Andrea from Portland

I am a regular transit rider in Portland. The piped in music at my station drives me nuts! Every day I have to listen to the same piece over and over ( Toreador from Carmen). This goes along with other tactics, like removing benches from stations in poor neighborhoods with lots of poor people, to keep the homeless from sleeping on them. Don't they understand they are also ruining the experience for their best customers? I am in my 60s and enjoy classical music--but I don't enjoy standing on the concrete for ten minutes, or listening to the same music over and over until I want to scream.

Apr. 12 2013 10:32 AM

To answer the question - yes, provided the music played is an arresting performance!

Apr. 09 2013 10:20 PM
Rachel from Philadelphia

As a Q2 and college radio listener, I believe that if I were in a train station listening to "Classical Top 40" I would be more stressed than if there were more interesting tracks playing. Vivaldi is nice enough, but it has to be more than the Four Seasons.

Good music--of all genres--doesn't simply deter crime by driving out people with narrow tastes. It encourages people to take more notice of their surroundings and lift them out of themselves.

Apr. 09 2013 01:19 PM
kriss from Piscataway, NJ

Personally, I LOVE to hear good classical music in public places. And I'm glad that the poor homeless people who take refuge from cold and danger in our public stations can enjoy it too. There are all too few blessings in their lives, and the music masks (at least somewhat) the noise and stress of the environment.

Apr. 09 2013 11:12 AM
Leslie from Pennsylvania

Yes, if vagrants and homeless people seeking a bit of warmth and shelter make us nervous, by all means squirt good music at'em and send them out into the cold. They'd hate that like roaches hate the light. Seriously, I object to your stereotyping. There's a bit of an elitist assumption here. All "rowdy teenagers" and "vagrants" hate classical music? And all classical music has the same calming effect? Hmmm.

Also: Music lovers often do NOT like music as background. It all turns into musak or noise pollution if we are not able to fully attend to it.

Apr. 09 2013 10:39 AM
harris from New Jersey

They should play hours on end of Philip Glass and other modern atonal composers. They'll scurry like rats to get out of there. I know I would.

Apr. 09 2013 10:35 AM
concetta nardone from Nassau

As long as it is not damn muzak. Actually heard Va Pensiero via muzak. Agree with the comments about the Bach overkill.

Apr. 09 2013 08:08 AM
Robert from London

I live in London. My nearest tube station is Kilburn Park on the Bakerloo line. Kilburn is somewhat of a glorious mess, and I maintain an ongoing love/hate relationship with it. The pleasant incongruity of hearing anything from the Brahms 1st to a Weber clarinet concerto to Un bel di in the tube station on any given morning is one of this neighbourhood's more quirky enjoyments, especially welcome if one is forced to venture out with a hangover!

Apr. 09 2013 06:08 AM
GCL from Astoria Queens NY

Classical Music is also played inside the Penn Station here in NYC. I still see vagrants, but not as many as I see in the PA space several blocks away. And strangely enough GCT does not play background music, (they should, because it would be a challenge to find the right music for their lousy acoustics.) and the numbers there have also gone down.

Apr. 09 2013 12:51 AM
Frederick Schmid from Los Angeles CA

Replay your Bach festival and you'll drive everyone away -- criminals and honest souls. Send it to N. Korea and that will teach them....

Apr. 08 2013 07:15 PM
David from Flushing

The disdain that the vast majority of teens have for classical music can be illustrated by the following incident. While I was in Macy's, Philadelphia, listening to a recital on the Wanamaker Organ, a group of teens scurried through the store with their fingers in their ears. They could not leaves the premises quickly enough.

Classical music lovers tend to make excuses that lack of exposure is the reason teens do not like this music. There is no basis for this belief and I know of various musical genre I would never like regardless of exposure. The same applies to the oft repeated complaint of the lack of music education in the schools. My generation went through that, but by the time I got to college, perhaps only 2% of students would attend the free concerts. A number of schools saved their band and choir programs by switching from Sousa and the classics to popular tunes. The lack of younger audiences (below 60) will be a very serious concern in the not distant future.

Apr. 08 2013 06:51 PM

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WQXR looks deeper into the issues affecting the classical music landscape. 

Conducting Business is hosted by Naomi Lewin and produced by Brian Wise.

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