Blasting Mozart to drive criminals away
Some months ago, I was sitting at the Port Authority Bus Terminal in New York with enough time on my hands that I actually noticed the music coming over the speakers in the ceiling. It was the scherzo from Schubert’s first piano trio. Schubert’s piano trios are among my favorite pieces in the universe, but as I listened, I found that I wasn’t relaxing; quite the contrary. The music sounded awful: tinny, hard-edged, aggressive. I wanted to get away.
I’ve long heard that the Port Authority is one of many public spaces across the country that uses classical music to help control vagrancy: to drive the homeless away. Listening to that Schubert rendition, I started to believe it.
To many people, classical music is the perfect background music: soothing, attractive, undemanding. But for some time, it’s also been used as a form of crowd control: a kind of bug spray for people you don’t want hanging around. Early attempts in this direction date to the mid-1980s, when a 7-Eleven began playing music in the parking lot as a deterrent to the crowds of teenagers congregating there. Plenty of stores continue to use the technique, and other examples have been cropping up sporadically ever since. In 2001, police in West Palm Beach, Fla., blasted Mozart and Beethoven on a crime-ridden street corner and saw incidents dwindle dramatically. In 2010, the transit authority in Portland, Ore., began playing classical music at light-rail stops, and calls to police dropped. When the London Underground started piping classical music into its stations in 2005, physical and verbal abuse by young people (however you define THAT) declined by 33 percent.
In a related story, a school in Derby, England, got into the news last year by using classical music to punish misbehaving pupils, forcing the disobedient to sit and listen to an hour of classical music. Behavior improved by 50 percent.
Like many things in classical music, these endeavors have entered the realm of conventional wisdom without being adequately studied. Installing speakers in a public space to play classical music usually involves some degree of physical improvement to the area and an increased police presence. How, then, can you determine that classical music alone is responsible for improving conditions? (At the Derby school, the students were subjected to the hour of classical music on a Friday evening, followed by a DVD about math and then the requirement of writing a paper about the experience. Classical music was perhaps not the least off-putting thing about the experience.) And can you really play classical music nonstop on city streets? In a 2011 article in the Huffington Post, the assistant police chief of West Palm Beach, Dennis Crispo, said of the program, which had been abandoned years before, “It really doesn’t have a lasting effect.”
But the idea of classical music as a force for good fits right in with the widespread image — among classical music lovers, at least — of this art form’s exalted purpose. Classical music is often presented as a panacea. It can calm patients during surgery. It can socialize inner-city children and turn them into brilliant musicians (witness the El Sistema training program in Venezuela, which spawned conductor Gustavo Dudamel and a half-dozen other rising young stars). It can make you smarter (the so-called Mozart effect, which led to an unfortunate wave of bowdlerized music-for-babies CDs and videos starting in the 1990s). And now, it can fight crime, fulfilling its traditional elitist role by separating all of us good people who love classical music from the great unwashed, who flee like cartoon villains from the very sound of it.