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5 things to know about fighting crime with classical music

Do the sounds of Bach and Vivaldi really have the power to combat loitering and other petty offenses?


By PoliceOne Staff

A Burger King located in downtown San Francisco, on a corner notorious for homeless, loitering and panhandling, recently made headlines for its unusual deterrence strategy: blasting classical music onto the city streets. Do the sounds of Bach and Vivaldi really have the power to combat loitering and other petty offenses? Here are five things to know about this unorthodox crime deterrence tactic.

1. Cities are using classical music in public spaces to deter crime.

Although the San Francisco fast food franchise’s use of classical music has been the focus of recent media attention, this strategy has been implemented in several cities across the globe. The tactic dates back to 1985, when a 7-Eleven in Canada came up with the idea after brainstorming with a group of psychologists about novel approaches to combat loitering (and the potential serious crimes that could follow).

“One of the ideas [from the brainstorming session] was to play easy listening or classical music in the parking lot,” a 7-Eleven representative is quoted in Lily E Hirsch’s book, “Music in American Crime Prevention and Punishment.” “The thinking was this kind of music is not popular with teens and may discourage them from ‘hanging out’ at the store.”

Since then, the tactic has been used in American cities like Dallas, Seattle, and Portland and in countries like Australia and the U.K. This melodious example of defensive urban design – which is more commonly seen in the form of sloping benches or anti-loitering spikes on window sills of buildings – has been used to battle everything from drunken brawls to panhandling.

Jacqueline Helfgott, chair of the criminal justice department at Seattle University, told WQXR that the music is often part of a larger strategy of crime prevention through environmental design. It usually accompanies other changes to public spaces like improved lighting or trimmed shrubbery.

2. Does it work?

The idea to implement the strategy in San Francisco was inspired by the success seen in London when officials started playing classical music at the crime-ridden Elm Park tube station in 2003.

In perhaps one of the more well-known case studies, the experiment resulted in robberies cut by 33 percent, assaults on staff cut by 25 percent, and vandalism cut by 37 percent within 18 months, according to the Independent.

In another success story, the Tacoma Mall Transit Center in Washington reportedly saw a “significant decline” in vandalism when they started playing classical music.

Of course, not all cities have seen positive results. Police in West Palm Beach, Florida, did away with the program after loiterers started destroying the speakers.

3. Why does it work?

Research has suggested the positive impact various music genres can have on your mood – from releasing stress to improving sleep quality. Mental health professionals have even utilized music’s power on the brain in therapy. Given the dramatic effect music can have on human beings, it’s no surprise that the classical music strategy has yielded results for some cities. But why, exactly, does it deter crime? While there isn’t any hard research into the phenomenon, many theories abound. According to the Seattle Times, it may be the result of dopamine production in the brain:

The reason certain types of music work as a crime deterrent, neurologists say, may lie in people’s neurobiological responses to things they don’t enjoy or find unfamiliar. Production of dopamine, a neurotransmitter linked to pleasure and rewards, is modulated by the nucleus accumbens, one of the brain’s ’pleasure centers.’

When people hear music they like, it stimulates dopamine production and puts them in a better mood. But when people dislike the music, their brains respond by suppressing dopamine production — souring their mood and making them avoid the music.

The Independent reported that the music may repel youth loiterers simply because they view classical music as uncool.

And it may just be a matter of volume. When the Modesto Bee asked residents why they thought classical music played at a local 7-Eleven was effective in repelling people, one man who identified himself as one of the loiterers said, "Once the music started, the riffraff left. It's hard to hang out and gossip and joke around.”

4. The strategy has garnered criticism.   

Some see the use of classical music to deter crime as problematic. In San Francisco, the executive director of the Coalition on Homelessness told KRON that the tactic was “noise pollution” and not a real solution to the problem.

Other critics say it simply moves the behavior to a different area.

"I'd be pretty surprised if it's a panacea. You're just moving the problem elsewhere," Leicester University psychologist Adrian North told the BBC.

5. This isn’t the only case of music being used as a weapon.

There’s a long history of music being used as an unconventional weapon. The military has used music from various genres, including heavy metal, as a strategy in the past. Police blasted music during their attempts to end the Waco standoff. And who can forget the weaponization of Nickelback?

And as far as a tactic used specifically to ward off loiterers, there is one device that has sparked a ton of controversy: the Mosquito. While not technically music, the idea is similar to the Bach strategy – a wall-mounted box emits undesirable sound in order to repel. In the Mosquito’s case, the sound is a disturbing noise similar to nails on a chalkboard played at a frequency that’s only audible to teens and young adults. Many attempts to use that particular device in anti-loitering efforts were scrapped after outcry

LEARN MORE

For more information about strategies to reduce crime in your community, check out the following articles from our experts. And be sure to visit the PoliceOne Academy, which features multiple courses on crime prevention. You can schedule a free demo here.

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