Music is more than what you think it is.
Punish or reward.
It usually comes down to one of those two to discourage people from committing crimes.
People will either get penalized for a certain behavior or rewarded for avoiding it (or choosing other behaviors instead). They’ll get restrained, incarcerated, or fined to stop those criminal acts, or they’ll get praised and benefited by not doing them.
Depending on your point of view (as a criminal offender), music can serve in both instances.
Using classical music in public spaces to dissuade crime
How would you react if you were passing by a McDonald’s parking lot and you suddenly heard classical music coming from their speakers?
That’s exactly the feeling they’re aiming for!
Both companies and public institutions are applying what is called defensive urban design. When you see sloping benches or bollards, you’re seeing examples of this type of environmental design, aimed to discourage certain behaviors (sleeping on a bench and driving in a pedestrian zone respectively).
Music has been used as part of a larger strategy to prevent crime along with improving street lights or trimming shrubbery. If you want to see music in action, here’s how it looks.
The idea behind this is that classical music is not popular among certain target audiences (e.g. teens) so when they hear it they’ll probably try to find another place to hang out. They’ll seek a friendlier (or cooler) environment for them.
Okay, but does it really work?
The idea seems interesting: enforce certain boundaries with sound as the repellent.
Or, in more militaristic terms, the weaponization of music.
(I know, it sounds threatening. What’s next? Cannons throwing compressed spheres of sound to the enemy?)
So what results do we get after using music in this way?
- London Tube (2003): after 18 months of showcasing classical music on the District Line, robberies declined by 33%, verbal assaults on staff decreased by 25%, and vandalism reduced by 37%.
- Tacoma Mall Transit Center in Washington state (2008): in a 2-year program showcasing classical and country music, the result was a nearly 50% decrease in annual spending on vandalism related repairs ($3,000 to $1,600).
- Lancaster (2012): recordings of songbirds and soothing music played on speakers along the town’s main streets has lead to a decrease of 15% of minor crimes and 6% of major crimes according to the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department.
- Lily Hirsch’s book Music in American Crime Prevention and Punishment, explores this idea even further. She points out the role of music in U.S. prisons, the use of rap lyrics as prosecutorial evidence, and so on.
The idea of using music to deter crime isn’t new. 7-Eleven first used it in 1985, to shoo off teenagers from their parking lots. Since it worked, they then implemented it on another 150 stores.
Many other cities across the world have adopted music as an additional tool in their fight against crime. And it doesn’t always have to be classical music. It can be nature sounds, like bird recordings, or any other soothing music.
Have you “seen it” on any public space you’ve visited recently?
Why would it work?
You might’ve felt music’s influence on your mood.
Think of when you’re downhearted and you put on some upbeat music, do you feel a change inside you after a while?
Well, studies have shown music’s positive role in several psychological outcomes:
- Classical music and self-selected relaxing music significantly reduce people’s stress levels and physiological arousal.
- The use of music in treating symptoms of depression and improving people’s mood.
- Music is used to improve sleep quality.
- Music exposure leading to better performance on cognitive tests.
Now, when it comes to music’s role in deterring crime several explanations can help us understand its effects on people.
It may be due to people’s neurobiological response to stimuli that they don’t like or find unfamiliar. When people dislike the music they’re listening to, their brain suppresses dopamine production (a neurotransmitter linked to pleasure). This leads to a decrease in their positive mood and encourages them to avoid the source of their displeasure.
Another cause might be of a social nature. People have certain attitudes towards different musical genres and they’re concerned about what others might think if they’re seen listening to a certain musical style. Their self-image might be damaged if these groups disapprove of their music taste.
Let’s say a certain music style (e.g. romantic music from the 60s) is considered uncool by a certain age and cultural group. If they hear it through some loudspeakers and they choose to stay beneath it, others could make fun of them. Other members could say: “those guys are pussys!”, “Let them play with their sister’s dolls”, and they’ll lose respect among their peers. No one wants that, especially teenagers!
In other words, they don’t want to be linked to this genre because that could banish them from the group they want to be a part of.
Or a third explanation regarding why music can deter crime is that it can just be a matter of volume. If people are unable to talk to each other, gossip, joke around, and have fun because the music is too loud, they’ll go somewhere else to hang out. Yep, that simple.
Music has many different faces.
One of these looks like a weapon.
A tool to fight crime. A device used by both private and public institutions. And it has shown some promising results.
The use of music to discourage criminal behavior doesn’t rely solely on classical music. Other sounds like nature sounds or soothing music can help as well. Some might feel more relaxed. Others can feel more anxious so they’ll leave the premises. And then others will don’t go near it to avoid being stigmatized by their peers.
In any case, it’s getting the job done.
But at what cost?
Some say classical music is losing its value if used this way. People could end up hating this genre massively and they might banish it from all cultural venues. Others just feel there’s no need for more contamination in their neighborhoods.
What do you think? Should we keep using music this way?
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