• Home  / 
  • Featured
  •  /  Why Criminals Are Afraid of Classical Music

Why Criminals Are Afraid of Classical Music


Apparently, many young people, especially those with an antisocial disposition, dislike classical music so much that Bach, Beethoven and Mozart can even be played to discourage young hooligans from intimidating, harassing and robbing store customers.

This experiment has been tried and has succeeded over many years in several locations.

The earliest occurrence I could find goes back to the mid 1980s, when Canadian outlets of the 7-Eleven convenience store franchise began to play easy listening and classical music to drive away teenagers who were loitering outside their stores. Following the success of this new way to fight anti-social behaviour, companies from McDonald’s to Co-op, transport authorities and countless shopping malls around the world have employed it.

In the UK, the first to adopt this method to cut crime and disorder was the Tyne and Wear Metro system, in England’s North East, in 1997, pumping out Haydn and Mozart at its underground stations to deter vandals and loiterers, after the success achieved by the underground system in Montreal, Canada, in the mid 1990s.

The results were so positive that other British transport providers imitated the scheme, including the bus station in Stanley in County Durham and the much bigger London Underground system. The most effective deterrents, according to Transport for London, were anything sung by Pavarotti or written by Mozart.

In Holywood, County Down, in Northern Ireland, the town centre manager Steven Dunlop said that groups of youths as young as 15 caused problems near the post office which opens late at night:

“They climbed onto the roof of one building, were spitting on pensioners, abusing other people and creating an atmosphere which was putting off custom,” he told BBC News Online in Belfast.

He was unsuccessful in persuading the council to play classical music to keep away the louts, but

contacted a professor at Queen’s University in Belfast who did a PhD on the effects of music on the human mood.

“He found that young people were into tap and hiphop beats – faster beats of music – and they find classical music intolerable,” he said.

In January 2005, The Economist was reporting that Co-op, a national chain of grocery stores in the UK, was playing classical music outside its shops whenever youths started hanging around and intimidating customers. It had the desired effect of dispersing the troublemakers.

Despite original scepticism from some who didn’t appreciate the power of classical music and education (“I don’t believe that such measures will have any long-term positive impact in terms of deterring menacing teenagers, whatever other benefits playing Mozart might bestow on shoppers and Underground travellers. If anything, I have a feeling that it’ll probably encourage a few punks to simply use the music as a background score to their misbehavior, a la ‘A Clockwork Orange.'”), it’s been working, as its constant use seems to indicate.

And not just food stores, but also other types of retailers in the Yorkshire city of Leeds adopted this approach, including travel agencies, opticians and funeral services, still owned by the Co-op, with support from the police, Leeds City Council’s Anti-Social Behaviour Unit and local residents.

Hoping to repeat the success obtained in various parts of Britain, Neil Honeywood, security manager of Leeds Co-op’s Food Division, said:

“Youngsters gather outside stores because it’s light and there’s a supply of food and shelter from the rain.

“But they can become noisy and intimidating – and that’s when the nuisance starts. But classical music usually moves a group on within minutes. They don’t want to listen to that – it’s just not cool.”

Since then the same method has been employed several times. In 2009, stores in some cities and towns of South Yorkshire, in Northern England, used it with success, as “loss prevention” manager Peter Cooper explained:

“We had an issue with young people hanging around outside the stores which was intimidating for shoppers and staff.

“This problem has been dramatically reduced since we introduced the music. The youngsters are definitely not classical music fans, and tend to disappear as soon as we turn the music on.

It’s been working across the pond too.

Whether at New York‘s Port Authority Bus Terminal, La Guardia, Newark International and John F. Kennedy International airports, and Pennsylvania Station; at Portland, Oregon, light-rail stations; in Seattle‘s parking lots; or in Anchorage, Alaska, Town Square, classical soundtracks have helped to stop or reduce anti-social behaviour and even crimes like fights and drug dealing.

Canadian cities have also been playing classical music, including opera, from speakers in public places, such as subway platforms, to keep people from loitering.

In Australia and New Zealand, same pattern and same success stories. In Queensland, Australia, the classical music played by a local rail company in train stations reduced not only loitering but even vandalism and graffiti.

It worked in a Liverpool housing estate as well, where different types of music were played at different times of the day and, in an area where classical music was played, youngters stopped writing graffiti.

In Germany, a slightly different approach. A minister, who is also a pianist, produced a CD of Mozart’s Piano Concerto No. 21 in which he played accompanied by the Deutsche Oper Berlin, entitled “Adagio in the Car”. The intent was to calm down motorists, thus preventing road rage and road accidents.

The evidence seems plentiful, even though the experiments have not been performed in controlled laboratory conditions. Why, then is classical music such an effective crime and antisociality deterrent?

The simplest explanations, in the time-honoured scientific tradition of Occam’s razor, should be considered first.

Teenagers, especially those with uneducated ears like the anti-social types that linger around where they are not wanted, don’t like classical music, and in addition they think it’s not “cool” to be seen by their peers listening to it.

A simple key factor, according to Leicester University’s Adrian North, is unfamiliarity – which even those who are not psychology researchers like North know that in music is related to taste. The targets in these “experiments” were clearly unused to strings and woodwind, but for the more musically literate an atonal barrage may work better. Mr North tormented Leicester students with “computer-game music” in the union bar. It cleared the place.

Still other explanations, leaving aside physiological analyses and neurotransmitters, are in the nature of classical music itself. Much of it conveys a sense of order, symmetry and beauty, that deeply conflicts with the disorder and ugliness that these young hooligans may have in their minds while loitering. It also acts as a calming influence against aggressive and destructive impulses, creating a more peaceful atmosphere.

Giovanni Bietti, musicologist, pianist and artistic consulant of Rome’s Accademia Nazionale di Santa Cecilia, explains:

“Beethoven was profoundly convinced that music could make a great social contribution. He, like Mozart and Haydn, had a rational picture of music, which is why in their compositions the initial contrasts are always resolved through the rules of musical composition, creativity and intelligence. It’s clear that these logical and musical processes, which inevitably resolve the conflicts giving order to thoughts, discourage those who do not accept the rules. And it is equally clear that even those who do not know music perceive them, because the subliminal message of these compositions is strong enough to convey this sense of order to anyone.”

In conclusion, it’s easy to see – at the other end of the spectrum – the link between criminal behaviour and rap, link deriving not just from the rap lyrics but also from the “music” – or rather cacophony – itself.

And, on a larger scale, a society that is enthralled by the vulgarity of Amy Winehouse acoustically and Tracey Emin visually can clearly be seen on an aesthetic and moral downward path from many other different indicators.

There are forms of expression that exalt and bring out the worst of us and others that exalt and bring out the best of us. In many ways, while rap encourages the anti-social in each of us, classical music keeps it at bay.

Enza Ferreri’s Blog

About the author

Enza Ferreri

Enza Ferreri is an Italian-born, London-based Philosophy graduate, writer and journalist. She has been a London correspondent for several Italian magazines and newspapers, including Panorama, L’Espresso, La Repubblica. She blogs at www.enzaferreri.blogspot.co.uk.

  • Alexander Baron

    I have three words: A Clockwork Orange.

  • Matt

    Thank you for highlighting an interesting topic. I think it definitely takes a philosopher — one who is both musical and versed in the field of aesthetics — to characterise the nature of this “resonating with”. Here it seems that we are “scarcely entitled to say that we have progressed beyond Plato”, to use the words of Jaspers.
    To educated musicians, the capacity to distinguish between the effects of different kinds of music may come naturally, or at least the capacity to sense the existence of distinctions may do so. However, I was fascinated to notice that also to my musically uneducated friend said that he could hear that there was something more meaningful in the classical piece I played for him, without being able to, as it were, ‘listen’ to it — and that itself takes on a meaning. I see the larger question as ultimately being philosophical, rather than psychological.

    (Re: Baron – one word: fiction :)