In several cities across the globe, public spaces or buildings have opted for a different approach: Hoping that classical sounds would drive drug dealers, homeless, and aggressive adolescents from parks of stations, they started to use music to deter or pacify undesirables. First tried and tested in Canada, to dispel gangs and gatherings of teenagers in mid-1990s Montreal, the concept proved a resounding success, later replicated in London – after test runs in supermarkets and subway lines – at the notorious Elm Park station. Infamous for its gang problem, this stop on the District Line scared subway drivers and passengers alike, but a mere 18 months after the first strings hit the airwaves, muggings had declined by 33 percent, verbal assaults on staff by 25 percent and vandalism by 37 percent – all thanks to Pavarotti.

Meanwhile, in Hamburg, central station administrators introduced Vivaldi et al. in 1998; a scheme that continues to this day. According to officials, this project is less about deterring undesirables and more about conveying a sense of security to passengers and making their stopover as pleasant as possible. And although the scheme has correlated with declining numbers of homeless near the station, this was ascribed to flanking measures like the increased police presence – not exactly an invitation to those at the margins of society.

© lama-photography / photocase.com
© lama-photography / photocase.com

Prof. Dr. Eckart Altenmüller, on the other hand, considers this use of music as a deterrent against an unwanted “clientele” simply cynical. The Hanover-based music pysiologist and director of the Institute for music physiology and musician medicine plays several instruments himself and has been researching the effect of music on the human psyche for many years. In western society, classical music is almost exclusively associated with wealth and status. “Music defines many things – an entire lifestyle and even a certain social class. It denotes a way of life and a certain financial background,” adds Altenmüller.

He assumes that this approach presupposes a psychological effect. “Homeless people, eking out an existence in the shadows of society, might not like to be reminded of this bourgeois world.” By playing this specific genre, officials show certain demographics that they are not welcome.

© suze / photocase.com
© suze / photocase.com 

At the same time, the envisaged deterrent effect only works to a certain extent. According to a survey by Deutsche Welle, conducted at Hamburg’s train stations, socially disadvantaged citizens, too, enjoy classical music. People simply perceive music in different ways – music can incite or calm and what some find enchanting makes others sad. Classical music on its own will not drive inconvenient social strata from stations and waiting rooms. And even if and where it does, it will only shift the problem to a new location.

To date, there are no reliable studies on the effect of classical music on socially disadvantaged groups that spend extended stints at stations. And there is reason to believe that the effect – if real – will fade with time. From a societal point of view, it makes far more sense to identify and combat the causes of e. g. homelessness while supporting social integration. Many shining examples lead the way, with unemployed youths forming drum ensembles or homeless a Berlin choir. The latter was founded in 2009 by choirmaster Stefan Schmidt to give addicts and homeless something to hold on to. Music psychologist Eckart Altenmüller is delighted by such music-based initiatives. “I see a social problem that requires a solution. And such projects are a wonderful step in the right direction.” Using classical music against people is a clear case of wrongful use. Or, on a more positive note, “music can change the world.” (Beethoven)

Text: Vanessa Obrecht
Header image: hasselblad15 /
photocase.com