While sitting at a bus terminal with enough time on my hands, I heard music coming over the speakers. It was Schubert’s first piano trio. Schubert is one of my many favorites, but as I listened, I found that I wasn’t relaxing. The music sounded tinny, hard-edged, aggressive. I had to move and needed to get out of there.
I’ve read that many public spaces are using classical music to help control vagrancy: to drive the homeless away. After listening to that, I now believe it. To most, classical music is the perfect background: soft, attractive, soothing, undemanding. But it’s also been used for 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 convenience stores began playing music in their parking lot as a deterrent to the crowds of teenagers hanging out. Plenty of stores continue to use the technique, and other examples have been cropping up sporadically ever since. In 2001, police in Florida blasted Mozart and Beethoven on a crime-ridden street corner and saw incidents dwindle dramatically. In 2010, the transit authority in Oregon began playing classical music at light-rail stops, and police calls dropped significantly. When the London Underground started piping classical music into stations, physical and verbal abuse by young people declined 33%. And a British school started using classical music to punish misbehaving pupils, forcing the disobedient to sit and listen to an hour of classical music. Their behavior significantly improved.
The idea of classical music as a force for good fits right in with the widespread image among classical music lovers. Classical music is often presented as a panacea. It can calm patients during surgery. It can also socialize inner-city children.