Businesses Using Music to Deter Crime and Loitering

Phillip Lucas, Seattle Times, July 27, 2009

The classical music blaring from speakers mounted on the light posts in a Rainier Beach parking lot keeps Richelle Reason walking. She never stops to hear the next song in the storefront symphony.

“It’s kind of annoying,” she said of the music in the Saar’s Market Place parking lot on South Henderson Street.

That’s exactly the point.

In the past, crowds of up to 25 people would hang out in the lot, which became the site of drug dealing, fights and police responses, according to Patrick Senn, store director at Saar’s Market Place.

“But now, people just come and go,” said Donna Fischer, a cashier at the store.

The market started using classical music about three years ago to repel loiterers and vandals from their buildings. Senn said the method appears to be working. Since he began playing the music, Senn said he hasn’t called police to the lot as much, although the Seattle Police Department wasn’t able to confirm that.

Businesses and transportation systems use classical, opera and country music as a crime-fighting tool around the globe.

Several Canadian cities began pumping classical and opera music from speakers in public places, such as subway platforms, to keep people from loitering. London plays classical music in 65 of its Underground stations, drawing compliments from some commuters and transit workers, according to a Transport for London spokeswoman.

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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 that they like, that 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.

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The music, paired with heightened security efforts, helped cut spending on vandalism-related repairs from $3,000 between 2006 and 2007 to $1,600 between 2007 and 2008, he added.

The Paramount Theatre in downtown Seattle, occasionally plays “It’s a Small World After All” through the night, possibly to keep people from hanging around the building. The McDonald’s on the corner of Third Avenue and Pine Street played country music to keep loiterers from getting too comfy. Four blocks north, the Royal Crest Condominium complex in Belltown plays opera to keep people from loitering near ground-level businesses.

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But Levitin [Dr. Daniel Levitin, professor of psychology and neuroscience at McGill University in Montreal] cautioned about being elitist or ethnocentric in linking good behavior with classical music and other fine arts. “I think hip-hop or R&B or heavy metal, in the right circumstances, can make someone feel kind, sensitive or inspired,” he said. Saar’s customers seemed divided on the classical-music offerings.

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When classical and opera music was tested as an anti-crime utility in Canada, some classical and opera enthusiasts decried its use that way. Bryan Lowe, programming director at classical-radio station KING 98.1 FM, said he isn’t offended by using opera and classical music that way, because it unintentionally exposes people to fine arts who might not stop to listen otherwise.

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