Newspaper article Pittsburgh Post-Gazette (Pittsburgh, PA)

Is Classical Music Just a Pleasant Background Sound, or Does It Deter Crime?

Newspaper article Pittsburgh Post-Gazette (Pittsburgh, PA)

Is Classical Music Just a Pleasant Background Sound, or Does It Deter Crime?

Article excerpt

Pittsburgh was the first city in the U.S. to broadcast classical music in its subway stations.

It wasn't to combat crime. That isn't a non sequitur.

Since 1986, Port Authority has piped classical music into the Downtown T subway stations (Steel Plaza, Wood Street and Gateway Center) used by thousands of commuters every day. North Side and Allegheny stations also carry the tunes, and as of 2013, the Pittsburgh International Airport broadcasts the same selections to more than 8 million travelers each year.

Just a year before, 7-Eleven stores in British Columbia, Canada, started broadcasting classical music as part of an effort to curb loitering. Combined with other initiatives, the chain reported success in driving away idlers at more than 100 stores, sparking an international trend in using classical music to drive down crime.

There are dozens of news articles proclaiming the effectiveness of classical music as a crime deterrent in cities around the globe. The idea makes for a great story. But there are no published studies that indicate that classical music alone deters loitering and crime, and even the anecdotal evidence is conflicting.

"Crime wasn't part of the equation here," said George Hazimanolis, senior director of corporate communications at WQED. "This was part of a public art initiative back in the '80s when the Cultural District was coming into being."

Port Authority employees distributed more than 2,000 surveys in January 1986 after a rider suggested piping in music to make waits at the stations more pleasant. More than 80 percent of responses favored classical music.

The piped-in recordings are almost exclusively from Pittsburgh-based ensembles ranging from the Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra, the Pittsburgh New Music Ensemble and River City Brass to the Mendelssohn Choir, the Pittsburgh Chamber Orchestra and more.

"It absolutely shows the city in a positive light," said Matthew Mehaffey, music director of The Mendelssohn Choir. "Pittsburgh is world renowned for it symphony. The Mendelssohn Choir is also nationally recognized as a top chorus. People should be proud of our arts economy!"

Micah Howard, a bassist in the PSO, agreed. "I think the musicians are happy that they do this - it's really wonderful. When we come back to the city after touring it's a nice 'welcome home.'"

WQED Multimedia curates and provides the music, a 24-hour online streaming service now called "Q the Music." Pittsburgh International Airport and Consol Energy co-sponsor the initiative for about $19,000 yearly, which covers playlist creation and input, technical support and equipment costs.

WQED's programming director, Bryan Sejvar, creates two seven-hour playlists a month - everything from Mozart and Beethoven to Copland and Rimsky-Korsakov - and shuffles them to keep things fresh. During December, WQED pipes in holiday-themed music, also performed by local ensembles.

Commuter Janet Strahosky of Avalon said she didn't know that the recordings are of Pittsburgh ensembles.

"Oh that's the Pittsburgh Symphony? That's wonderful," she said. "I don't have [classical music] on my radio at home, but I find this a refreshing change."

While Aaron White of Penn Hills, a commuter at Gateway Station, said that he appreciates that the music is performed by local groups, he believes that Port Authority should mix it up once in a while. "I think there should be a variety of artists that they play, not just one type. I would say anything from rock to hip-hop to pop - especially local artists."

So, does it deter crime?

Today, numerous other cities play classical music in the subways. Some, like in Pittsburgh, do this simply to make commuters' time in the stations more enjoyable. Many believe that the music deters loitering and crime.

Lily Hirsch, musicologist and writer, literally wrote the book on the subject and published "Music in American Crime Prevention and Punishment" in 2007. …

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