Bach, Beethoven, and Burger King

Just outside a Burger King on Market Street in San Francisco, classical music plays all night and all day, preferably to no one.

The reason? To discourage the homeless from hanging around. Apparently many people, including the homeless, dislike how loud it can be and/or simply dislike classical music. And so it works, the homeless stay away.

The tactic is not new.

In the Los Angeles Review of Booksauthor Theodore Gioia writes that classical music as crowd dispersal probably dates to 1985, when a Canadian 7-Eleven pioneered the playing of Mozart in parking lots where people gathered. The idea worked so well that it became store policy at almost 200 locations.

Since then, the idea has spread around the globe.

Here’s a few excerpts from the article:

Then the idea spread to West Palm Beach, Florida, where in 2001 the police confronted a drug-ridden street corner by installing a loudspeaker booming Beethoven and Mozart. “The officers were amazed when at 10 o’clock at night there was not a soul on the corner,” remarked Detective Dena Kimberlin. Soon other police departments “started calling.”

In 2005, the (London Underground) metro system started playing orchestral soundtracks in 65 tube stations as part of a scheme to deter “anti-social” behavior, after the surprising success of a 2003 pilot program. The pilot’s remarkable results — seeing train robberies fall 33 percent, verbal assaults on staff drop 25 percent, and vandalism decrease 37 percent after just 18 months of classical music — caught the eye of the global law-enforcement community. Thus, an international phenomenon was born. Since then, weaponized classical music has spread throughout England and the world: police units across the planet now deploy the string quartet as the latest addition to their crime-fighting arsenal…

In the most dramatic account of concerto crime-fighting, the Columbus, Ohio, YMCA reportedly dissolved a sidewalk brawl between two drug dealers simply by flipping on Vivaldi’s Four Seasons.

It should be noted that  playing the classical music does not really solve the underlying problem, it just aims to relocate the problem somewhere else.

The danger in all of this, as Gioia suggests, is that the classical music may also turn off potential lovers of classical music.

Linking classical music with gentrification may shift the public’s default attitude toward the art form from indifference to avoidance. In all likelihood, the orchestral intimidation strategy succeeds in driving away not only crowds of potential vagrants but also generations of potential audiences. Classical music may now discourage juvenile delinquents and juvenile devotees alike. It deters both loitering and listening.

I don’t know much classical music, and I’ve occasionally tried to teach myself a little bit about it, but without much success. I’ve always found it very calming, and I think there’s a chance that the tactics used above would have the opposite effect on me – I’d want to be at places that play classical music as opposed to many of the styles that are popular today.

As I was reading Gioia’s fascinating article, it reminded me of a scene from a Bugs Bunny episode, where Bugs utters the line, “They say music calms the savage beast.” Now I’m certainly not comparing the homeless to savage beasts, but it is worth noting that people seem to recognize that classical music affects people emotionally. And it is that knowledge that is used to both appeal to those who love it, as well as deter those who do not.


I’m guessing that Beethoven and Bach would be upset if they knew that their music was being used for such purposes. I’m also guessing that they might be surprised to learn that their music was still played centuries after it was first written.

Knowing that it has stood the test of time, I am confident that classical music will continue to be enjoyed for many years, despite some of the unusual uses it has been put to recently.

I’ll close with a little Vivaldi, how can you not love Spring. Hopefully you find that it has a calming effect, and not that it causes you to run from the room.

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