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There might be misplaced hostility in sonic landscapes

Colleen Phelps

Classical music is not a weapon.

That’s one of those things one never thinks they’ll need to say out loud but I found myself shouting it, thanks to coverage by Jessica Gelt of the LA Times.

The bullet points of the story are as follows:

  • The Westlake/MacArthur Park Metro station management in Los Angeles doesn’t want unhoused people to sleep in the building anymore.
  • To prevent this, they are playing classical music.
  • While the LA Metro spokesperson claims the music is at a reasonable volume, it is actually at a dangerously high decibel level.
  • Commuters are uncomfortable with the loudness of the music.
  • It’s worth noting that one needs a license to play recordings of music in public, even for works in the public domain. And the LA Times couldn’t confirm that Metro has such a license.

By far the loveliest character in Gelt’s story is Isis Soto, one of the unhoused, who enjoys classical music and says that it keeps her in the station longer. A different news itemfrom a few weeks ago on L.A.’s ABC television affiliate shared a somewhat different take: that the music playing is for crime prevention. That story presents the facts largely as stated by a Metro official.

Gelt’s article links online to 2019 coverage in the same newspaper about a similar tactic being used to curb loitering in front of 7-Eleven. In fact, I was able to find news mentions of 7-Eleven using this tactic as early as 1985 to dissuade teens rather than the unhoused. 1999 coverage of the same in Greensboro, NC mentioned 20% growth in listening to the genre.

Could 7-Eleven be part of the reason for the growth in teens’ classical listening today?

While the L.A. County official David Sotero told ABC 7 that “studies show” the music keeps people moving through the station, I was unable to find any academic studies of that sort actually cited or easily accessible. What I did find was a lot of guessing from doctors and police officers. And that’s understandable - the world of classical music is so varied that it can have totally different impacts from one moment to the next. But is that a reason to speculate wildly?

It’s also disturbing when classical music is deployed punitively, as a judge in Colorado had used a Kubrick-esque “punishment playlist” for loud music violations, with classical music placed next to the theme from Barney.

The entire conversation makes me so glad to be part of Louisville’s musical community. Where the Big Four Bridge floats classical tunes float along in a pleasant fashion, and it will soon host the Louisville Orchestra for a community-engaging public performance with Creators Corp member Lisa Bielawa.

A walk (or in my case, usually a jog) across the Big Four Bridge is a delight. It’s my favorite place in Louisville. Not because of the music, but surely including what’s coming out of the speakers.

And sure, I’ll concede that classical music playing in public spaces might be correlated with “better” behavior. But, do we really think that’s because it makes people miserable? Don’t people act destructive when they’re unhappy and insecure? Don’t happy and secure people typically treat their surroundings with respect?

The Elm Park station in San Francisco was noted for the use of classical as well in 2003. Piping it in was correlated with a 30% reduction in violent crime and a 40% reduction in vandalism. However, in West Palm Beach with a similar public program, loiterers simply dismantled the speakers.

I’m a proud advocate for more classical listening, but never by force. When classical music is discovered by invitation and by choice it can be an experience that creates a deeper emotional connection to the world around us. At its best, it inspires us to be better.

But as a deterrent? A punishment? A weapon?

Turn that noise off.

Copyright 2023 Louisville Public Media

Colleen is the Music Director and host for LPM Classical. Email Colleen at colleen@lpm.org.

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