Contours of Control | Weaponising Classical Music: waging class-warfare beneath our cities’ streets

From classical music at North London underground stations to Israeli jets breaking the sound barrier over Gaza in the middle of the night, Theo Kindynis examines the multifaceted uses of sound and music as a mode of social, physical and psychological control.

Contours of Control, New in Ceasefire - Posted on Saturday, September 29, 2012 20:18 - 7 Comments

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“Sound and music has been deployed by military and police forces as a mode of social, physical and psychological control for decades.”

Ascending the escalators at South Tottenham’s Seven Sisters tube station late one evening last week, I was met by the somewhat incongruous sound of classical music playing through the station’s PA. Located on the main thoroughfare of Tottenham High Road, with a young and ethnically diverse, largely working-class population, central South Tottenham’s soundscape typically comprises a mixture of screaming school children, several varieties of patois, heavy traffic and wailing emergency vehicle sirens.

It struck me as odd that I’d never been greeted by similarly symphonic strains when alighting at say, Knightsbridge or South Kensington, where classical music might seem more accordant given the areas’ upper-class demographics and luxury department stores. Had a defiant, music-loving platform attendant, inspired by Andy Dufresne’s broadcasting of a duettino from Mozart’s The Marriage of Figaro in The Shawshank Redemption, barricaded themselves in the control room and plugged their iPod into the tannoy system? Or was this the sound of creeping social control?

Sound and music has been deployed by military and police forces as a mode of social, physical and psychological control for decades. During the Vietnam war, the US military waged its so-called Urban Funk Campaign of audio harassment PSYOPS (later fictionalized as General Kilgore’s infamous Wagnerian fly-bys in Coppola’s Apocalypse Now). In late 2005, several international newspapers reported the Israeli military’s deliberate and indiscriminate use of air force jets to create deafening sonic booms over the Gaza Strip by breaking the sound barrier at low altitude, often under the cover of darkness.

More recently, the US military has used music – ranging from the death metal band Deicide to the Sesame Street and Barney theme tunes – as an instrument of torture and interrogation, subjecting detainees in Guantanamo Bay and Iraq to the same tracks on repeat, and at ear-splitting volume for sometimes hours, even days on end.

During the London 2012 Olympic Games, the Ministry of Defence is reported to have deployed a so-called Long Range Acoustic Device (LRAD) crowd control system, capable of producing highly directional pain-inducing “deterrent tones” of over 150 decibels.

Alongside such exceptional and overtly belligerent applications, music has in recent decades been harnessed as a more subtle and insidious means of social control and sorting. During the mid 1980s, Canadian outlets of the 7-Eleven convenience store franchise began to play easy listening and classical music to drive away teenagers in response to a “loitering problem” outside their stores. Following the much-lauded success of this quirky new form of crowd control, businesses and governments around the world have started to use music in much the same way.

In the UK, classical music was first used as a deterrent against “anti social” behaviour by Tyne and Wear Metro in 1997. A spokesman for the Metro said the scheme was introduced not in response to any criminal behaviour, but to young people “involved in low level anti-social behaviour, like swearing, and smoking” (i.e. behaving like young people). “Even if they didn’t have a violent agenda, they looked like they might have.” And, beginning in 2003, Transport for London has extended a similar scheme to upwards of 65 stations across the capital.

The sporadic press coverage afforded to this program, peppered with the stock rhetoric of “anti-social behaviour” and “youth disorder”, and smug demographic euphemisms – “hoodies”, “yobs”, “hooligans” and “gangs” – has tended to celebrate its purported success; the strains of Beethoven and Bach ostensibly responsible for a 33% reduction in instances of physical and verbal abuse towards TfL staff.

Such accounts, however, often fail to mention that this is “as part of a package of measures” that includes increased policing, greater staff visibility and physical changes to stations such as better lighting and extra CCTV cameras. In fact, any criticism has tended to be drawn from a coterie of cultural reactionaries who bemoan the demotion of great classical works to little more than socially-engineered background music. These snobs gripe that playing classical music to police the tube is “culturally reckless”, that it is “demeaning to one of the greater glories of civilisation”, and that it “inures us to its power”.

Far less attention, however, has been paid to the way in which this use of classical music represents a patronising new mode of discriminatory social sorting – a form of low-intensity class warfare waged beneath our cities’ streets, whereby the elite have weaponised classical music to effectively banish “undesirable” social groups from public spaces.

Mainstream press accounts have invoked the notion of classical music as a somehow “civilising” or “moralising” force; an idea that dates back at least as far as Plato’s Republic. This BBC article for instance, typical of many, implies that the “calming influence” of Mozart and Pavarotti is key to a “drastic reduction in anti-social behaviour by gangs of youths”. Despite the enduring currency of this frankly ridiculous notion, it is clear that young people are not “reformed” through the magical power of classical music: they simply take their activities elsewhere.

Classical music has thus been seized upon by Transport for London and a host of other business and government leaders, not as a positive moralising force, but rather as a marker of space: a kind of “aural fence” or sonic wall, signalling “inclusion to some and exclusion to others” through its culturally conditioned associations: white, old, rich, elite.

This amounts to an orchestrated campaign of what French sociologist Pierre Bourdieu termed “symbolic violence”: the use of cultural forms by the powerful to at once assert and legitimise their domination. As one commentator notes, the dangerous message this sends to young people is: “1: You are scum; 2: Classical music is not a wonder of the human world, it is a repellent against anti-social behaviour”.

More broadly, the idea that informs this initiative and others like it, that crime and anti-social behaviour can just be “designed away” – what, within criminology and associated fields is referred to as Situational Crime Prevention – is in itself deeply problematic. Premised on a logic of “rational choice” and a simplistic understanding of criminality as routine, “utilitarian” and unavoidable, this approach aims to reduce potential offenders’ decisions or ability to commit crimes at given places and times by making physical changes to the immediate environment.

As noted above, such measures rarely prevent the kind of behaviour they seek to, often simply displacing it instead. Moreover, the social, cultural and economic causes of crime are hence either ignored or rendered irrelevant.

Ultimately, the type of questions and discussions that lead to long-term solutions – How come young people have nothing better to do than hang out in tube station ticket halls and supermarket carparks? Why are older people so scared of them? And why is their mere presence perceived as such a problem? – are being drowned out.

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Theo Kindynis

Theo Kindynis is a writer and researcher based in London. His 'Contours of Control' column appears bi-weekly on Ceasefire and considers issues of policing, security and social control. He can be contacted via e-mail or Twitter. His website is www.theokindynis.com

7 Comments

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Matt
Oct 10, 2012 0:25

Classical music calms the savage beast…actual wild animal as well as us! It doesn’t simply displace or repress the transgressor. In fact this music is not elitist as it makes plants grow faster and dairy cows to provide more milk when exposed to it. Children used to kick tin cans down the road, play with hoops and sticks, or simply shoot marbles for entertainment. It is not society’s failure if they don’t have a Game-Boy and thus are fallaciously driven to loiter and harass. Is this arguement from a journalist or a “hollow man?”

Eugene Egan
Oct 20, 2012 20:45

The use of sound known as white noise was also used in Northern Ireland by the British military as a psychological weapon against Irish republicans detained without trial in the 1970s.

Classical Crime Stoppers! | Cow Patties
Apr 9, 2013 20:52

[…] Seven-Eleven chains in Canada had great success with this method in the 1980s.  They played classical music outside of the stores to deter teenage loiterers.  It turns out that the cool kids did not, in fact, want to listen to Beethoven.  Viewed as a simple way to prevent crime, the music method became popular across the globe.  Since then, problem areas have been piping in classical music with great results.  In 2010 in Portland, police calls declined by 40% after rail stations began playing classical music at high-crime stations. […]

classical music is not just for white elitists
May 7, 2014 14:24

I am not white and my ancestors are not white, and I was brought up on all kinds of music. When I need a stress relief sometimes i find it beneficial to sit and just listen to classical music. Classical music has also been known to increase better comprehension while studying and reading… it is the music itself that is beneficial to the human psyche not just to white elitists… Notice the military doesn’t use classical music to torture people from “other” races, they use ear damaging music with abrasive frequencies like death metal, as was stated in this article. It is a shame that someone should think classical music is only made for white, old, elite people; in my opinion schools should draw more attention to the appreciation of such music…and if you have not noticed, a lot of people who are not white, do in fact appreciate classical instruments i.e: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=gEIVzWCRSg8

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Dec 4, 2014 13:17

[…] en determinados lugares conflictivos de delincuencia y marginalidad en el Reino Unido, sobre todo en el metro. La sociología bienpensante ha elaborado una bonita teoría al respecto. Se afirma que la música […]

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Apr 4, 2015 13:20

[…] from – Theo Kindynis, “Weaponising Classical Music: waging class-warfare beneath our cities’ streets,” Ceasefire, Saturday September 29, 2012 […]

Why Criminals Are Afraid of Classical Music
Mar 18, 2016 8:46

[…] earliest occurrence I could find goes back to the mid 1980s, when Canadian outlets of the 7-Eleven convenience store […]

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