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Originally published | Page modified July 27, 2009 at 12:06 AM

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Businesses using music to deter crime and loitering

Businesses around Seattle are blaring classical, opera and country music near their buildings as a way to deter crime and keep people from hanging around outside.

Seattle Times staff reporter

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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.

Several local businesses have followed suit in recent years.

The trend is part of a larger scheme of environmental design aimed at keeping crime away, said Dr. Jacqueline Helfgott, chair of the criminal-justice department at Seattle University.

It's grown mostly through word-of-mouth because businesses are looking for creative solutions to crime, she said. "It's changing the nature of the environment so people make other decisions than committing crimes."

Dopamine

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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.

Norman Middleton, senior producer of concerts and special projects at the Library of Congress, said he believes the method derives from the "Muzak" concept, and is used as a mood-altering device. "Cops and other security entities somehow got the idea to use it in a reverse-psychology way," he said. The Tacoma Mall Transit Center began playing classical and country music in 2007, Pierce Transit spokesman Lars Erickson said.

"We did see a pretty significant decline in vandalism," he said.

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.

"It's a convenient place for people to squat, sit down or drink their favorite beverage from brown paper bags," said Ferdinand Boyce, president of the Royal Crest homeowners association.

Boyce got the idea after he and his wife were vacationing in Europe and saw the method used there. He said the opera playing outside the building is pleasant in small doses, but people typically don't stick around.

"For a lot of people," he said, "opera is like nails on a chalkboard."

Dr. Daniel Levitin, professor of psychology and neuroscience at McGill University in Montreal, and author of "This Is Your Brain on Music: The Science of a Human Obsession," said the musical mind games are similar to the way department stores using different genres in each department attract diverse demographics.

He said he believes the use of music as a crime-fighting tool is a simple but ingenious concept.

But Levitin 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.

"It's like elevator music," Salimah Rodriguez said, looking around the lot for the speakers.

Rene Busch, who owns a hair-and-beauty salon next to the market, said she enjoys the music and often comes outside to relax.

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.

"And isn't that a nice side-benefit?" he asked.

Phillip Lucas: 206-515-5632 or plucas@seattletimes.com

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