Monday, September 26, 2011

Classical Music as Crime Stopper


A PODCAST Interview with Jacqueline Helfgott: Music and the Brain
TItle: "Halt of I'll play Vivaldi! Classical Music as Crime stopper"
Date: April 16, 2009

About the Speaker*

Jacqueline (Jackie) Helfgott is an Associate Professor and Chair of the Department of Criminal Justice at Seattle University, where she has taught since 1993. She received her B.A.from the University of Washington in Psychology/Society & Justice and Masters and Ph.D. from The Pennsylvania State University in Administration of Justice with a graduate minor in Psychology. Her work has been published in major journals including Criminal Justice and Behavior, Journal of Forensic Psychology Practice, Journal of Contemporary Criminal Justice, The Journal of Police and Criminal Psychology, Federal Probation, The International Review of Victimology, and others. Her research has focused in two general directions – the intersection of psychology, criminology, and criminal justice and institutional and community corrections. Specific research foci and areas of expertise include: psychopathy - its role in the criminal justice system and the prediction of violent recidivism and dangerousness; criminal behavior and the use of crime typologies at different stages of the criminal justice process; offender reentry; correctional program evaluation; and restorative justice - balancing victim, offender, and citizen needs, rights, and interests.

*Profile taken from SAGE Publicatoins.


The podcast looks at how Classical music can be used as a tool to divert crimes from a specific environment.

The routine activity theory states that in order to combat crime, there must be a decrease in temptations and an increase in control. Helfgott argues that anyone and everyone has the possibility to commit crime, but there are aspects within each environment we can alter to change and prevent temptations. Some examples such as trimming the bushes shorter in a secluded area so it is more visible to the public, and fencing certain areas off would discourage criminal meetings (drug dealing in open space is not favourable).

In the same way, Music can be used as a territorial marker to deter criminals from going to specific regions. One study at the West Palm Beach supported this idea. After installing loud stereo speakers on the roof of drug-dealer infested bar, the police would blast Beethoven’s string quartet into the neighbourhood. After awhile, drug dealers in this particular neighbourhood stopped all activities because they “hated that kind of music”.

This brings up the problem of ethics. Some argue that Classical music should not be portrayed as the “bad” music that serves as a punishment to drive away individuals of wrong-doing. However, others (including Helfgott) believe that there are sub-groups within society that associate with specific music. For example, gang members are usually linked to heavy metal and rap music, so it is “not cool to hangout and listen to Vivaldi”. People react to music no matter what it sounds like, so it is not Classical music specifically , but rather everything else that is not associated with pop culture.

In the end, Helfgott revisits the idea of music as a territorial marker and posts a question for the future: “does one group have the right to move another group out of an area?”


In the interview, Helfgott repeatedly explains that playing Classical music can stop crime in a target area by employing different strategies to discourage criminals activities. I was very interested in this because the title of the interview suggests that Classical music can be a “cure” to “bad” activities. However, I soon realized the meaning of “stopping crime” Helfgott referred to was different than what I initially understood.

In the West Palm Beach Study, the activities only stopped because the drug dealers no long want to stay in the area that had Classical music blaring near their usual meeting spots. She explains that Classical Music is used as a territory marker to set boundary between different groups. Changing the music will alter the environment, and in this case, the gangs stopped meeting at the bar because the Classical music makes it a different territory. However, in my opinion this does not stop criminal activities, but rather, merely displacing them to another location that might be more discrete. Just because the problem is not visible does not mean the problem has resolved.

She goes on to talk about why this method works. There is a strong relationship between the genres of music and the sub-groups within society that correspond to each category. For example, certain types of music have been criminalized: specifically heavy metal and rap music. It is mainly associated with gang members as a form of identity. Helfgott suggests that the reason why criminals choose these genres of music to represent themselves is because “the cops don’t like it”. I agree with the idea that different groups of people want to embody different types of music. However, I disagree with the notion that an entire group of people are bounded in the same genre. It is a generalization to say that all criminals like rap and heavy metal, and none of the cops do.

Later in the interview, she brings up the controversy (as I discussed in the last paragraph): some inmates actually prefer Classical music because they enjoy it. So if using Classical Music as a means of punishment for those who hate it, what happens when the criminals begin to accept and enjoy it instead? Then this strategy of shooing people away with Classical Music would no longer work.

Although this “crime invention through environmental design” (as quoted by Helfgott) has some issues, its development is very interesting and innovative. The use of music as a territorial marker may spark new ideas to criminal prevention. I believe there should be physiological researches on the effects of Classical music alongside this psychological design, and hopefully come up with a better solution to crime.

1 comment:

Karine said...

The idea of classical music as a crime stopper certainly caught my attention. I was impressed that a gang actually relocated because of classical music being played in the location where they conducted their criminal activities. In this case, I think the topic of interest should not only be about punishing people by playing the music they do not enjoy, but also about the direct effects of certain types of music on the brain. Does rap or heavy metal music contribute to feelings of anger, violence, or anxiety? Can classical music have a positive effect on the brain even if the listener does not enjoy this type of music? In 2008, F. Baker and W. Bor published an article in Australas Psychiatry entitled ‘Can music preference indicate mental health status in young people?’ They concluded that studies have found a relationship between various genres of music and antisocial behaviours, vulnerability to suicide, and drug use. However, studies reject that music is a causal factor and suggest that music preference is more indicative of emotional vulnerability. In my opinion, music may serve as a measure to stop crime temporarily, but I do not consider that it is a successful tool for crime stopping. I would investigate its value as a prevention tool for violence in schools. Maybe there is a place for playing classical music in the background at lunchtime, during breaks, or detention?