LSM-ONLINE-LOGO2JPG.jpg (4855 bytes)

Back Issues
LSM Issues
LSV Issues
Throat Doctor
Concert Reviews
CD Critics
Books Reviews
PDF Files

About LSM
LSM News
Guest Book
Contact Us
Site Search
Web Search
The Lebrecht Weekly


Visit every week to read Norman Lebrecht's latest column. [Index]

Going off the rails

By Norman Lebrecht / January 20, 2005


An appalling, all-too-familiar CCTV picture appeared last week in many newspapers. It showed a man being chased by two thugs onto a live London Underground line, from which he miraculousy leaped to safety.

Scenes like these have prompted the authorities to take remedial action, and the weapon they have chosen is classical music. The approaches to three stations on the eastern edge of the District Line were subjected for six months to bursts of Mozart, Vivaldi, Handel and Mussorgsky. The result was a one-third reduction in the number of robberies and a general diminution of other anti-social incidents.

Cheap, clean and classy, the method is now being broached at a further 35 stations. It works as a deterrent effect rather than a corrective one. Hooligans are not reformed by Mozart, so much as driven away by a noise that is as alien and hostile to their world as whale song to a camel herd.

Psychologists, jumping onto a moving carriage, hypothesise that symphonic music leaves youths feeling ‘uncool’, disoriented and at risk of ridicule. Train managers on Tyneside in northeast England report that it eliminated low-level nuisances such as swearing, spitting and smoking. The second Rachmaninov piano concerto in C minor had the highest success rate (odd that this Brief Encounter soundtrack should still cling to the railways like lichen).

Bus termini in the East Riding of Yorkshire experienced similar benefitsand Co-Op stores in the West Country have been fitted with subverted ghetto blasters to fire salvos of classical music at the approach of any hostile looking gang of layabouts. Travellers in musically protected areas say they feel reassured for their safety and culturally enhanced by the accompaniment to their waiting time.

The choice of music is carefully considered. Nothing to give you a headache – like Mozart’s chalk-on-slate works for glass harmonica or the gritty scores of Milton Babbitt. Nor is the music to be heard on platforms, where it might annoy law-abiding ticket-holders. This is not, by any measure, a cultural exercise. Still, what can be wrong with applying classical music as an unguent to the sores of a sick society?

Not much, to my mind. If Beethoven could provenly cut drug addiction and Dvorak avert teenage pregnancies, I would have the Pastoral and New World symphonies piped through the heating ducts of every school in the land and ladled mezzo-forte with lasagne at lunchtime. Trouble is, there is not a jot of evidence to show that music can be made to work one way or other as a force of social engineering.

The reports from peaked-cap inspectors at Elm Park, Whitley Bay and Sow Hill, as well as results from Canada and Australia, are anecdotal. They demonstrate only that in a limited area, for a short period, hooligans can be deflected by unfamiliar sounds. The deterrence does not stop them terrorising the next station up the line, or returning to wreak havoc once the fear of Faure has faded in their pea-brains. Playing symphonies on station forecourts is short-termist, short-sighted and pullulant with unforeseeable consequences.

We know very little about the effects of music on human psychology beyond the self- evident observations that slow, quiet sounds can tranquillise the nervous, while loud and rapid noises can turn gentle folk into raging monsters. Classical music is composed of both elements in equal and unpredictable parts.

The young toughs in Anthony Burgess’s novel Clockwork Orange would wind themselves up into frenzies of violence by listening to the finale of Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony, itself an ode to the brotherhood of man. Football fans at Sunderland’s Stadium of Light are whipped into collective hatred of visiting teams by the playing of Prokofiev’s Dance of the Knightsfrom the ballet Romeo and Juliet, itself a tender love story.

America’s National Football League, governing body of the most brutal contact sport since Christians versus Lions, employs two fulltime composers and a studio orchestra to accompany televised NFL matches with classical style music, adding extra bite and crunch to slow-mo replays and sliding tackles. A ten-CD box has just appeared, and very nice, too.

But the equation that nice music makes people nicer than they were before, and vice versa, does not add up. As individuals, we are too complex to be categorised by musical taste. The listening habits of Hitler and Stalin are too well known for anyone to suggest that one piece of music or other is good or bad for you, or for society. Music is a vast psychological mystery, and playing it to police railways is culturally reckless, profoundly demeaning to one of the greater glories of civilisation.

As so often nowadays it is the symptom that is being treated, not the cause. The mindless violence of aimless youths is rooted in educational failures that stretch back three generations – our failures to equip schoolchildren with self-sustaining crafts and skills and to open their eyes to horizons of possibility that can occupy empty hours of unemployment and loneliness.

During years of industrial decline, it was argued that schools should not waste time teaching arts and music when their job was to produce human cogs for the production line. In post-industrial disorder, utilitarians modulated their line to demand that schools teach a literacy and numeracy sufficient for a life in the service industries – at checkout tills, call centres and sales warehouses. The erosion in teaching religion and creativity bred an underclass without values and without the means to express faith or feeling. Binge drinking, yob violence and Big Brother TV are some of the more prominent outcomes of this terrible myopia.

The remedy is so obvious it scarcely bears mention. Consider this: which country achieved the best Year 10 results in science and mathematics last year? Not by the ever-malleable standards of British examination boards but by the impartial Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA), assessing quarter of a million pupils in 40 countries. Finland is the answer. Yes, Finland, with a population the size of Scotland’s and an impenetrable language. What are the Finns doing right? Every child in Finland is given an instrument to play from the first day at school. They learn to read notes on stave before letters on page. They spend hours at drawing and drama. The result is a society of with few tensions and profound culture. Finnish Radio broadcasts in Latin once a week. Finnish railways do not need to play Sibelius, except for pleasure. QED.

Visit every week to read Norman Lebrecht's latest column. [Index]



(c) La Scena Musicale 2001