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How music is being used to tackle unwanted behaviour

How music is being used to tackle unwanted behaviour

Written by

James Picken


February 8, 2023



We all know that music has the power to improve our mood, connect with others, and make us bust a move. But how can it be used to tackle unwanted behaviour?

It was recently reported that a McDonald’s branch in Wrexham started playing classical music and rationing wifi in a bid to deter antisocial behaviour. Historically known as a genre that has a calming effect, the site plays it from 5pm to try and combat “upset” which has taken place previously. And this isn’t the first time this has happened - McDonald’s in London have also done the same thing, with positive results.

Studies show that in more up-market venues, classical music primes product-relevant knowledge, which leads to more fluent cognitive processing of the experience. Put simply, this means that when elements of the environment like music are aligned, we’re more likely to have an increased liking for that venue. 

So, because classical music doesn’t necessarily ‘fit’ the context of McDonald’s, it may deter people due to the in-congruence between venue and music. So if you’ve got a problem with antisocial behaviour, music could be one way to Handel it (sorry, we had to.)

But McDonald’s aren’t the only ones using music as a tool to change behaviour. 

Going Underground

Classical music is a popular one when tackling antisocial behaviour, including on the London Underground.

If you’ve ever been travelling on the tube and heard the soothing sounds of a classical song, you may think it was a simple decision to entertain you, but think again. 

Set up in 2007 by our very own Account Director, Chris, the initiative showed results within 18 months; robberies dropped by 33%, assaults on staff were down 25%, and vandalism was down by 37%. 

Since then, Transport for London has introduced the music in 65 of its 270 stations. 

When they surveyed 700 commuters, they “overwhelmingly agreed that hearing classical music made them feel happy, less stressed and relaxed”, so the impact isn’t just on crime. Interestingly, many of the London Underground customers surveyed also thought the stations had undergone a recent refurbishment, just because of the introduction of music.

It’s important to think about context here - we’re used to hearing classical music in relaxing situations, like being at the symphony, or in a meditative video. So when we hear it out in the wild, we’re taken to those spaces in our head, and it changes our behaviour.

A similar scheme was introduced in 2006 across Tyne and Wear’s Metro network with similar positive results; a 20% decrease in criminal damage and 25% on assaults.

Music as hostile architecture

We like to think the power of music is always used for positive and welcoming purposes, but this isn’t always the case.

In 2019 West Palm Beach, Florida, began playing a playlist of annoyingly catchy children’s songs - including “Baby Shark” (if you’re a parent, you’ll know the song well) on loop all night to deter homeless people from sleeping near an event centre.

The Waterfront Lake Pavilion, a luxury venue that can be rented for $250 to $500 per hour, didn’t want rough sleepers on its patio, so the city’s parks and recreation department created the sonic deterrent. 

This is an example of hostile architecture, a tactic used to deter rough sleeping and anti-social behaviour. Other examples of this you might have noticed out and about are segmented benches or metal spikes. It’s interesting to see that music can have an impact in the same way that physical barriers can.

This use of music is the complete opposite of the previous examples of classical music - if classical tunes are calming, the use of annoying children’s songs is likely to have a deterrent effect. 

We’ve seen tactics like this used for military operations such as the capture of Noriega by US forces after blasting music at the Vatican embassy where he was in hiding, and the most popular song used to torture prisoners at Guantanamo Bay and other detention centers in Iraq or Afghanistan was “I Love You” by Barney the Purple Dinosaur.

Oh lolli lolli lolli, lollipop

While we’re on the subject of tackling antisocial behaviour, here’s one of our favourite initiatives from 2010. Council chiefs in Sutton were tasked with combating the noise from drunk football fans in the 2010 World Cup. Working with Asda who supplied 5,000 lollies and 5,000 bottles of water for free as part of an ongoing community involvement programme, the items were given out for free to football fans as they left bars, pubs and clubs after games during the tournament.

Sutton is a popular place to have a night out. Noise and agro coming from pubs and clubs can be a pain but a lolly or drink of water can calm things down. Rehydrated fans quietly sucking on lollies means cheaper policing and quieter A&E departments.

- Councillor Graham Tope

This is a great example of preventing the issue rather than dealing with the outcome, and a method of deterring antisocial behaviour without the participants being entirely aware. Very cool.

It’s clear that music is being used to tackle unwanted behaviour around the world. Its real life application and results show that when used correctly, carefully chosen types of music can be used to encourage specific behaviours.

Music is powerful, but using it with intention takes skill.

We all know that music can change our moods. But its power is much larger than just that; it can change the way we move, how we behave, our perception of time, our reading of a brand or influence our purchasing decisions.  

What the above examples do seem to demonstrate is that these powerful effects are primarily associative (at least when you’re not being blasted at 150 decibels), meaning it’s all about what we as individuals associate with it when we hear it. Rather than inherent qualities of a style or piece of music, the differing perceptions of one age group versus another (let’s face it, a 2 year old probably wouldn’t mind Baby Shark on repeat) show us that the impact of the music - repellent to some while soothing to others - is based strongly on the individual. And the same is true for brands and their customers.

Hey, we've just met you and this is crazy. But here's our number +44 (0)203 397 7676. So, call us maybe? Or get in touch here.

How music is being used to tackle unwanted behaviour

James Picken

Creative Director at Startle. It's my job to produce and execute our music output, making sure everything is sounding, feeling and performing just right for our customers. When I'm not doing this, you can find me either walking my dog, remixing 90s divas on Logic Pro X, returning overdue library books or throwing weights about in the gym.

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Hey, we've just met you and this is crazy. But here's our number +44 (0)203 397 7676. So, call us maybe?

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