Why 7-Eleven plays classical music outside its stores

Many businesses believe Bach and Mozart are the ultimate crime deterrents.

This spring at a 7-Eleven near downtown Tacoma, Washington, patrons filled up their gasoline tanks to a surprising soundtrack: the haunting pitch of a classical string section and crescendoing bass of a male opera singer. 

The music, blaring from a speaker outside the store’s entrance, was “super loud,” one customer told the local TV station KOMO. Another described the situation as “kind of crazy,” although he also credited the music with cultivating a safer environment.

The Tacoma 7-Eleven was hardly alone in filling the air with Mozart and Beethoven in May.

  • KOMO reported that a nearby Walgreens played classical music, too. 
  • A shuttered department store blasted an all-night classical music concert in St. Paul, Minnesota. 
  • A tire shop in San Rafael, California, played classical music near a homeless encampment so loudly that its residents sought an injunction.

Since at least the 1980s, convenience stores, transit authorities, and police have used classical music to deter loitering and prevent crime. They believe the music’s association with sophisticated tastes repels unwanted crowds, such as teenagers or homeless people. 

But the results of these tactics have been mixed, and critics believe the deterrence violates people’s right to public space and targets communities based on class and race. Can businesses blast their problems away with music, or are they just amplifying a larger issue?

Marking space with music

Way back in the 17th century, as the composer Johann Sebastian Bach took Europe by storm, he described music as “an agreeable harmony for the honor of God and the permissible delights of the soul.”  

Little did he know that by the mid-1980s, enterprising 7-Eleven managers in British Columbia would find a perfectly disagreeable use for his Baroque sound: pissing off teens. 

Johann Sebastian Bach. (Ullstein Bild/Getty Images)

The 7-Eleven stores struggled to prevent kids from loitering, so they sought unconventional means to drive them away. They added better lighting, removed window ledges (so nobody could sit on them), and started playing music by the likes of Bach, Vivaldi, and Mozart. 

These are all examples of hostile or defensive architecture, which use design elements to reshape an area’s social environment.

And somehow it worked.

“We haven’t had a problem with crowds in the last five years,” the Vancouver market manager explained to the Winnipeg Sun in 1992.

It’s unclear whether these 7-Elevens were the first businesses to employ music as a loitering deterrent, but many 7-Eleven stores throughout North America used similar methods in the coming decades, crediting the British Columbia managers with the idea. The concept spread beyond 7-Eleven, too: 

  • New York’s Port Authority played classical music at its bus terminal in the ’90s.
  • In 2019, the city of West Palm Beach used “Baby Shark” to prevent homeless people from sleeping near a waterfront pavilion. (Two decades before, West Palm Beach police found that playing classical music coincided with a reduction of drug deals and thefts at a high-crime street corner.) 
  • Australian parks and California Rite Aids have used Barry Manilow music to deter loitering.

Its effectiveness may seem obvious: Loud or repetitive music could overwhelm the senses and make people want to leave. But experts suggest classical and opera music (and Manilow) are selected because the music is coded for an elite, older, and often white demographic. 

“You’re marking space, like a bird does, through song,” says Lily Hirsch, a musicologist and author of Music in American Crime Prevention and Punishment.

“A teenager might listen to classical music and love it,” she adds. “But because of the associations, because they understand what is happening, they're going to leave.”

A 7-Eleven in Brooklyn’s Prospect Park South neighborhood. (Michael M. Santiago/Getty Images)

The music also fits within what criminologists call the “routine activity theory,” which posits that crime occurs when an environment features likely offenders, suitable targets, and a lack of guardians.

Design choices, including classical music, can change the environment, according to Jacqueline Helfgott, director of the Crime & Justice Research Center at Seattle University, potentially introducing a more diverse mix of ages and cultures.

“The idea is that using classical or opera music symbolically reinforces the idea of who belongs in this territory and who does not,” she says.  

And as Helfgott and others point out, making assumptions about whom classical music is for and whom it’s meant to repel is rife with ethical implications.

Broken windows 

Reports about using classical music as a crime deterrent rose in the ’80s and ’90s, an era when many cities started broken-windows policing programs. 

They believed they could reduce violent crime by focusing on seemingly unrelated problems: repairing broken windows, cleaning up graffiti, strictly enforcing minor offenses like subway fare evasion, and generally cultivating an orderly environment.  

Many cities that instituted broken-windows policing, notably New York City, saw significant declines in crime. Although many legal authorities have attributed those declines to broken-windows policing, others have argued a nationwide trend in crime reduction merely correlated with the use of broken-windows policing. The strategy also led to claims of racial profiling and controversial tactics such as stop-and-frisk. 

Similar criticisms have been applied to using classical music as a crime and loitering deterrent. Helfgott said using classical music to reshape an environment can incorrectly stereotype areas as undesirable and can bring about changes associated with gentrification.

“I think we’re actually, in 2024, in a better place than we were historically,” Helfgott said. “Discussions are being had about the ethics of it, and the stereotypes and the targeting.”

Classical musicians in New York City. (Robert Nickelsberg/Getty Images)

But many private businesses and public entities that blast classical music have not been willing to explain their justifications.

Several did not respond to interview requests from The Hustle, including 7-Eleven, Walgreens, Los Angeles Metro, and the West Palm Beach Police Department.  

It’s also unclear whether classical music actually deters crowds. 

Anecdotal success stories, such as from West Palm Beach or the 7-Eleven stores in British Columbia, are matched by stories of failure. The Toronto Transit Commission, for instance, found no impact on loitering after experimenting with classical music for several years starting in the late ’90s.       

And even when classical music works, its usage skirts a bigger question: Why have homeless or youthful loiterers gathered in certain areas to begin with? And where do they go if they’re driven away? 

‘Like musical chairs’

At the pioneering 7-Elevens in 1980s British Columbia, the teenagers who dispersed from the convenience stores didn’t all get after-school jobs or join sports teams because they hated classical music.

According to a manager for the area stores, they moved their hangouts to the mall.

San Rafael, California, a city in wealthy Marin County, has seen similar shifts in its homeless population.

The Hustle

Over the last few months, dozens of people have congregated in tents abutting a walking path. The area features industrial businesses, a grocery store, and a UPS store. But the encampment wasn’t always there.

San Rafael homeless camps have moved around since the pandemic. The city has struggled to accommodate its homeless, shutting down some encampments while launching initiatives to create housing options. (It recently sought grant money for a city-sanctioned camping site.)

Last summer, the city passed an ordinance regarding encampment locations that would’ve forced the current camp’s population to spread out, but a federal lawsuit from the camp’s members largely prevented enforcement. 

“It’s like musical chairs,” says Robbie Powelson, president of the Marin County Homeless Union. 

The camp’s migration to the walking path bothered East Bay Tire, a nearby business. It claimed in a May legal filing that drug use, fights, and trash from the encampment had stunted its business and led employees to quit. If nothing changed, store leadership claimed, they might have to close.

A couple weeks later, East Bay Tire started playing classical music: Beethoven and Mozart, according to Powelson, from dusk until dawn.

Downtown San Rafael in 2013. (Paul Chinn/The San Francisco Chronicle via Getty Images)

Powelson said the music was meant to “torture our people.” The encampment filed a lawsuit accusing East Bay Tire of violating noise ordinances, and a judge granted a temporary restraining order prohibiting the music until the case is decided.

A manager for East Bay Tire, which did not respond to an interview request, told a local TV station the shop played the music as a means of keeping employees and customers safe — not to force out the encampment’s residents.

A hearing on the music lawsuit is set for this week.

While a judge may soon decide whether the music must fade out, one thing’s for sure: Devising a long-term solution that works — for businesses, loitering teens, and homeless in San Rafael and elsewhere — will take much longer.

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