Atonal Train Stations: Weaponized Music in Berlin’s Drug War

The power of music to affect our psychological composition and influence our moods is not a new concept. Examples range from the soundscape design in shopping malls to the burgeoning field of music therapy (see here, here, here, and countless others). A recent series of news stories in Berlin highlight this power of influence. The Hermanstrasse station in Berlin’s Neukölln district has been well-established as a center for the sale, distribution, and use of drugs. As a counter for an increase in drug use at the station itself, “Germany’s national rail operator, Deutsche Bahn (DB), is planning to pipe “atonal music” into the Hermanstrasse station…in an attempt to drive away people who use the place to take drugs.” (Deutsche Welle) A representative of Deutsche Bahn states that atonal music was chosen “because it completely undermines traditional listening habits. Few people find it beautiful – many people perceive it as something to run away from.” (Deutsche Welle) The representative notes that Deutsche Bahn would experiment with different volumes and admitted that “there is a danger of annoying passengers, too.” (Deutsche Welle)

The word, “traditional,” is of course complicated and weighty in both cultural and stylistic biases, initiating questions of whose tradition, from what cultural origin, and what particular demographic of passengers would it “annoy”. Other problems with this weaponization of atonal music arose that caused Deutsche Bahn to abandon the initiative, partially in response to a protest concert organized by the Initiative für Neue Musik Berlin (INM). Lisa Bensje of the INM noted that the organization “is against the use of music as a means to an end and wanted to ensure experimental music is taken seriously as an art form…[They are also against] the underlying classism of using “difficult” music against a certain clientele: the implication being that only the educated upper middle class can appreciate classical and experimental music, an idea she rejects as elitist” (KCRW Berlin, 2018). Local residents saw a problem with the focus on contemporary music by both Deutsche Bahn and the Initiative für Neue Musik. “They think people should focus more on the inhuman attitudes toward poverty and drug addiction expressed in the plans and less on the use of contemporary music.” (KCRW Berlin, 2018) Representatives from Deutsche Bahn were present at the concert, likely leading to the retraction of the atonal music initiative.

“The idea of using music to counter social problems is not particularly new: In 2010 Berlin’s public transport operator, BVGH, experimented with using classical music in railway stations – though the idea there was that soothing classical music might reduce anti-social behavior.” (Deutsche Welle) If music has such noted psychological healing properties, surely it also has been or could be used for equally detrimental qualities; although there are certainly ethical questions that arise in regard to whether it should be used as such a weapon. Alex Ross sees this use of music as “an inversion of the concept of Muzak, which was invented to give a pleasant sonic veneer to public settings.” He notes Lily Hirsch’s reporting of a similar use of classical music by 7-Eleven stores “to drive away loitering teenagers. The idea was that young people would find such a soundtrack insufferably uncool… To the chagrin of many classical-music fans, especially the lonely younger ones, it seems to work.” (Ross 2016) Ross chronicles a broad history of music’s weaponization from weapons that actually doubled as musical instruments to modern uses of rock music as a military weapon. He notes Jane Meyer’s research “that the idea of punishing someone with music also emerged from Cold War-era research into the concept of “no-touch torture”—leaving no marks on victims’ bodies.” (Ross 2016) It seems clear that, just as with most things, music has incredible effects on human psychology and can be used for both therapeutic or harmful uses. Therapeutic uses are well-established and certainly encouraged. With both this power of therapeutic influence and its equal potential for harm, the question is whether or not it should be used for such harmful purposes, much as was determined in the instance of Berlin’s train stations. Ross closes with a similar acknowledgement of our responsibility toward music (and all art for that matter) in our use and respect for each work of art. “Renouncing music is not an option… Rather, we can renounce the fiction of music’s innocence. To discard that illusion is not to diminish music’s importance; rather, it lets us register the uncanny power of the medium. To admit that music can become an instrument of evil is to take it seriously as a form of human expression.” (Ross 2016)

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