Blasting Classical Music in Train Stations Is Music Torture: Composer

Winford Hunter
  • LA Metro received criticism for blaring classical music at stations with unhoused people.
  • A composer whose music was used at the station made the agency stop playing his song last week.
  • But the move fits into a history of agencies turning up the volume for the listener’s pain, another composer said.

Los Angeles Metro’s recent decision to blare classical music from a train station with a high number of unhoused people away fits into a cruel history of using music as torture, a composer told Insider.

Alex Wakim, a New York-based film and classical composer, told Insider that the decision to continue to play the music at uncomfortably high volumes in train stations was “disheartening.”

It followed a trajectory of music being used by governments, businesses, and local agencies to exclude people from public spaces, or drive them to the brink of insanity, Wakim told Insider. Critics blased the tactic’s hostility, calling it out as an effort to drive out the high numbers of unhoused people at the station.

“I felt very disheartened to see this continuation of music being weaponized, because I grew up around Classical music,” Wakim told Insider. “It’s hard to see the music you love be used to make people feel excluded from public space.”

LA Metro and the LAPD did not immediately return Insider’s requests for comment.

In 2023, LA Metro and the Los Angeles Police Department began to play deafeningly loud classical music at the Westlake/MacArthur Park station.

“Many of you have noticed that we’re playing music over the public-address speakers, as do many other types of businesses and municipalities,” LA Metro wrote in a statement. “The idea is to create an atmosphere that is comfortable for spending short amounts of time transiting through our station, but not conducive to hours-long loitering. We are monitoring the volume of the music, as well as customer feedback.”

LA Metro said the measure was introduced after violent crimes spiked 24% over the last year in train stations, along with a surge in overdoses and a drop in ridership, according to The Los Angeles Daily News.

First, the station played Barcelona composer Adrián Berenguer’s four-minute piece “Immaterial” on a loop at between 83 decibels and 90 dB, a volume akin to a lawnmower and loud enough to cause hearing damage, according to the Los Angeles Times. But the composer stepped in last week and asked the agency to stop using his music.

“I have not given any permission for my music to be used for these purposes,” Berenguer tweeted last week. “I believe that no form of art should be used to discourage or limit freedoms.”

Last week, a Metro official claimed that the music did not play louder than 72 db.

History repeats itself, and the songs do too

Wakim told Insider that as Metro officials have instead moved on to playing Bach or Beethoven, the policy choice generally has a dark history.

“There are instances of music being used as torture, in Waco, Texas, and music has also been used like that in Guantanamo Bay — probably one of the most dark applications was the use of Wagner’s music in Nazi Germany,” Wakim told Insider.

In 1993, FBI and ATF agents engaged in a 52-day standoff with the cult group the Branch Davidians and their leader David Koresh in Waco, Texas, trading barrages of gunfire as several people on both sides were killed. The FBI also blared Tibetan chanting music, Nancy Sinatra songs, and Christmas carols into the cult’s compound to weed them out, according to Entertainment Weekly.

In Guantanamo Bay, Metallica and death metal songs were played at 100 decibels to torture detainees and prod at cultural differences with the goals of psychologically breaking them, according to the Guardian. 

And in Nazi Germany, Richard Wagner’s music — an avowed anti-Semite and Hitler’s favorite composer — was used as a constant soundtrack in Nazi death camps, according to NPR.

Artists have more of a say in how their music is used

Though the trend has evolved and continues, Wakim says that artists are now approaching the public use of their music with a more ethical lens, armed with copyright protections.

“There’s more of an awareness of how artists’ music is being used — like Trump using various artists’ music who did not align with him,” Wakim told Insider. “It is kind of beautiful that composers have a say.”

Dozens of artists including Rihanna, Elton John, and Neil Young have asked Trump to stop using their music in events. 

Wakim told Insider that the situation in Los Angeles is also disappointing because across many public transit systems, music performers thrive and “use music as a kind of heartbeat to the city.” And in the case of classical music, a genre already associated with the elites, the music becomes even less accessible after being used the way LA Metro is using it, Wakim added.

“What if instead of blaring classical music to keep people away from these spaces, we had conversations and share instruments with them, as well as of course helping with basic needs,” Wakim said.

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