To survey the Gallery Place Metro station on a recent weekday evening, with the mixture of sights and sounds that would have been alien to Metro riders only two years ago, was to see General Manager Paul J. Wiedefeld’s vision of Metro realized.
A splash of bright white light greeted customers at the entrance– masking staler, yellowish hues deeper inside the station. On the platform a set of lights twinkled white, not red — another Wiedefeld change — to signal an approaching train, a stainless steel 7000-series model.
And an easygoing, seemingly generic tune pumped from the speakers — so generic that a mobile app identified it as “Happy Uplifting Piano.”
Fresh off a debate over whether to paint its station interiors, Metro has touched off another argument among its riders: whether or not the system should play a selection of “easy listening” music over the loudspeakers at two busy Red Line stations, and eventually others. Metro said reception to the idea has been generally positive. The idea draws on Wiedefeld’s experience as chief executive of Baltimore-Washington International Marshall Airport, and the agency is pitching the music pilot as a way to “improve the Metro experience,” the agency said.
Lost in the debate over the soundtrack, however, is that transit systems have historically used music as a way to deter crime.
The London subway significantly expanded a program where it piped classical music into stations in 2008, after seeing the benefits of an initiative launched three years earlier. Others have tried music as a crime deterrent, too, including the Port Authority of New York and businesses in Seattle, which began playing opera, classical and county to shoo away loiterers. The Post reported in 2012 that West Palm Beach, Fla., police observed a sharp drop in crime in 2001 after blaring Mozart and Beethoven on a seedy street corner. Meanwhile the Portland transit authority saw crime drop after it started playing classical music at light-rail stops, and the London Underground measured a 33 percent drop in physical and verbal abuse by young people after piping classical music into its stations in 2005.
“Mind the Bach”, an Independent story from 2008 shed light on the thinking behind playing music in stations:
Metro, however, has not gone so far as to say that music is intended as a crime prevention tool (though Gallery Place has been the site of repeated assaults at the hands of teenagers). And its music isn’t the classical that London commuters have grown accustomed to.
“Yes, customer safety will be one factor that will be considered,” Metro spokesman Richard Jordan said, in response to questions as to whether the music represented some sort of crime deterrent. He said the pilot will examine how music affects the customer experience.
Metro customers first became attuned to a subway soundtrack the week before Christmas, when the agency blasted cheery holiday tunes over the loudspeakers, eliciting a warm reaction from riders who welcomed the festive atmosphere.
“The customer response was very positive,” Jordan said.
Now, Metro says it is testing its equipment at Judiciary Square and Gallery Place in preparation for the pilot to introduce music to other stations, which were not specified. Jordan said the current selection has been chosen by staff, but the agency is looking into working with an outside group for its song choices.
So what’s the current playlist?
Asked if Metro could provide a sampling of the music, Jordan declined, saying it simply consisted of “non-copyrighted instrumental music.”
A quick sampling through the music identification app Shazam showed the songs included: “Clapping Ukulele” by Joel Hunger, “Looking To The Clouds” by Ambrela, “Deep Thoughts (Unreal)” by Ian Everittes, “On the Breeze” by Craig Riley and the aforementioned “Happy Uplifting Piano” by Noah Smith. Other selections included “Business Freeedom” by AudioMicro, and “Midnight City” by Mikael Manvelyan.
At Gallery Place earlier this week, one couldn’t help but notice how often the music was interrupted by service announcements. But the tunes were well received among riders waiting on the platform.
“It’s sort of cheery, just kind of nice,” said John Tobias, 55, of Northwest Washington. “Why not? They have speakers and it’s good to put them to use.”
Silvia Valles, 34, of Northwest, said the music reminded her of the playlist at the hotel lunch buffet where she works.
“It sounds nice — it makes you feel relaxed,” she said.
Some were surprised by what seemed like a good-faith initiative by Metro to make stations more pleasing.
“I think the cheerfulness is an odd juxtaposition compared to the surroundings,” said Spencer Kenyon, 29, of Silver Spring, who works in public relations. “At least they’re putting in the effort.”
Still, said one-time Metro commuter Rebecca Villarreal, it wouldn’t make much difference in the long run unless the agency could tackle bigger priorities.
“Music? No. Enough trains on time would improve my experience more than music,” said Villarreal, who lives in Detroit now, but used to commute from Ft. Totten to Metro Center.
In the Twittersphere, however, a vocal cohort of Metro riders decried the soundtrack as annoying — even insufferable.
A Twitter poll by popular Metro critic UnsuckDCMetro showed 79 percent of nearly a thousand respondents where opposed to the music, while 21 percent approved of it. (A Twitter poll, open to Internet users in general, isn’t necessarily representative of the Metro ridership.) The same Twitter account suggested the music represented an “anti-loitering” effort.
Monday night, Rob Davis, 52, of Seattle, and Michael Dekker, 53, of New York City, were just contemplating where the music was coming from.