You sit down in a new restaurant — or even an old favorite — and start looking at the menu. But something stats tugging your attention, taking you away from your table. There’s something uncomfortable about the experience, but you can’t quite put your finger on it.
Then it hits you. It’s the restaurant music, and it’s terrible.
Maybe it’s distracting vocals, a jarring tempo, a genre of song that clashes, or simply volume that makes conversation a chore. If the music just isn’t right it can ruin the restaurant’s ambiance and customer experience, even before the server comes by and says hello.
This is what happened to musician Ryuichi Sakamoto while eating in his favorite restaurant in New York’s West Village.
According to The New York Times, the music was so bad, he had to leave. He went home and emailed the head chef.
“I love your food, I respect you and I love this restaurant, but I hate the music,” he wrote. “Who chose this? . . . Let me do it. Because your food is as good as the beauty of Katsura Rikyu.”
Katsura Rikyu is a famous and beautiful thousand-year-old villa in Kyoto, Japan. So Ryuichi, determined and motivated, created a playlist that he thought would complement the restaurant’s aesthetics and traditional Japanese fare.
Believe it or not, your choice of background music in your restaurant has a big influence on how long your patrons stay, what they order, and even how satisfied they are with what they order.
So why wait for customer complaints to get your restaurant’s music right?
Music For Restaurants Matters
Music has an emotional, intellectual and even physical effect on the human body, heart, and mind. Soothing music can stabilize preemie babies’ breathing, and help them thrive.
Certain types of music have even been shown to stimulate parts of the brain and enhance memory.
Music affects our mood, our energy level, how we perceive the world, and even how we taste the food at the restaurant we happen to be dining in.
Imagine what the right kind of music could do for your restaurant. If you want to learn how to choose the right music for your venue, read on.
Recommended Reading: Boost Memory and Learning with Music PBS
The Taste of Music
There are two ways music can affect how customer's experience the food and drink in front of them.
First, the kind of music you play can have an impact on how the meal is received and perceived–well before it’s tasted. Classical music, for example, has been shown to make diners perceive their wine selections as more high-end.
But, what’s more, music in your restaurant can also change how food tastes.
It’s important to remember that eating and drinking is not a single- or even dual-sensory experience. When we eat, we tend to think of taste happening only on the tongue. If you have a cold, though, you realize how important your nose is, too.
How we taste our food is actually affected by all of our senses, from the way the food feels in our mouth to how it sounds (crispy is a favorite of the eating experience) and how it looks on the plate.
Beyond the food itself, our surroundings affect our tasting experience, as well. That includes the colors around us, the temperature of the room and, yes, the music we hear.
For instance, music that patrons find too loud can actually suppress their taste buds. Loud music overwhelms flavor and makes food taste bland.
Music from higher-pitched instruments can enhance sweet and sour tastes, while music played at a lower pitch can enhance bitter tastes.
So, imagine you’re a dessert cafe with an upbeat, pop-culture theme. Playing music by Freddie Mercury and Axl Rose might actually enhance the flavor of your cupcakes or ice cream.
Music by Barry White, on the other hand, will bring out the bitterness in your coffee and dark chocolate selections, like your tiramisu.
Restaurant Music Sets Expectations
Playing the wrong music can be grating to restaurant patrons. It can make them uncomfortable, antsy, or downright annoyed. And it can affect how long they linger over their food.
But play the right music, and you could make your patrons feel at ease, reduce social anxiety, foster connection, and make them stay longer (if that’s what you want).
Playing restaurant music with a slower beat also slows down your patrons and makes them feel comfortable. They will eat slower and stay longer.
If your restaurant is one that prides itself on being a neighborhood hangout, where people stay for long breakfasts or several coffees, you might consider playing some Diana Krall or Erykah Badu.
Customers are also more likely to feel at home with music they know and like. But knowing just the right “classic” music to play means diving into your audience persona.
Who does your restaurant target? If they’re Gen X professionals, you might be able to get away with typical hits from the 90s, mixed with some more contemporary artists.
But try going even deeper than that. Is your concept a family restaurant? Adding Nirvana to the dinner playlist might not be a good idea. If you open late though, the energy of Smells Like Teen Spirit might be just the thing for the hungry late-night after-club crowd.
The Sound of Spending
Let’s look back on those slow beats that put your customers at ease. We discussed how this kind of music can make your customers stay longer. And while that won’t translate into more spending on meals, people who linger in restaurants longer have a greater chance to spend more money on drinks and dessert.
On the flip side, playing music with a fast beat will make people eat — and leave — faster. If your goal is high table turnover, club, salsa or even polka music may be the way to go.
If you want your customers to spend more in general, try classical, jazz or pop music, which people associate with a quality establishment where they’re prepared to spend more.
Source: The Effect of Music on Perceived Atmosphere and Purchase Intentions in a Restaurant, Journal of Psychology of Music
And if you’re looking to push those burgers and nachos, the louder the music, the better. A study published in the Journal of the Academy of Marketing Science, found that when the volume of background music was raised from 55 to 70 decibels, 20 percent more customers ordered unhealthy food (source).
Which makes sense, if you think about it. If loud music suppresses tastes, something very salty or sweet is going to be appealing because the sharp or strong tastes will e able to cut through the din.
Easy-listening music, however, is never a good idea. It actually causes patrons to spend less and leave earlier.
Music to Match the Crowd
The kind of music you play also depends on the energy and size of your crowd. Let’s say you’re a casual dining spot that’s open for lunch and dinner during the week and brunch on the weekends.
If your crowd is large and lively, more upbeat, slightly louder music can match their mood and keep the atmosphere warm and welcoming. If your restaurant is slower between typical mealtimes, a quieter playlist will reflect the smaller crowd and won’t drown out their conversations.
Music to Match Your Concept
Last, but certainly not least, your restaurant music should match your restaurant’s values, mission, and concept. Just make sure you go beyond the canned theme music that everyone expects (and dreads).
Your contemporary Italian restaurant, for example, will come off as hokey (and even lame) if you’re playing only the Rat Pack’s greatest hits. Instead, take a look at what’s at the top of the Italian and European pop lists today to mix up the selections.
If you want a more sophisticated feel, you may go with classical Italian composers and operas. Remember, it will give your restaurant a more high-end image and encourage your patrons to spend more. (Just make sure the volume is down on some of those arias.)
Restaurants That Blend Sound and Food
Knowing what they know now about the relationship between sound and food, restaurants across the country have started to harness the concept of the soundtrack to create a new and unique dining experience.
In the UK, Heston Blumenthal’s restaurant The Fat Duck serves their Sounds of the Sea tasting menu with an iPod hidden in a conch shell. Diners listen to the sounds of waves on a beach as they eat sashimi and edible tapioca “sand.” The sounds are meant to enhance the flavor of the meal.
Closer to home, restaurants like Etch in Nashville are pairing food with pre-selected soundtracks that are meant to enhance particular flavors. Patrons pay a fixed price for a meal and get a pair of headphones to use while they eat.
Finally, some restaurants are banking on the ability of music to spark good memories. They’re serving up their music selection as a take-home playlist with their menus, or even featuring them on Spotify for patrons to download and listen to later, fondly recalling their meal.
Starbucks has even taken it a step further. In 2015, they teamed up with Spotify to create a special feature in their app that allows customers to identify and save songs they hear while standing in line for a latte.
A Word On Restaurant Music Playlists
One thing to keep in mind as you select tracks for the perfect restaurant music playlist: Spotify and other streaming music services are great for personal use. But, they don’t offer licenses for commercial use.
If you use a streaming service to set the mood, it could get you in hot water. The best thing to do is to go through a performance rights organization (PRO). There are a bunch of them, so do your research to understand the best options for your restaurant and consider your local regulations.
There’s no doubt music will help create the kind of atmosphere you want for your restaurant and your patrons. Do your homework. Keep up-to-date on current music trends and stay true to your concept.
And, learn from that restaurant in the West Village, be proactive in listening to your patrons. Talk to your customers about their dining experince. Ask your regulars about their music taste and for possible suggestions. They may have some great input on music selection that could help you attract and retain the crowd to keep your tables full or flipping.
Recommended Reading: 11 questions about music licensing National Restaurant Association
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Laurie is a writer with family in the restaurant industry. She lives near Boston with her husband and two boys and has been published in HomeandGarden.com, The Economist, and more.