How music can influence the way we eat

November 7, 2017

By: Rafael Tonon

At many restaurants, music is often an arbitrary decision. And it shouldn’t be at all, as many researchers say.

Going to a restaurant is more than killing the munchies – your fridge can offer you good options and not so orthodox combinations to do that, after all. A restaurant meal should be an experience. From parking your car to the cup of coffee right before the check, every detail matters. Regarding hospitality, many restaurants are looking for ways to improve their diners’ involvement. And music is becoming more and more an important piece of this puzzle.

Thinking about the perfect soundtrack to create the best mood is something that is occupying the minds of restauranteurs and chefs more than ever. Because they are beginning to understand how good music can influence the stay of a diner. Because in fact it’s really rare to find examples of music played right in a conventional restaurant setting.

Most of the time it’s just the bartender’s favorite songs playing from an iPhone or some anonymously generated and generic Spotify playlist. If a restaurant specializes in food from a given culture, the music is often also from the same culture; this seems to be the most common music and food pairing by far. But outside of specialty restaurants, music is often an arbitrary decision. And it shouldn’t be, as many researchers say.

On a very basic psychological level, music impacts our emotions in different ways, which in turn alters the way we experience stuff, like a meal. This means music can both ruin and improve a dinner experience, depending on the music you play and whether the music you play is aligned with the experience you are trying to create. Academics have done a bunch of studies to determine how people’s emotions and behavior are influenced by music and some of these findings are very interesting.

Experimental psychologist Janice Wang, PhD at Oxford University in the Crossmodal Research Laboratory, for example, has published, along with other researchers, some articles documenting the different ways that sound can affect the perception of taste: high frequencies make things taste sweeter, low frequencies make things taste more bitter, brisk rhythms are “sour”, and loud noises dull your sense of taste, except for umami (which could be one reason people drink more tomato juice on airplanes), etc.

Based on her results, Wang helped out Boston-based musician Ben Houge to create multisensory dining events that he calls “food operas”, in which he collaborates with chefs to create a real-time musical accompaniment to a meal. When he started working on this project, Houge’s idea was to score a meal the way he would score a video game, which he had been doing since 1996.

influence the way we eat

“I realized that video game music is actually perfect for a dining room, because it’s a real-time, responsive musical system”, he says. Houge adds: “video game music is designed to change on the fly, based on whatever the player happens to do, and a soundtrack for a meal needs to work the same way, changing based on what someone orders, how long they take to eat, when the next course arrives, etc”.

Most of the “food opera” events he has done have been pop-up ones. “Everybody gets their own speaker, which plays a version of the music based on what people order, when it arrives, how long it takes them to eat it, etc. Not only does this allow each person to experience their own customized soundtrack, but it also positions the source of music as close as possible to the food”, he explains.

Houge, who has been teaching a class at Berklee College of Music this summer entitled “Music + Food,” which looks at the technology as well as the aesthetics and psychology behind his food opera project, is also working with some chefs to create specific soundtracks and operas for specific meals. He has done a series of experiments with Mugaritz, chef Andoni Luis Aduriz’ restaurant in Basque Country, in preparation for a large scale food opera event in 2018, with the collaboration of Catalan theater group La Fura dels Baus.

“One goal of this particular project is to use embedded sensor technology to increase the level of synchronization between music and food to a degree even greater than what we’ve done in the past”, he says.

For example, he developed, in collaboration with designer Jutta Friedrichs, a kind of smart chalice that knows when you are drinking from it and can respond with coordinated sound or lighting cues.

He is also working with Jozef Youssef, Kitchen Theory founder and chef patron, for a piece that staged at the third Web Audio Conference on August in London, entitled “Quiver, Pop, and Dissolve: Three Essays in Gastromorphology”. “As they receive each of three miniature dishes, audience members can press the corresponding button on the web page that I’m setting up for the performance to hear their own customized, coordinated soundtrack”, he explains.

Actually, this interaction between music and food isn’t something totally unprecedented in gastronomy’s world. Heston Blumenthal has already created the influential multimedia dish “The Sound of the Sea”, that turned game-changing for the discussion about how music can influence our tastes and how professionals are trying to find the perfect level of subtle emotional engagement with the perfect songs.

influence the way we eat

Detroit chef Kyle Hanley developed “A Night with Kid A,” a meal based on the Radiohead album, in 2014. Last year, J Dilla’s posthumous album “The Diary” was celebrated with a release party in the NYC restaurant Sweet Chick, each course corresponding to a different track. And the renowned Spanish restaurant El Celler de Can Roca did an event in 2013 entitled “El Somni (The Dream)”, which they described as a “gastropera,” incorporating video projections and a special soundtrack for each course – similar to a format that Ultraviolet, chef Paul Pairet’s restaurant in Shanghai, usually does, where each course is accompanied by sound and video projections on the walls and table, which means each course has its own soundtrack.

“There’s definitely a lot you can do with a format like that”, Houge says. But he believes that this kind of experience will take time to take off, since the music rarely goes beyond someone’s idea of what’s hip to consider what’s actually appropriate. “Or more cynically, in many cases, music is just there to lure in some target demographic by playing whatever’s popular with that group”, he says.

I’m always amazed that so many restaurants put so much attention to every other detail of furniture, lighting, layout, service, plates and silverware, but then ignore music as an afterthought”, he complains.  

Thinking about that, Spotify-backed and co-founded Soundtrack Your Brand, which streams music in business locations, made a massive study on the impact of background music at 16 locations of a major global food chain in order to convince other business that music matters.  “Basically, we let a group of academics work with one of our bigger clients, a global fast-food restaurant. Our music streaming platform lets chain owners manage music across a multitude of locations in real-time”, explains Ola Sars, Soundtrack Your Brand’s CEO and co-founder.

influence the way we eat

The group ended up with the largest study of background music and sales ever conducted, studying close to 2 million individual transactions over five months. One of the most interesting findings, according to Sars, was that playing random top list music is generally speaking a bad idea. A randomized list of Spotify’s most played tunes led to a 9% negative sales difference compared to when restaurants played a highly curated brand-fit soundtrack containing a mix of lesser known and known tunes.Music familiarity is one of the important aspects to consider.

“People tend to become actively aware of music that they recognise, which in turn makes them aware of the passing of time. So if you want your dinner guests to linger around and lose track of time, you should avoid playing hits and instead opt for less familiar music”, he advises.

Sars points out that the most important thing is to align the music with the experience the restaurant is looking to create, and the guest behavior they’re looking to promote. Most restaurants, regardless if they’re big chains or single venues, work with concise concepts, that should reflect in everything, from the food to the music. But just a few take this into consideration.

influence the way we eat

“Our job is to translate these attributes into music. And while it would make perfect sense for a taco bar to play Mexican music, there are more parameters to consider”, he says. In the case of this taco bar, the owners might also aim to be youthful, elegant and trendy – attributes that one could also reflect in the music that’s playing and that can contribute to a more congruent overall experience.

Benjamin Calleja runs a company called Livit, which designs and builds restaurant concepts across the globe – partaking in an opening of a restaurant every 8 hours. And music has become an important piece in the concepts he is creating in counties such as the US, France, Costa Rica, Australia, Russia and Saudi Arabia and other 40. “The dining-out experience has evolved significantly over the last years. Food has become ubiquitous and a commodity easily available whenever and wherever. Therefore the restaurant visit is shifting to an emotional connection, where dining out is more and more focused on the holistic experience. As part of this evolution all touchpoints have become more important, as sound, of course”, he says.

“Forward-thinking brands have understood the importance of these elements and available research is backing this up with data showing the direct correlation between having the right music and sales”, Calleja adds.

Recently, he opened up his first fully owned restaurant brand, 1889, in Stockholm. He intends that it can expand globally in the years to come. “We decided to create our own test-lab in the form of an actual restaurant. Here we have focused on developing soundtracks that are developed to fit the brand and connect with our desired consumers, so we have been able to measure the importance of different playlists but also how different music affects customers behaviours and how much time they spend in the restaurant”, he details.

influence the way we eat

Thanks to this prototyping, the restaurant is now able to deliver insights that directly impact on the operations and bottom line. “Now we are taking these insights to the next level working with Machine Learning and Artificial intelligence to take real time decisions like automatic volume adjustments and playlist selection based on actual number of guests and their psychographic profiles. And this is just the beginning…”, Calleja ensures.

The Soundtrack Your Brand CEO explains that after settling on an overall soundtrack for a place (which ideally spans across several types of music and genres), there are many other levels which music can be determinant in an environment. “Maybe the taco bar we talked about earlier wants to get guests moving through the location faster during lunch rush, while they want guests to linger during evening and stay for drinks and desserts. That’s all stuff one can actively impact by music choice and dayparting”, he says.

Music tempo and intensity have been proven to drastically alter behavior. So the higher the beats per minute, the faster people tend to finish their plate. It is possible to drive the pace of a meal through the ideal soundtrack, since eating is a multi-sensorial experience. That’s something that the study tried to show – and what Sars tries to prove in order to convince and win over other clients.

According to what they experienced in the last three years, since the company was founded, providing tailor-made music playlists for customers such as McDonald’s and  TAG Heuer, the perfect background music – that can drive up sales since it can make costumers linger longer – must consider some things: adopting the music in accordance with the type of guest behavior a brand want to promote, accepting that a restaurant will never be able to play music that each and everyone of the guests like and retaining control of your soundtrack.

“There’s always some dude working for you who thinks he has great taste in music, and wants to play his own stuff. Don’t let him”, he advises.

In case of doubt, turn off the music. “In fact, having the restaurant silent is better than playing random top list music”, he says. That leads us to conclude that if you as a restaurateur don’t think hard about the music you play, it’s better to refrain from playing music altogether. “On the other hand, if you’re mindful about what you play and align your music choice with your brand and the experience you strive to create, music can bring about higher sales”, he says. And there’s no doubt that the cashier jingle is the best music for restaurants’ owners’ ears. Ka-ching!!


Rafael Tonon

+ posts by Rafael

Rafael Tonon is a journalist and food writer. He writes about food, drinks and trends in gastronomy. He contributes to many media outlets, such as Eater, Vice, Slate and more. He maintains the trend food blog What the Fork.

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