In my experience, most restaurants play the wrong sort of music. While a lot of thought may have been given to the menu, the wine list, and the service, none whatsoever has been given to the music.
Are restaurateurs missing a big trick?
First, what is the function of music in a restaurant? There are several possible functions: in particular, to accompany and enhance the food; to create ambiance and atmosphere; to influence menu choices; and, by making people eat faster, to increase table turnover.
It stands to reason that different types of restaurant should play different kinds of music, or perhaps even none at all.
Finer restaurants ought to play discreet instrumental music that accompanies and enhances the food, rather than distracts from it or from the diners’ conversations. Indeed, there is mounting evidence that music strongly influences our perception of food and wine. For example, according to research from the Crossmodal Research Laboratory at the University of Oxford, people associate higher notes, flutes, and tinkling piano with sweetness; and deeper, more resonant notes with bitterness. Still, some of the finest restaurants do not play any music at all, reasoning—in my opinion, correctly—that, when the food is truly great, any extraneous stimulus can only detract from it. The music does an injustice to the food, and the food to the music.
At the other end of the scale, a restaurant that places profit above dining experience often plays loud music with a fast tempo that subconsciously puts diners under pressure to eat more quickly, even if that means that they are less able to enjoy their meal. But caveat emptor: such music also suppresses appetite, leading to less food and, in particular, less drink being consumed. Appetite is in part a function of the parasympathetic nervous system. Loud, fast music activates the sympathetic nervous system (the ‘fight-or-flight' response), which opposes the parasympathetic system and thereby diminishes appetite. That, in a nutshell, is why you don’t suddenly feel a tinge of hunger while being chased up a tree by a lion.
Music can detract not only from the food and wine, but also from conversations, mood, thoughts, and emotions. This is what most often ruins the dining experience for me. I usually go out as much for the food and wine as for the conversation, and often enjoy lengthy, involved, and intimate conversations. Any music that is so loud as to oblige me to strain my voice kills such conversations. Moreover, music with lyrics attached imposes the singer’s thoughts and emotions upon diners. These thoughts and emotions are often banal or incongruous, and prevent me from feeling or evolving my own. Why in heaven's name should I care about the love life of some forlorn stranger? It is very telling, I think, that, in general, we do not play music when eating at home.
On the other hand, there are some people who have nothing or little to say to each other. For such people, the music can, at least to some extent, carpet over the silence and relieve the pressure of having to make conversation. Ideally, a restaurant with any sort of culinary pretensions ought to have a silent area or room, and, whenever possible, give diners the choice between silence and discreet instrumental music.
Lastly, restaurateurs need to be aware that the perceived volume of the music varies according to the number of people and amount of background noise in the restaurant, and that both can change significantly in the course of an evening. With only few diners to absorb and drown it, the music comes across as louder, and so the volume needs to be turned down.
I'll finish with some infamous words by Don Draper: "Could you keep it down? I'm trying to drink."
Neel Burton is author of the Concise Guide to Wine and Blind Tasting, Heaven and Hell: The Psychology of the Emotions, and other books.