Music to Their Ears: How Sound Affects Your Restaurant’s Dining Experience

Music and food both bring people together. The best restaurateurs know that atmosphere is just as important as the food.  

The industrial and open designs of modern establishments, created with wood, concrete, metal, and stone, have brought music and sound to the forefront as key environmental ingredients for overall success.

Listen to this:  The most recent Zagat survey listed noise as the number two complaint of surveyors, following poor service. Restaurant critics across the nation are commenting on decibel levels, and the San Francisco Chronicle lists a noise rating, called a bomb, for raucous restaurants. Customers are taking to Yelp and Open Table to rate the noise levels, ranging from quiet to average to energetic.

In an era of sustainability, don’t let noise pollution be a thorn in your side. For a restaurant, music is the spice in the air — its volume, type, and speed should be married with your main entrée of brand intention. Understanding your overall noise level and what can be done to correct for your space are also important elements.

Background Music and Speed

Multiple studies published show that music can affect the amount of food and beverage consumed.  But background music should be just that — in the background.  

Slower music, like some classical and light jazz, will cause diners to linger longer, but will also increase the overall bill and inspire purchases of more expensive wines and cocktails. The Association for Consumer Research found that the overall bill increased 23 percent with the right combination of classical music and low-volume background noise. In fact, the biggest increase was attributed to the bar tab at 51 percent.

Fast tempo music will cause consumers to have increased heart and blood pressure rates, which translates directly into eating more and eating faster. Some studies also note an increased speed of beverage intake, but that doesn’t necessarily translate into higher bills or tabs.  

A loud establishment, cluttered with loud music, elevated voices, and the tinks and clangs of silverware, plates, and glasses will also raise customers’ heart and blood pressure rates. However, customers that are looking for a restaurant for a business dinner or friendly get-together may not return if conversation is too difficult to achieve. On the other hand, louder volumes and background noises are expected in sports bars, especially when any big game or match is on.  

Background Noise and Volumes

The World Health Organization and Occupational Health and Safety Association (OSHA) both list excessive noise as a health hazard.  OSHA states that noise levels for restaurant employees must be below 85 decibels (dB), or a hearing conservation program must be put in place. Curiously enough, 85dB is the same level of noise as city traffic.  

Don’t fall into the trap that a noisy establishment is one that is high-energy, hip, and trendy. Frankly, people don’t like screaming at each other during dinner conversation. According to audiologists, the ideal rate for conversation is 55-65 dB. When sound levels pass the 70 dB threshold, conversation becomes difficult. Some restaurants have noise levels at 95 dB or louder, equivalent to a nearby jackhammer. For restaurateurs, check your online reviews to see if noise is contributing to bad ratings.

Kitchen noise, bussing stations, and beverage stations also contribute to the overall decibel rate. Add together music, conversations, and chairs being dragged around, and a veritable cacophony comes to life. Acoustics should always be considered during the design phase. However, there are some simple solutions to reducing unwanted background noise:

  • Utilize table linens
  • Install acoustic panels on walls or ceilings. Artistic canvas covers can be printed by a few manufacturers. Covers can be painted by local artists also
  • Install carpets in high traffic areas, like outside restrooms, to deaden noise from these areas
  • Put rubber feet on chair legs if there is excessive noise from scraping across the floor

But don’t turn down the volume on everything just yet. A lack of music and light background noise can be detrimental. If the volume is too low or if background noise is replaced with white noise, consumers will eat less, as they are more self-conscious of their consumption. In reality, no one wants to hear themselves chewing. Studies have shown that a lack of music and background noise will cause consumers to think that food is bland and is detrimental to the overall dining experience. It makes you wonder, is airplane food really that bad?  Or the hospital cafeteria?

What to Consider

Not convinced? Take a plate of your food to the bus stop and eat it there. Better yet, dine while traveling on the city bus. The best plate will seem to be subpar. The right music and atmosphere will cause customers to be more satisfied with the taste of their meal and their overall experience.

Are you looking to turn your tables quickly?  Or are you looking for your guests to stay longer? Adjust your music based on your brand and type of establishment and change your selections for lunch versus dinner.

Keep in mind that the genre of music will influence purchasing decisions. If you are featuring street tacos on Tuesday, perhaps some light mariachi music would be appropriate to stimulate sales. Conversely, if your menu is family-friendly Italian-American, standards by Frank Sinatra and Dean Martin are appropriate.  

Be conscious of what vehicle drives your music. Having to change a CD player can lead to dead air. A Pandora or XM radio service might be appropriate, as long as you can escape commercials. Diners come to your establishment to escape reality. A commercial about law offices that specialize in nursing home abuse is not appropriate. Keep that serious reality out. Also, make sure that the music doesn’t repeat itself.  Servers and staff will get tired of listening to the same songs incessantly.

Happy servers mean happy customers, and a memorable experience means repeat business. The right balance of background noise and type and tempo of music will help.