Photo by rawpixel on Unsplash | background music at a restaurant
Photo by rawpixel on Unsplash

I was once sitting down to a meal I had been looking forward to for a while. It was a casual type of place, counter-service, so the loud and crowded atmosphere wasn’t too unexpected. But what was unexpected was the aggressively loud music being piped into the room. In between bites of my meal, loudly clanging in my head were the strains of what seemed like every Pitbull and Flo Rida hit ever.

Photo by Kevin Curtis on Unsplash | background music at a restaurant
Photo by Kevin Curtis on Unsplash

The meal was still fine. But I felt every inch of myself wanting to leave that restaurant and escape their soundtrack. My takeaway from that was that the background music in restaurants really does matter.

Most cases aren’t that egregious. And, in the right context, I can listen to a playlist full of Top 40 club bangers. But the wrong combination of music in a restaurant can, at best, be a pointless but innocuous endeavor, and, at worst, can be detrimental to a meal.

And, as it turns out, the music playing in a restaurant can actually affect how you perceive the taste of food. Eating is a full sensory experience and hearing is a big part of that. Further, the restaurant experience for many chefs and proprietors is an immersive experience beyond the food, and the ambiance they set can affect your mood.

There are some people out there who are trying to elevate the restaurant auditory experience from a mere afterthought to one of the features of the space. The New York Times recently profiled a composer named Ryuichi Sakamoto who offered his services to his favorite Japanese restaurant in New York after listening to their awful playlist too many times. This playlist is what he came up with as a solution:

Musician and composer Ryuichi Sakamoto, photo by Nathan Bajar for The New York Times | background music at a restaurant
Musician and composer Ryuichi Sakamoto, photo by Nathan Bajar for The New York Times

While the playlist embodies some of the deep relationships the composer has with the restaurant and with music, there are a few takeaways that can be helpful when constructing your own playlist.

1. Don’t let the playlist overwhelm the restaurant.

Usually, the biggest part of this for many restaurants is to just turn down the music. If you’re a bar, a club, a music venue, or someplace else people go specifically for the music or the party atmosphere, go crazy. If you’re serious about the food you’re serving, make sure people can hear themselves think over the music.

2. Avoid overly familiar songs.

A song everybody knows the lyrics and the tune to is great for karaoke. Not so great for restaurants. If your jam comes on in the middle of a meal, that’s a lot of fun, but it’s also distracting. A good way to avoid this is to use familiar bands’ deeper cuts or to use covers of songs instead of the original.

3. Keep it light.

While you want your playlist to match the vibe of the restaurant, don’t get too serious or moody with the music. You want to subtly affect the vibe of the restaurant in a positive direction, not a negative one. Try for uplifting or transcendent.

4. Avoid clichés.

I remember when the big thing at a fancy hotel Mother’s Day brunch was to have a piano player in the middle of the room playing jazz. If that anecdote didn’t tip you off already, it’s kind of a stuffy tradition to play jazz in a restaurant. Leave it behind, you can do better.

Photo by Michael Browning on Unsplash | background music at a restaurant
Photo by Michael Browning on Unsplash

5. Make it long enough.

If your playlist is too short, it will cycle through and I guarantee people will notice they’re listening to the same song they heard before. Especially if you didn’t follow the second piece of advice and they know the song. And, if not the customers, a repeating playlist will drive your staff insane.

Restaurant music doesn’t have to be an overlooked part of the experience. And it definitely shouldn’t be a negative one. If you’re looking for the right ambiance, making a playlist that enhances your food experience is a must. It might not be the most obvious or Instagram-able thing, but it might help your Yelp rating all the same.