Can music affect your appetite?

Studies show that different kinds of music can change how much we spend on food and drink

Last week, I joined a panel of speakers at The Big Grill Festival, the BBQ-based day out in Dublin’s Herbert Park, to discuss music in restaurants. Tom Dunne talked about the playlists he curates for his wife Audrey McDonald’s restaurant, The Cookbook Cafe, in Glasthule, while Eoin Cregan of Bodytonic talked about WigWam’s straightforward musical policy of funk and soul.

Aran McMahon of Cafe Rua in Castlebar, Co Mayo, talked about how he and his sister and business partner Colleen approach programming music for their cafes. They view it as important as other decor details. McMahon quoted a Tim Magee article in The Gloss about music in restaurants, and how we shouldn't think of it in terms of good or bad, but in terms of right or wrong.

A person's love of music is as subjective as a love of food. Our panel agreed that the best a restaurant can do is to choose music that reflects their own taste, and their own ethos. Though I agree with this in principal, I can't abide irrelevant live background music in restaurants. When I'm halfway through a meal and I see someone setting up with their guitar in the corner, ready to launch into Girl from Ipanema, I groan.

There's a precedent for eye-rolling when it comes to live music in restaurants. In the excellent blog, Restaurant-ing Through History, author Jan Whitaker references an early mention of music in restaurants she uncovered in her research on the history of US restaurants. "The first mention of music I've discovered was in 1866, in a description of a small French restaurant in New York with an oyster-shell framed alcove where "sometimes a boy with a violin will seem to afford music to the feast". Note the negatively tinged words "seem to afford". Throughout history there have been plenty of critics of musical "din" in restaurants.


For my part in the panel, I did a little research on the behavioural psychology of music in restaurants, and what influence it has on patrons. Unsurprisingly, there are a heap of studies on how music influences the behavioural patterns of diners, including how long they stay and how much they spend.

Back in 1986, marketing professor Ronald E Milliman wrote a report entitled The Influence of Background Music on the Behaviour of Restaurant Patrons for the Journal of Consumer Research. In it, he outlines his findings around the tempo of music, and the significant effect it had on purchases and length of stay. The study found that, while tempo didn't have a significant impact on the amount of food purchased within the timeframe, it did influence the amount of alcohol and bar purchases. When the tempo was slower, Milliman's team found that people purchased more drinks, and the average spend was $30.47, as opposed to $21.62 when the music was fast-paced. This somewhat surprising result is explained by Milliman as an example of how people will only eat so much food. "It is not acceptable in most situations to consume more than one entree of food," Milliman writes. "However, it is quite acceptable to consume more than one (perhaps several) alcoholic beverages. Thus, in a relaxing approach atmosphere, patrons consumed more alcoholic beverages."

In a more recent study conducted by Stephanie Wilson from the University of New South Wales in Australia in 2003, the influence of different types of music and the amount of money spent was analysed. Wilson took control of the sound system at Sydney restaurant Out of Africa and kept an eye on how much people were spending. With no music, the average spend was $17.12. Easy-listening music had an average spend of $19.67, classical was $20.20, and pop was $21.01. The type of music that encouraged the highest average spend in Wilson’s study was jazz, at $21.82. This study seems to support the notion that upbeat music, such as pop and jazz, encourages patrons to spend more time in a restaurants, inevitably spending more money while there.

Another writer with a "less is more" approach to music in restaurants is writer George Prochnik, author of In Pursuit of Silence: Listening for Meaning in a World of Noise (2010). In a Daily Beast article published in 2010, Prochnik outlines some of his research and theories behind how restaurants get us drunk with their music. He argues that loud music draws people in by giving the impression of a lively and hence successful restaurant. He references research by Fairfield University that showed how people's rate of chewing was influenced by fast music, and how restaurants built playlists around this data. Prochnik also looks at the influence restaurant decor has on acoustics. "There's the decade-old shift in visual aesthetics toward hard-bodied, noise-ricocheting interior decor – concrete floors, unpadded tables and chairs. Somewhere along the way, we began thinking of tablecloths, carpets and soft ceilings as signs of weakness."

Indeed, the modern trend for industrial, stripped-back decor has an influence on how we are physically absorbing the music being played, which can lead to discomfort.