For a restaurant, creating an experience is necessary, for a customer to become a patron. And the only way to create an experience is to engage as many of the senses to as much of a degree as possible. The aural sense doesn’t seem important for this industry; after all, the focus is on taste, smell and sight. But the beauty of sound is that it can affect your emotional state of mind. It is the difference between a relaxed and happy diner and an anxious and stressed out one, all other variables being the same. Music can be paired with the experience over all, or it can be used as a tool.
For many restaurants and spaces, especially those designed with poor acoustics (too many hard surfaces reflecting sound), music becomes a blanket to cover the noise. I personally had this experience with my first restaurant in 2012, and it is very difficult to control if it isn’t taken into consideration in the design process. Some people (came as a shock to me when I first heard it) use it to make people talk louder and over the music, causing them to feel thirstier and drink more (I’m not kidding, I’ve really been told this by a consultant in 2012). Often it just hangs there, to keep away the dreadful silence and serving absolutely no other purpose, no curation, no sense, no direction!
The Basics of Pairing
First thing first, the room must be treated (the complexity of which depends on the final requirement of the room) to reduce reflections and absorb sound. We’ve done this with simple materials in our restaurant Dirty Apron, and with a much more complex design in The Jazz Club. We’re taking this to another level of control in our upcoming project. I’ve had the pleasure of advising and consulting with some spaces to help them with this process, and I cannot stress its importance. You wouldn’t serve food on a dirty plate, would you? Once the basics are covered, there are two important and critical ways to enhance the dining experience:
Environmental control: One way to use music is to create a specific mood using specific music. You pick certain kinds of music to create certain moods, and these are also tailored to your demographic. We use happy, medium tempo, Jazz and Swing from the 30s to the 60s to create a positive and relaxed atmosphere, so that once you step in it replaces the horns and hollers of the outside world with songs of love and romance and act as an instant mood lift. At the same time if you want to drive focus towards alcohol over conversation, I’d pick music with harmonic simplicity and stronger rhythms and pump it a little louder. This gets people nodding along with the music more easily, simplified harmonics have a much milder effect on the subconscious mind and the people switch into a higher “energy output mode”. In a similar vein, to create a happy day café, for conversations over coffee or a beer, familiar pop works well, but can be generation specific. It’s a great conversation starter for generations that associate with it. An easy way to “see” this is to think of harmony in music and color in vision. You can paint aural landscapes in blacks and greys, or use a plethora of color palettes to create specific moods.
Menu control: One other obvious way to pair food and music to identify the music you want to play based on the food you serve. Indian music with Indian food. But it pays to get specific and know your regional music; wherever in the world you chose to serve your menu from. The environmental control rules always apply, so though you might pick say jazz, to pair with a menu from the mid-1900s, but without a deeper understanding of the music, you might still not get the right mood set, and never realize where you went wrong. How this works is that it brings up subconscious imagery of places, smells, ideas etc associated with that music, so that your mind starts craving for the food that matches that music. It sets the mood for that specific meal, and works superbly if you serve a specific, defined cuisine.
The key is to understand the atmosphere you want to create, and realise the value every sense plays in it. If you can’t figure out the music, get someone to help you, because if you get it right, it elevates the meal from just “dinner” to a bona-fide experience.