Will Dempsey has collected records for 20 years, weird ones from the ’60s, ’70s and ’80s, many from private dealers.
So when he and Karl Whelan set up Chinese restaurant Hang Dai on Camden Street, he wanted the soundtrack to be special.
“I like odd music or not popular music I suppose,” says Dempsey, who is also a DJ. “I wanted to play different stuff.”
“We try to keep it more chilled, or groovier I suppose at the earlier hours of the evening,” he says. When it gets later, they bring the tempo up.
It makes sense that Dempsey pays such close attention to the music at Hang Dai. After all, the soundtrack in a restaurant can effect everything about a meal, from how long people linger over it, to how much they eat or drink, to what the food tastes like to them, and whether they want to come back.
Faster Tempo, Faster Drinking
While at Hang Dai they choose the music to encourage people to stick around, others turn the noise up to get them to drink up, or move on.
One of the findings of research on food and music is that the greater the number of beats per minute the quicker you’ll end up eating and drinking, says Charles Spence, an experimental psychologist at Oxford University.
“There’s a sort of incentive there for some bars, and I think the Hard Rock Cafe has in their mission statement that by having louder music and faster-paced music people will drink more,” he said.
That chimes with what researchers at Cornell University in the US found when they looked at how changing the atmosphere of a fast food restaurant affected how people ate.
The hypothesis was that a soft jazz soundtrack and gentle lighting would make people stay for longer – and therefore eat more. That didn’t quite happen; the participants ate for longer, but ate less food.
Creating the Right Atmosphere
David Kehoe, assistant general manager at Hard Rock Cafe in Temple Bar said hadn’t heard that keeping the music loud would make people drink up faster.
There was a pop-punk track playing over the speakers and screens there on Tuesday morning. This would be “beamed in from Orlando”, said Kehoe.
These days, the soundtrack goes beyond hard rock, to Lady Gaga, and old-school hop-hip, and dance classics. “It definitely has evolved,” he said.
“It is a little bit louder than an average restaurant,” he said. “From 6pm on, when it gets busier, we would make it a bit louder.”
“Just for the vibe,” he said. There was a range to T-shirts for kids when he first started working there, which said, “If it’s too loud, you’re too old.”
It was a bit naff, but it’s what people expect from them, he said. “It’s not just about food, it’s the full audio-visual package really,” he said.
Most of Dublin’s restaurants get their soundtracks closer to home than Orlando.
At Luna on Drury Street, Jane Kupen says they rely on a mix that has been put together by a company to set the mood. “It gets very repetitive I find, unless you outsource or get somebody who is quite dedicated to do it,” she said.
That’s where Eoin Long steps in. If you’ve eaten out a lot in the city – especially in D2 or D4 – it is likely that at some point you’ve heard a mix he has curated.
He DJed, and had his own label, for about 10 years before swapping all that for what he does now, sitting in a boardroom in a three-piece suit; he set up LKM Music & Media about five years ago.
Fade Street, Yamamori, Baggots Hutton. He does the soundtrack for more than 400 restaurants, he says.
Each venue gets a bespoke mix, different nuances, mellow or rhythmic higher-tempo. “If you’re going for lunch on a Tuesday, it is going to be different to going to lunch on a Friday,” he said.
Restaurateurs can programme different moods for different time periods, telling an algorithm that between different times, they want particular styles of music. “The algorithm knows what order to play the styles of music in, based on how I would DJ,” he says.
Spence, the experimental psychologist, is at Oxford University, and heads the Crossmodal Research Laboratory.
He says that music can season the food, with a sort of sonic seasoning. “So Italian music with Italian food, say, or Indian music with Indian food, and you can bias people’s food choices towards the style of the music playing.”
You can also bring out tastes or flavours in the food by designing or picking music off the shelf to bring our sweetness or sourness, creaminess, or spiciness. “Most restaurants aren’t doing that yet,” he said. “But a few are for a single course.”
There’s a cafe in Vietnam called Sonic Sweetener Cafe, Spence said. “They’re playing sweet-sounding music all the time with the idea being that you can then add a bit less sugar,” he said.
How music affects how food tastes is not something that restaurants here have picked up on, says Adrian Cummins, head of the Restaurants Association of Ireland. “I’d just say people haven’t looked at it.”
He has his own opinions on where some restaurants go wrong with their soundtracks, though: they’re too loud. “I just think that some places need to think about what the noise level of the music within the restaurant is that is appropriate for your customers,” he says.
But even if restaurateurs aren’t thinking about how their music affects how their food tastes, perhaps their music providers are.
Long says he’s well aware of the impact the music his company supplies can have on diners, how it can affect their mentality. “There’s music that you can play that makes people specifically partial towards certain drinks or foods, or mentalities,” he says.
“If you can get them partial towards a specific mentality then there’s a product that you can sell to that customer, if they’re in that mentality, it’s up to the restaurant then to do the upselling after that,” he said.
Too Much, Too Loud
There are good reasons why restaurants might not want to turn the sound up too high, though, according to Spence. It can warp the flavours of their food, he says.
“Loud noise or music can suppress the ability to taste. It seems to suppress sweetness or salt perception,” he says. On the other hand, it can enhance umami.
The answer to why that is might lie in animal research from decades ago, which found that rats faced with loud sounds will like sweetness more. “It could be something about loud sounds are stressful. Under conditions of stress, you get to fight or flight,” he said.
“You might be drawn to sweetness and umami as signs of stuff you need, kind of energy-dense,” he said.
If restaurants and bars can shift more drinks when the music is turned up, it’s easy to understand why they do it.
But their customers might not be so happy in the long-term, says Spence. “Hopefully, by drawing attention to the negative impact on taste, then at least people might be in a better position to say is it really worth it,” he said.