A surprising factor influences what and how much you eat and drink in a restaurant: the background music. It’s true: The style, speed, and volume of music can affect your experience almost as much as the selections on the menu, influencing you to eat more, drink faster, and even choose certain items over others.
“Hearing is something that we just can’t turn off,” says Charles Spence, PhD, a professor at Oxford University, and author of Gastrophysics: The New Science of Eating.
“Our brains are always picking up the background sensory cues from the environment and integrating them into the experience, whether we realize it or not.” Listening to music can cause both physical and emotional responses, making it doubly powerful when accompanied with food.
That spur-of-the-moment decision you made to splurge on an expensive glass of wine at the bar? Spence’s research suggests there may have been classical music playing at the time, which can send a subtle signal to your brain that it’s OK to spend more than usual on food and drinks. The way you plowed through your entrée while dining out over the weekend? The background music may have had a fast tempo, causing you to automatically increase the pace of your hand-to-mouth motions.
Surprised? That’s not all music can do. Here are three more ways that it can affect your dining experience, plus a few other restaurant-specific influencers:
When music is loud
The distraction of blaring tunes can make it hard to hear your friends, and may impede your ability to pick up on flavours. “If music is too loud, it can suppress your ability to taste the food,” says Spence. “Everyone thinks that they can just taste the food on their plate or the drink in their glass that they can ignore everything else like the background music or the chair they are sitting on, but new gastrophysics evidence shows that just isn’t so.” Just as studies about multitasking have shown, it’s hard to split your focus. When music is extra loud, it may become a dominant influence.
How music pairs with food
Music can actually turn up the taste at mealtime. “You can play specific types of music to sonically season a dish,” says Spence. How exactly does this work? Spence’s research has shown that restaurants can bring out sweetness, spiciness, creaminess, or bitterness in a dish simply by playing matching music. (No wonder takeout never tastes as good!) “One cafe just opened up in Vietnam where they play only sweet music—think tinkling, high-pitched piano or wind chimes. The idea is that they’ll be able to add a little less sugar to their cakes and drinks.”
When music comes for a certain region
Culturally specific music can put your mind and your mouth in the mood for specific types of cuisine. “If you are in an ethnic restaurant, then playing music that people associate with that region can lead to food being rated as more authentically ethnic,” says Spence. Meaning: listening to the music of the country makes cultural dishes taste more authentic. For example, kimchi and bibimbap may taste more authentically Korean when served with a side of K-pop, a popular style of Korean music. Regional music can also influence your purchases, according to other studies says Spence. When at the store, you may be swayed to choose German wine over French (or vice versa), depending on the origins of the music playing over the sound system.
It’s easy to get swept up in the moment when eating out, but being aware of your environment and how it affects your choices can help you stay on track. Knowing about these auditory clues can help you be more mindful about how you eat and your food choices.