May 9, 2012In the Mood for Food

Published in Gourmet Live 05.02.12 Fine dining is about soft lighting, elegant plates, and impeccable service. But as Julia Savacool learned from leading scientists, it’s about something else, too: The right tunes can make or break your dinner experience

It’s 9 p.m. on a Saturday and my companion and I are tucked away at the corner table at our favorite Italian restaurant on New York’s Upper East Side. We order carciofi alla Romana (grilled artichokes in olive oil and garlic) and crespelle alla Fiorentina (eggplant cannelloni filled with ricotta and spinach), which arrive bursting with flavor and demanding the presence of a classic Chianti. Presented with the dramatic flair of old-school Italian waiters, drink and food soon transport me to another place and time. Over the stereo system, emotion-filled strains of “O Sole Mio” layer in amid the clinking of silver against porcelain and glass against glass. By the time the tiramisu and cappuccinos arrive, I have completely left my New York existence behind and am fully immersed in la dolce vita. In the background,
Andrea Bocelli begs us to linger a little longer with his impassioned rendition of “Con Te Partirò.” “I feel like I’m back in Rome,” I whisper.I’d have sworn it was the meal that whisked me away to one of my favorite cities in the world, but as it turns out, something totally unrelated to olive oil and Chianti may have been driving my dining rapture. According to a 2010 study in the journal Musicae Scientiae, playing songs related to the ethnic origins of a certain food can greatly enhance a person’s preference for this type of cuisine. “Music may trigger certain memories,” says study author Joanne Yeoh, PhD, a researcher of music and consumer behavior. “In other studies, I’ve asked people to perform mundane tasks while background music was playing. Afterward, I stop the music and ask them to think about a food they’d like to have. Most of them choose a food associated with the music.” They do this despite the fact they can’t recall what music was playing, adds Yeoh, indicating that music influences our dining desires in a subconscious way.

Double the Pleasure

When it comes to music and food, there’s more at work than just memory recall. Researchers at McGill University in Montreal have found that when people listen to music, it activates an area of the brain responsible for the production of dopamine, the body’s “feel good” chemical, which transmits signals for the body to seek out more of what is giving it pleasure. No surprise, this is the same chemical that drives people to eat more cake and have more sex. “In evolutionary terms, the purpose of dopamine is to reinforce behaviors that are highly adaptive,” says study author and neuropsychologist Valorie Salimpoor, PhD. For instance, food and sex are, by necessity, pleasurable: Should humans cease to pursue either one, survival of the species would be imperiled. But music? Hardly something we think of in survival terms. “It is interesting that something as abstract as music can elicit a similar dopamine response,” Salimpoor admits. In fact, study participants experienced a 6 percent to 9 percent increase in dopamine levels when listening to pleasurable music, versus a 6 percent increase associated with eating pleasurable meals. Now imagine the dopamine boost that comes from combining the two.

Restaurant Gold Mine

It’s no surprise, then, that people in the food business see music as a clever tool they can employ to their advantage in numerous ways. “Using the five senses in merchandizing is a reasonably cheap way of defining who your customers are,” states Paco Underhill, author of Why We Buy: The Science of Shopping. “If you can match your music to your customer, you increase her ability to identify with your brand.” That brand recognition can build brand loyalty; loyalty, in turn, brings repeat customers—the gold standard all restaurants reach for. That promise explains why, although the marriage of food and music is thousands of years old, it still attracts researchers seeking to unlock the perfect formula. Scientists have probed the relationship from many angles. One study found that slower tempos can encourage diners to linger longer over their meals, ostensibly buying more items off the menu. On the other hand, up-tempo tunes tend to encourage rapid dining—not a bad trick for a maître d’ trying to speed along tables during rush hour.

Finding the right balance between beats per minute, decibel level, and genre of music isn’t easy—but it’s critical. A recent study in the Journal of Culinary Science & Technology found that diners prefer music over silence but will quickly form an unfavorable impression of their meal if the background-music level forces them to strain to converse.

The risk of turning off customers is so great, and the potential of increasing a customer’s pleasurable dining experience so high, restaurant managers have good reason to think seriously about their choice in musical selection. “What was once largely driven by intuition is now driven just as much by science and technology,” notes Underhill.

Sensing a market niche in need of a leader, Allen Klevens stepped in to fill the void. “The choice of music can make or break the dining experience,” believes Klevens, who formed his company, Prescriptive Music, in 1999. Today, it is the fastest-growing music-sensory branding firm, pocketing a 40 percent increase in profits in 2011 over the previous year. “Restaurant owners are realizing the right soundtrack can increase sales. There is no question that if you like the music, you will linger longer over dinner or order more drinks at the bar.”
To maximize his business model, Klevens sends a team of music consultants into the restaurant space with a detailed checklist of criteria: What is the lighting like? The room shape? Decor? “The most important thing is talking to the chef,” says Klevens, who counts Wolfgang Puck and the Four Seasons hotel group among his clients. “We want to understand the flavors, the subtleties of the chef’s style. People talk about pairing wine with food. I think of it as music pairing.” Sometimes, he adds, contrast works as well as complement: At the Beverly Hills steakhouse Cut, Klevens chose to play against the stark, modern decor with a playlist of classic rock, including Pink Floyd and Elton John.

Moreover, you need to be able to adapt your soundtrack to the time of day, day of the week, and even the type of customer you’re serving at any particular meal. As part of creating a customized music plan, Klevens connects his clients’ sound systems remotely to his office computers, so workers can be ready at a minute’s notice to make adjustments to sound, volume, and genre.

No longer a fledgling industry, customized music is now an essential component of the high-end restaurant experience. “We can literally alter your music in a matter of minutes,” Klevens reports, adding that his team does this regularly when a celeb makes a surprise visit. “If Beyoncé walks into your restaurant and you want to drop her songs in the mix every fourth track, we can do it almost instantly.”

As sound technology improves, Klevens believes demand for his services will continue to grow. “Music is the butter on the bread,” he says. “We’re that little extra thing that makes your food taste better.”