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Music in restaurants: From beginner to pro in less than eight minutes.

It shouldn’t come as a surprise that we at Soundtrack Your Brand think a lot about music for restaurants. We’ve built a large part of our business around it.

Once you get the knack of how to choose and schedule music for your restaurant, you’ll find it an incredibly powerful tool that can make a big difference for your guests’ dining experience. It’ll also make a big difference for your staff. Improving the music in your restaurant is the fastest and easiest way to improve your restaurant’s atmosphere.

But to get there, you must think about a few things. We’ve compiled this comprehensive guide to make it as easy for you as we can. Along the way, we’ll teach you a few super-user tricks you may not know of yet.

Restaurant music before and now.

Let’s begin by dialling it back to the beginning. Music has accompanied social eating at least since ancient Greek banquets. Not only does music create a friendly atmosphere. It also makes for pleasant camouflage. Without music in a restaurant, guests have to whisper since they don’t want table neighbours to hear what they're discussing. Besides, it’s unpleasant to hear other guests chew food and slurp down wine.

The modern idea of restaurant background music is believed to date back to Delmonico’s in the 1800s. The lower Manhattan fine dining restaurant was the first one to let guests order à la carte, from a menu. It was also the first restaurant to provide background music as we think of it today. Delmonico’s background music came in the form of Viennese waltzes played by an in-house string ensemble.

Taste in music evolved, and background music followed. Regional tastes also had an influence. In German beer halls, people would listen to oompah bands. In speakeasies, they preferred jazz.

Live music in restaurants eventually came to replaced by recorded music. By the 1960s, grace to new recording technology, diners in the U.S. would listen to everything from Percy Faith’s “Theme from a Summer Place” to the latest rock ‘n’ roll hits at burger shacks.

The advent of streaming.

Recorded music had its drawbacks. By the 1990s, it wasn’t unusual to sit in a bar and have to listen to the same Sade album for an entire evening. Then streaming changed everything.

“Playlists have made restaurant music a great service. Before you could hear the same album played again and again. But it’s bizarre to play an entire album by one artist unless it’s part of the restaurant’s concept. Unless it’s a proper listening party you really don’t want to hear an entire album,” says music curator Stefan Kragh

With streaming, chefs and restaurateurs across the world are compiling their own playlists and “Chef’s playlists” have become a concept. A concept loved by some people and hated by others.

OK, so now you know that music is a vital element of a dining experience. How do you get started?

Here are the elements you need to think of first:

Make a really long playlist.

Do you have staff? They’ll tire of your music. Curator Alf Tumble recommends having a much longer playlist than you think you need. It should have at least 600 songs, long enough to cover a full work week. If the staff gets bored with the music, you can’t blame them for pulling the plug and jacking in their phones to play their own music.

music in restaurants curator alf

Schedule according to intensity and energy.

Divide your playlist into three energy levels. That makes it easy to switch playlist and intensity if you get an onrush of customers. If you know that you’ll receive 40 guests to your restaurant at seven p.m. you need to make sure the music's intensity and energy match the number of guests.

Get a rock solid concept.

The more conceptual the restaurant is, the easier it is to find the right music. View the music as something equally as vital to the atmosphere as the lighting and the decor. What image do you want to communicate to your guests? What does your restaurant represent? Who do you target? How does your restaurant differ from your competitors?

"Every Italian restaurant doesn’t have to play a CD with Italian Restaurant classics. Look at Bambino’s. It’s a modern Italian bistro with a 50s retro interior that wants to describe itself as the Italian cousin from Boston back in the days. Every fifth song they play is contemporary Italian soul pop, the rest is classic feel good soul" says curator Alf Tumble.

"A guest arrives at your restaurant with certain expectations that you should seek to meet. An oyster bar in the Scottish countryside will have a different atmosphere and should have a different sound than an oyster bar in London"

Keep the music aligned to your concept.

“If you run a tiki bar you may find yourself conceptually limited to Album Oriented Rock, Hawaiian soul, surf or yacht rock. It could also be distinctively different to avoid boxing yourself into your concept but proceed with caution," Stefan Kragh says.

On reality TV shows, such as Kitchen Nightmares, they’ll talk about everything except the music. "Why do you have white linen when you serve hot dogs?" But the music gets ignored. It's equally as important to play music that fits the concept.

Pick songs like a person with deep taste.

People are far more restricted by their personal taste of music than they realize. “If you think your personal favorites will do great, and if they've all been Top 40 at some point, look to someone with a varied and deep taste in music for a helping hand," says curator Stefan Kragh.

Take a look around your restaurant. Are only you and your tired staff there? Are the guests missing? That’s a signal you may need to rethink your musical choices.

Stick to your guns.

Curator Alf Tumble recalls an American-style steakhouse that had a soul music theme. The proprietor discovered that busloads of out of town schlager fans would appear on late Fridays to get a quick meal before a concert. The proprietor got it into his head that these out-of-town diners didn't want to listen to "cool" music and started playing schlager hits. This music switch resulted in a confused brand sound. "Don't be short-sighted. It's more important to defend the brand," Tumble says.

Avoid the charts.

People come to a bar or a restaurant to flee the society of PR and advertizing and to escape the top charts.

Dig beneath the surface.

Just because you serve Jamaican food, you won’t solve your music by playing Bob Marley's greatest hits. Explore what you can find in Jamaican music. Find anywhere from 20 to 50 artists from different eras, mix in music by the Congos and by King Tubby. Even then you'll be playing quite a canonical mix of music. Someone passionate about Jamaican music (and food!) may help.

Get a good sound system.

A lot of restaurants have a deficient sound system. Then it doesn’t matter what kind of music you play.

Keep an eye on the volume.

Adjusting the volume throughout the day and the evening is important. Fade it higher or lower depending on how many guests you have. A human being absorbs some 0.3 dB on average. The more guests you have, the more you need to raise the volume and vice versa.

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Tell him he’s not. Even when Karl Lagerfeld owned over 100 iPods - he employed someone to keep the music matched to his suit. We all need help.

Don’t play too quiet music in your bar.

If the music is too quiet in your bar, your guests will think you’re about to close and will leave. Raise the volume some 2 or 3 dB. That will give your guests the feeling that “something’s about to happen.”

Power tips for the bold.

Use music that contrasts with the dining experience.

It may seem counterintuitive but you can use music as a bold contrast to your restaurant’s concept. Music curator Alf Tumble recalls visiting Lejontornet, an upscale Stockholm restaurant that offers an all-inclusive gastronomy banquet that opens only 12 times a year to serve eight dinner guests.

Why not play house music at your fine dining Chinese restaurant? Note: to make the contrast work well requires deep thought from the personal responsible for the music or an outside curator.

”I paid 700 dollars for that dinner. The weird thing was that the music they played: a kind of backbeat reggae. In the beginning, it felt strange, but I guess it turned out okay. It brought the very luxurious and pricey dining experience down to something more banal and unpretentious.”

Alf Tumble

Use music to time the food service.

At the two-star Guide Michelin restaurant Frantzén Lindberg they would organize the menu according to the playlist. The service staff knew that when jazz singer Monica Zetterlund played it was time to serve the halibut. They’d use songs as signposts to time the service.

I want to become a pro! What’s next?

Start by scheduling your first playlist. It’s easier than you think. Remember to divide the playlists into three different energy levels.

Our curators have spent years helping restaurants to select the best music. But we’re always learning new fresh ways to use music in restaurants.

Do you want more in depth insight from our curators? Subscribe to our newsletter and learn how Soundtrack Your Brand and our customers work with music to create the best commercial venues.


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