TRANSCRIPT Why Are Restaurants So Loud?

This is a transcript of the Gastropod episode Why Are Restaurants So Loud? Plus the Science Behind the Perfect Playlist, first released on May 14, 2024. It is provided as a courtesy and may contain errors.

NATE SLOAN: It’s loud. Deafening. Cacophonous.

CHARLIE HARDING: It’s a nightmare.

SLOAN: Oppressive.

CYNTHIA GRABER: Nate Sloan and Charlie Harding are the hosts of a great podcast called Switched on Pop, it’s a show about the making and meaning of popular music.

NICOLA TWILLEY: But this is not their review of the latest Beyoncé or Taylor Swift album. It is, instead, their uncensored feelings about a thing many of you will be familiar with. I’m talking about the horrific assault on the eardrums mounted by many, if not most restaurants today.

SLOAN: Charlie and I live on opposite coasts, Charlie’s in New York City, I’m in Los Angeles, so on the rare occasion that we get together, you know, we have a lot to discuss. And when we find ourselves in a restaurant, I think we’re always looking for the table that’s kind of in a corner, furthest away from the speakers, furthest away from the, the hosts and the servers, where we can just have a little quiet place to discuss. Because I think it’s, it’s, restaurants are loud these days.

TWILLEY: We can sympathize with this. And we of course are Gastropod, the podcast that looks at food through the lens of science and history—I’m Nicola Twilley

GRABER: And I’m Cynthia Graber. And we have many questions about why restaurants sound the way they do. In fact, Nate and Charlie do too.

HARDING: Why does it sound so bad and why does nobody pay attention to it? Why is it such an afterthought? Why do these spaces have to be so echoey? It drives me, really up the wall.

TWILLEY: What makes this worse is that Charlie has experienced restaurant acoustic perfection, so he knows it’s possible.

HARDING: Oh, absolutely. I remember going to a really spectacular spot in Berkeley, California with a friend called Comal. I remember walking in and sitting down at the table, and it was like being in a fresh bed of snow. Where you’re in this big open space, and yet sound doesn’t go anywhere. And you can hear a whisper of your friend sitting across from you. And I’m like, what is going on with this environment? Why does it sound so good? Because it’s such a rare occasion to to step into a restaurant that sounds good, where you can actually hear the person on the other side. And it still felt lively and fun.

GRABER: So what is Comal doing so well that most other restaurants are just failing at?

TWILLEY: We’ve got Comal’s secrets this episode, but that’s not all. Because hitting that Goldilocks sweet spot—the perfect buzz that’s not too loud or too quiet—that’s only part of the sonic equation.

GRABER: The other thing that makes a difference to your acoustic experience in a restaurant is the music that hopefully is kind of in the background, the soundtrack to your dinner.

HARDING: We reported a whole story about how every restaurant at one point sounded like LCD Soundsystem—


HARDING: —because as millennials were coming into their spending prime and putting a lot of money into restaurants, they wanted to hear the thing of their youth that was kind of upbeat. Kept ’em feeling young, even if it was no longer the hip thing.

TWILLEY: Playing music that was huge twenty years ago is one strategy, for sure. But is there any actual science to designing the perfect restaurant playlist?

GRABER: This episode, we’re on the case. Are restaurants getting louder? How can engineers design the acoustically perfect restaurant space, and what music should be played in it?

TWILLEY: Gastropod is supported in part by the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation for the public understanding of science technology and economics, and by you, our amazing listeners. We’re part of the Vox Media Podcast Network, in partnership with Eater.


JULIA BELLUZ: I think it was my birthday. I went out with my husband to a restaurant that had just opened in our neighborhood, in this beautiful hotel.

TWILLEY: This is Julia Belluz, she’s been on the show before, most recently our episode on hunger. She’s a health journalist, and this particular birthday meal inspired her to write a story about the problem of restaurants and loudness.

BELLUZ: The hotel was situated in this century-old church and it had these grand spaces and cavernous ceilings and, the acoustics were basically unbearable. Like I, I remember, yeah, this conversation between my husband and I, that was sort of like, what did you say? Can you hear me? Yeah, as I was leaving, I tried to, like, log a complaint to, I think the maître d’ or something, and I think she couldn’t even hear me. And I just left wondering, like, why, why is this happening? Why, why are we doing this to ourselves?

GRABER: I agree, I also wonder why we’re doing this to ourselves, and it’s not just Charlie, Nate, Julia, and me. Tom Sietsema is the food critic for the Washington Post, he’s been doing that job for more than 20 years, and he said people complain about the volume of noise in restaurants to him all the time. And it’s not just old people.

TOM SIETSEMA: One guy in particular wrote me and said that he proposed to his girlfriend, but he couldn’t hear her say yes. And she was right across from him in a restaurant. And so he repeated the question at home the next day and got the answer that he was looking for. But, you know, here’s a life moment that is ruined by noise pollution, right?

TWILLEY: Like we said, Tom’s been in the dining out business for a long time, and he says it is undoubtedly true—restaurants really are getting louder.

GRABER: Julia pinned down a couple of causes when she reported this story.

BELLUZ: So one is this idea of the great noise boom that started in the nineties. And that some people peg to Mario Batali, celebrity chef in New York. And the idea was that he would kind of blast music at Babbo, his restaurant. And he thought this was kind of a way to convey vibrancy and energy. And other restaurants sort of picked up on this trend.

GRABER: The second reason Julia identified for louder dining experiences today is that in the 70s and 80s, restaurants often had carpets, and linens and a tablecloth, and curtains, maybe even fabric on the wall and on the chairs.

BELLUZ: But that, that trend of having noisier restaurants converged with this trend of moving into these more minimalist spaces. So exposed bricks, exposed concrete.

SIETSEMA: I think a lot of places still like that clean, sleek, modern look. Which invariably means, you know, concrete or bare floors or bare tables. Like, linens have disappeared in a lot of places. Because they cost so much. Dry cleaning, and all of that costs so much.

TWILLEY: Tom says that at this point he can look at a photo of a restaurant and know exactly how deafening it’s going to be. Pierre Germain told us that he can look at the design drawings and know.

PIERRE GERMAIN: There’s so many projects that we work on where you get these renderings and it’s like, oh, I’ve got to have marble and glass and… and I just start shuddering. Because its like, wow, this place is going to be pretty loud.

GRABER: Pierre’s an acoustic engineer for a company called Meyer Sound. And he says that this experience gets even worse when the room fills up with people, it’s literally amplified. Because people in a loud space tend to talk more loudly, so everything gets out of control.

TWILLEY: Tom was getting so many complaints from Washington Post readers—at least one or two a week—that he decided to get scientific about this issue.

SIETSEMA: And I thought, well, let’s do a story on this. And maybe, along with the story, I could also introduce noise ratings.

GRABER: This was back in 2007 and so to measure the noise levels for his noise rating, Tom lugged around a brick of a decibel reader. These days it’s easier, you can even measure decibels on a smartphone. And Tom now has a decibel scale he uses for all his restaurant reviews.

SIETSEMA: Sixty to 70 decibels would be, a conversation is easy. And, 70 to 80 is, must speak with raised voice. And it gets more dire with every, you know. Fortunately, I’m not going to too many places with 90 or 100 plus decibels, at which point it actually gets dangerous. After 80 decibels, that is like city traffic comparison, there, and that actually gets dangerous over sustained periods.

TWILLEY: And some restaurants get up that high. Tom told us that he went to a Peruvian place during happy hour and he barely escaped with his ear drums intact.

SIETSEMA: It was over 100 decibels for a sustained period for at least an hour and 15 or an hour and 20 minutes. And that, my friends, is the equivalent of a jet engine at takeoff.

GRABER: A jet engine typically scores about 120 decibels, so this is certainly getting up there and it sounds pretty uncomfortable.

BELLUZ: And we’re talking about this from the perspective of patrons. Like, we go to these restaurants for a couple of hours or an hour, once, twice, and there are people who are working there day in, day out and having their hearing damaged.

TWILLEY: Everyone knows loud sounds can damage your hearing, but the mechanics of it are actually kind of fascinating. So, you have thousands of tiny cells in your ears, they look like hairs under a microscope. And their job is to translate sounds into electrical signals that your brain can understand.

GRABER: Sometimes a sound wave from a noise you hear can be so loud that it actually kills those hair cells—that’s really what people call them—and once they’re dead, there’s no way to repair them or grow new ones. This translates into hearing loss. If you lose too many hair cells, then it’s harder to understand what people are saying, or hear things from across the room.

TWILLEY: Most people can lose somewhere between a third and half of their hair cells before they actually experience noticeable hearing loss. But above 80 decibels, that damage is already starting to happen.

GRABER: At around 85 decibels, like city traffic, you can listen to that for about eight hours before it starts to hurt your hair cells. But the damage speeds up when the sound gets louder. If you’re listening to something at 88 decibels, that’s closer to standing right next to a lawnmower—you can only listen to that for four hours before you’re going to be risking permanent damage. And most restaurant shifts are longer than that.

TWILLEY: The way the scale works, it’s kind of exponential, so like that Peruvian restaurant during happy hour—say it was between 103 and 106 decibels. That gives you just four or five minutes before you start wiping out those hair cells.

GRABER: So it’s clear that working in a loud restaurant for hours at a time for months on end will have some real long-term harm. And even for customers, it can be risky.

TWILLEY: A super loud restaurant really is dangerous. But also, if you’re already hard of hearing? Forget it. You just lose any ability to make out what your dinner companion is saying with any excessive background noise.

SIETSEMA: I recently read that the hearing loss association of America estimates that 48 million Americans have some degree of hearing loss. That’s a lot of people. That’s a lot of people who eat out.

TWILLEY: Perhaps unsurprisingly, given all the complaints he was getting and the number of people for whom this is a real issue, Tom’s new decibel ratings for restaurants were a huge hit with readers

SIETSEMA: Readers loved it. I became everyone’s new best friend. And people, I still hear from people all these many years afterwards, thank God we have these sound ratings. Restaurateurs were put on notice. You know, it became a big subject in the industry.

GRABER: Some restaurant owners reached out to Tom to say, hey, we know this is an issue, and we’ve been trying to improve the situation.

SIETSEMA: And, and some restaurant restaurant owners told me like, look, you know, like I have some restaurants that are quiet. And cater to a different clientele. And I have some that I want to be livelier. So we’re going to stick with what we have.

TWILLEY: So we know there’s a problem, and we know what the causes are. Great. But now, what can you do if you are a diner who would like to be able to order your meal and talk to your friends without screaming?

GRABER: Well in DC, Tom’s reviews can be a guide to where to find peace and quiet, and Julia told us about an app called Soundprint that also crowdsources decibel levels. That way, you know what to avoid.

TWILLEY: Walking out also works.

BELLUZ: If I go to a restaurant that’s too, that I feel is too loud, I just don’t go back. This is definitely part of the calculation I make of, like, the food has to be really good. The ambiance has to be nice. But part of that is that it shouldn’t be too, too loud.

GRABER: But if there’s a restaurant where you love the food, or maybe it’s a restaurant someone else chose for dinner, and you’re worried it might be a little loud, there are some steps you can take to have a more pleasant experience.

TWILLEY: Tom recommends sitting away from the bar, ideally in a corner or at the edges of the room.

SIETSEMA: And also dine early, before the music goes up during the night, which is often the case in restaurants. And, and by the way, that’s the trend, too. Five o’clock is the new seven o’clock.

TWILLEY: Yay, because I love dining early! Thank you for making me feel cool, Tom.

GRABER: Julia also has some advice

BELLUZ: You don’t want to be too close, if there’s like an open kitchen, that can be a really noisy spot. And I also have no shame about asking for a quieter table. So if I’m seated in a table that feels like it’s kind of the noisy hotspot of the restaurant, I’ll just ask to move.

TWILLEY: These are useful tips for diners to avoid the worst of the cacophony. But the real long term solution involves a mysterious science called acoustic engineering. How to fix noise levels in restaurants for good, after the break.


GRABER: We told you that restaurants in the past had curtains and carpets and maybe fabric on the walls, and all of this helped muffle the sound. But there are ways to incorporate some of these aspects of sound-muffling design into a modern, more spare, concrete and glass type restaurant too.

GERMAIN: Sometimes they come up with really, kind of creative, decorative ways of putting acoustic treatment. They’ll put some banners up in the ceiling and maybe some insulation above it, or just something, I don’t know, a piece of artwork that’s got some, some fabric to it and some, some thickness to it.

TWILLEY: Pierre said there are some good tools to make restaurants sound less hellish. The most common are these things called acoustic panels. They’re basically just absorptive materials, things like cork or felt or foam, maybe covered with fabric to look nice, and then put on the wall and or the ceiling.

GRABER: Another option is something called a bass trap. Bass notes are the lower part of the sound spectrum, and they can be both particularly bothersome and even harmful for our ears. But also, they’re also harder to get rid of. Pierre and his team built a bass trap into the ceiling of a restaurant they worked with.

GERMAIN: So there was a fiberglass installation, these panels with an air gap above it. And I’m not sure how deep the air gap was. I think something like at least a foot, if not two feet. And that creates a really good bass absorber.

TWILLEY: Which really helps make a restaurant less boomy and loud. The problem is that these things cost money.

SIETSEMA: The owner of a new Turkish restaurant in DC, it’s called Namak, told me he invested—this is just recently, too—he invested $140,000 in the material alone for soundproofing.

GRABER: And that’s if you do it ahead of time, when you’re first building out the restaurant before it opens.

GERMAIN: And doing it retroactively, you’re going to spend about four times as much money to do it, after the fact.

TWILLEY: Either way, it’s really not cheap. And restaurants don’t have unlimited money. They’re often scrambling just to open.

SIETSEMA: Would you rather spend that amount of money on soundproofing, which no one sees, or a chef? Or a pastry chef? Or some fancy piece of art? Or some nice new fabric on the banquette? That’s what I hear from a lot of restaurateurs. Like, you know, we would like to offer people a relatively, quiet experience, but it costs a lot. And this is in an industry with very narrow profit margins.

GRABER: And that means that it’s rare to find a new modern restaurant with good acoustics.

GERMAIN: I’m always pleasantly surprised if I walk in a restaurant and I see acoustic treatment.

TWILLEY: But that kind of soundproofing, like acoustic panels—as rare as it is, that’s just the start as far as Pierre is concerned. His company is known for creating completely optimized sonic experiences. They usually work with concert halls and theaters and music venues.

GRABER: But their work in restaurants started with a conversation between John Meyer, the founder of Meyer Sound, and a guy named John Paluska. He used to manage the band Phish.

GERMAIN: So he was very attuned to acoustics and sound, and he was starting this new restaurant called Comal in Berkeley.

TWILLEY: If you’re thinking, wait, didn’t I just hear that name at the start of the show? One gold star for you! You are correct. Comal is the place that shocked and delighted Charlie from Switched on Pop with its acoustical perfection.

GRABER: To help Comal achieve that level of sonic glory, the first thing Pierre and his colleagues did is map the restaurant and figure out where sounds are bouncing around. Then they put in the most sophisticated panels, and bass traps, and all sorts of things to deaden that sound.

GERMAIN: But then what that does is it actually kind of makes the room kind of anemic, acoustically. It doesn’t have any life to it. You start losing all your privacy and you can start, kind of, picking out conversations nearby.

TWILLEY: So that’s not actually great. These passive acoustic techniques—the soundproofing —they can leave a restaurant kind of awkwardly quiet. But the reason Pierre does that is that it gives him a blank canvas to then do something called active acoustics.

GERMAIN: Yeah. So there’s microphones in the room and they pick up the ambience in the room. And, and there’s also, you know, we’ve done some systems where they’re concerned, like, Hey, are there you recording my conversation? Like, no, all it is is just kind of picking up just the general ambience in the room and it goes into the reverberator and the reverberator kind of mixes everything up. And basically what comes out of the reverberator is distributed throughout the entire space.

GRABER: The microphones aren’t meant to be eavesdropping on you. Like Pierre says, they are picking up the sounds from around the room but they’re mixing them together so they’re unintelligible. And then the results come out of carefully placed speakers, and it sounds just like the hum of a conversation.

GERMAIN: It, you know, it’s, the idea is just to kind of create a buzz, but you’re not really kind of picking out what people are saying. And it creates this kind of bubble of, of atmosphere and ambience.

TWILLEY: When Comal first installed the new system, the owner John Pelusca showed a reporter from CBS how it works.

REPORTER: Slow Monday evening? Allow a little more noise to warm up the room.

JOHN PELUSCA: Very high level of reverb, about a second and a half. [ECHOING CLAP] Test. Sounds a little boomy.

REPORTER: Packed and buzzing on a Friday night? Dial it back. Kill the mighty stir.

JOHN PELUSCA: When you bring it all the way to high occupancy, that’s when it’s really quite noticeable. [DULL CLAP] It just dies right away. Test.

GRABER: So that’s what the reverb itself sounds like—but Pierre told us he couldn’t give us a sample of the before and after of the sound of actual voices recorded and then transformed by the reverberations, because it’s a company secret. He said you just have to go to one of the restaurants with a Meyer Sound system and experience it yourself.

TWILLEY: Any excuse to dine at Comal. But still, you might be like, really? They go to all this effort to take all the sound out and then they add it back in, why exactly? But Pierre says what this system means is that the sound levels are totally under the restaurant’s control.

GERMAIN: We just bring the background noise back and we can control it. We can zone it. We can have it active so that if there’s a table that launches into “happy birthday” for somebody’s birthday, it doesn’t really overwhelm the entire restaurant with, with that level.

GRABER: That background hum can be really finely tuned even depending on the area of the restaurant.

GERMAIN: So the banquettes are intended to be a little bit quieter. The bar’s intended to be a little bit livelier.

TWILLEY: It can change over time too, as the restaurant gets busier or quietens down.

GERMAIN: As the room starts getting more and more occupied, then the system gets quieter and quieter, to maintain an even sound level.

GRABER: There’s a lot of math and engineering that goes into all of this, mapping the space and creating the algorithms that can understand what the restaurant sounds like where and when, and how to optimize the technology and make it all come out as beautiful and pure as acoustic snow as Charlie described.

TWILLEY: Getting that perfect bed of acoustic snow takes a lot of carefully placed equipment, too—something like 20 microphones hanging from the ceiling at Comal, and then a similar number of speakers. And all of them have to be carefully placed based on these super intense calculations about reverberation time, and frequencies, and all kinds of audio variables.

GRABER: So probably unsurprisingly, the price tag matches the effort and the results.

GERMAIN: It’s in the six figures. Definitely. So, you know, I think if you think low six figures is, is generally kind of like, what, what’s, what’s the typical kind of going rate for, for something like that.

TWILLEY: Which is not nothing. But that consistent, controlled sonic perfection—it does have some very real benefits.

GERMAIN: Well, the experience that we got just from restaurants that we’ve done here is they get a lot of repeat business. And, especially if there’s people that are hard of hearing and it was funny enough, I was talking to one of my neighbors and they said, there’s only one place in Berkeley that I can go eat and it’s Comal. Mainly because of the, the sound is, is, is reasonable.

GRABER: And of course there are benefits for the staff, too. Avoiding hearing damage is one, but it’s not the only one. Pierre mentioned the staff of a restaurant called Acre in Oakland that Meyer Sound worked with. The servers loved the sound system.

GERMAIN: As soon as they, they started working there, they noticed that their backs were not hurting as much. And were like, what’s going on? And they’re saying, no, we don’t need to lean over at the table to take people’s orders anymore. Because [LAUGH] because the room is just so nicely controlled and we don’t need to yell at people. They don’t need to yell at us. We can just stand upright and take their orders.

TWILLEY: Fixing back pain is definitely a win. But like Tom told us, the restaurant industry is typically running on the tiniest of margins, and so most of them don’t even do the basic acoustic dampening, let alone the full active Meyer acoustic experience. And so, they’re loud.

SIETSEMA: You know, forget truffles and caviar. These are delicacies that you can now find on a lot of American menus. But quiet is really the new luxury.

GRABER: But don’t forget you can also be too quiet, like Pierre said.

SIETSEMA: No one wants to walk into a mausoleum. You want a little… fizz, that little champagne fizz. You want to feel like you’re not the only person in whatever restaurant you’re going to.

TWILLEY: A restaurant that’s too quiet, that’s almost silent—sure, it’s not dangerous to your hearing, but it is super uncomfortable. Nearly as uncomfortable as a restaurant that’s too loud. And so restaurants have another trick up their sleeves to deal with any awkward silence, and that is a playlist.

GRABER: Nate from Switched on Pop says basically all restaurants play music.

SLOAN: I think being able to cover up any lulls in the conversation with music. If you’re eating by yourself, to sort of have something to distract you. And maybe also to give the staff a little bit of a cover, you know, for their own complaints about customers and discussions about substitutions. You know, it just, it creates a sort of bed of noise that allows everyone to preserve a little bit more anonymity.

GRABER: But how can a restaurant create the perfect music environment? We’ve got the science behind the playlists, after the break.


GRABER: So, as we’ve explained, loud noise damages hearing, and the science behind that is really well established. What hasn’t been as well studied, at least until lately, is the way the sounds in a restaurant affect other aspects of our dining experience.

TWILLEY: Back when Janice Wang started her research, about a decade ago, there was not a lot of science exploring the effect of sound and music on the restaurant experience.

JANICE WANG: So at that point, I wasn’t aware of any research that was looking specifically at noise and eating. There’s a lot of anecdotal studies. Especially with people complaining that, oh, restaurants are way too loud. And somehow that’s leading to a negative experience.

GRABER: Today, Janice is associate professor at the Department of Food Science at the University of Copenhagen. And while she does now study food and sound, she says it’s actually kind of hard to do it.

WANG: Eating is, by nature, a very multi sensory experience. So, when we’re studying sound, of course, we can never, you know, just take that one factor out.

GRABER: There’s taste and smell, and who you’re eating with and what the food looks like. It’s a lot all at once.

TWILLEY: But one thing researchers have found is that the volume—the decibel level of the room and the music—it definitely does make a noticeable difference.

WANG: In a louder environment, people will tend to eat faster, and they will tend to consume more.

TWILLEY: So maybe the loudness trend that Julia and Tom have noticed—maybe it’s also about selling more food and drinks, rather than just Mario Batali and modern aesthetics!

GRABER: There are various numbers that get thrown around for how much more people seem to consume in a loud environment. But they do seem to be eating more.

WANG: Some people think this could be triggering some sort of stress response because the same sort of faster eating and eating more behavior has also been seen in rats. So, it’s not just humans.

TWILLEY: Stress doesn’t sound like a good thing for a restaurant to trigger. Like, oh I know, let’s make it loud enough so all our customers just want to flee. But it’s not an all or nothing, fight or flight response.

DOUG MARSHALL: If you can kind of grab people’s attention and trigger their acoustic startle reflex, they get a shot of adrenaline. And they feel like, yeah, okay. I feel like I can do stuff. Or yeah, I’m going to eat more, or have another drink. And you can do that with volume.

GRABER: Doug Marshall is the founder of a company called Altaura, they work with restaurants on creating their playlists, and he says it’s about creating just a *little* bit of stress. It’s like the kind of energy you get when you go for a jog but not the kind of stress like when you have to run away from a bear.

TWILLEY: Or like that little adrenaline rush you get before you have to speak in public, versus the paralyzing kind where you have to give a speech you forgot to write. Not that I’m speaking from personal experience here

GRABER: Doug says turning up the volume to the right level just kind of gets people pumped.

MARSHALL: You know, we want to build a burger bar. We know that, you know, if the music is bassier, funkier, louder, we’re going to sell more burgers.

TWILLEY: More decibels, more burgers. At least up to a point.

GRABER: And so remember that loud Peruvian happy hour? Maybe they’re doing it on purpose.

SIETSEMA: Like, of course, you’re going to drink more Pisco Sours or eat faster in that sort of environment.

TWILLEY: But there is a way to use sound to make people eat more slowly, and to linger. And it’s not just about volume. It’s more about what’s on the playlist. Doug told us about one case study his company did.

GRABER: Before Doug came along, the restaurant was just playing generic upbeat pop, with a pretty uptempo beat.

MARSHALL: We slowed that down.


MARSHALL: We added sort of new up and coming artists, but also more positive music, and more music that was approachable to all kinds of ages.

TWILLEY: This is ‘Still a Part of Me’ by the Minits, from the 1970s, they’ve been called one of soul’s great forgotten groups.

MARSHALL: And actually just created a nicer atmosphere that was more relaxing. And when you come to the end of the meal, in a restaurant, it’s really key for a business model because you’re making money on puddings and alcohol. And the atmosphere just became, a lot nicer to be in. [‘STILL A PART OF ME’ PLAYS AGAIN] And therefore people said. Okay, yeah, maybe I will stay. Maybe I will have another drink.

TWILLEY: And maybe I’ll order a pudding!

GRABER: Or a dessert, as we Americans would say. And this translated to a financial win for the restaurant.

MARSHALL: We managed to increase dessert sales by 12 percent. And we didn’t measure alcohol or anything else on top of that.

TWILLEY: It seems like there’s a couple of things going on here. Being intentional about the tempo is important—Janice has published papers that show that slower paced music does seem to help people eat more slowly.

WANG: And so, so we have a natural entrainment effect, right? Like, if you listen to faster music, your heartbeat will be faster.


WANG: And I think you will also chew faster.

TWILLEY: This is like when you’re working out, and the right tempo music can make you jog faster.

GRABER: And so music that could get your heart pumping could be a great idea to play at a burger bar.

WANG: You get people, you know, they come, they’ll eat quickly, then they leave. So you, you know, you can, you can sell more food and make more money.


WANG: On the other hand, if you’re more of a fine dining restaurant and you make money by, for example, selling more drinks or selling more dishes. In that case, you would want to slow down the music, so that people will tend to stay longer.


WANG: And if they stay longer, they’ll tend to order more things. So depending on the type of restaurant you’re running, you might want to manipulate the music differently

GRABER: It all depends on your business model. One is to make money by volume, that’s the burger joint, the other is by price point and getting each table to linger and spend more money.

TWILLEY: So far, so sneaky. There’s another factor that Doug said seems important, although it hasn’t been studied on its own. But as part of that dessert case study, Doug didn’t just slow down the tempo of the music. He also replaced those generic familiar hit songs with lesser known tunes—like that one from The Minits.

GRABER: Megan Pattison also creates playlists for restaurants, like Doug does, she works for a company called Uncanned Music. She agreed that super popular music is just not the way to go.

MEGAN PATTISON: Like I was just eating last night at Capri Club here in Eagle Rock.

TWILLEY: As it happens, Eagle Rock is just up the road from where I live in northeast Los Angeles.

PATTISON: Yummy, yummy food and their music was great. But I was like, Oh, this is totally a Spotify playlist. [LAUGHS] Please, Capri Club. Don’t come after me. I love your food and it’s super cozy, but the tunes were so algorithmic, like they were one into the next, into the next, into the next that are all like, this is the East Side hipster playlist. Great tunes, but I also can listen to that all the time.

GRABER: Megan had some unsolicited suggested for changes they might want to make.

PATTISON: It’s like, okay, if you like, Can I Call You Rose by Thee Sacred Souls, which is a huge tune.


PATTISON: You might like, you know, this song by a local guy, like Les Imprimes or anything from big crown records.


PATTISON: Under discovered, a little more independent. Like, your mind could be blown if you just get out of the Spotify suggestions.

TWILLEY: What I’m about to say is definitely not scientific, but in my sample size of one—me—I think the thing about unfamiliar music is really true. Because if I’m in a restaurant and I know the music, and the lyrics, I’m totally distracted.

GRABER: I agree, we can make that a sample size of two. When that happens, I want to sing along, I pay attention to the words, not the food in front of me or the conversation. What I really want in a restaurant is for the music to be something lovely, but that I don’t know and that doesn’t distract me.

TWILLEY: The loveliness piece is scientifically important, according to Janice.

WANG: What we found overall with those studies was that liking for the music was correlated with liking for the food. And this, this is kind of a quite general finding that pleasantness of the music will often transfer to pleasantness of the food.

GRABER: Loveliness is of course subjective, but Nate says there’s a relatively objective way to try to get the right music for the restaurant, and it’s all about reading the room.

SLOAN: I have been a cocktail pianist before. And one piece of advice that I got, that has been really helpful in that respect, is someone told me you should play at the speed that people are walking around the room. So, as you see people getting up and—or servers walking around, like you should use their footsteps as the, the beat of what you’re playing. And if you do that, then you will be at the right tempo to set the vibe for, for the space you’re in.

TWILLEY: Basically, Nate says, the perfect music will just blend in with the atmosphere and the energy: it’s not too loud, it’s not too fast, it’s not too familiar but it’s not too demanding. Easy.

GRABER: Sure, sounds like a snap. But how would a restaurant achieve this kind of musical perfection, would someone who works there just handpick each song themselves?

TWILLEY: Normally restaurants don’t give it that much thought, especially at the beginning. They do just what most people do when they’re having a party, they plug in Spotify.

MARSHALL: So a lot of people do use Streaming services like Apple music and Spotify. But that’s actually a copyright infringement, it’s illegal.

TWILLEY: Illegal is obviously a potential issue. But also, the algorithm can let you down. Doug told us about a juice bar that went the Spotify route.

MARSHALL: And they said we chose an algorithm, we wanted happy, fun, uplifting music, and we kept hearing Baby Shark.


MARSHALL: And it was super embarrassing. And I don’t know if you know what Baby Shark is, but yeah, it’s not cool juice bar music.

GRABER: Not at all. But not everyone uses Spotify, sometimes there’s a music enthusiast who works at the restaurant who decides to make the playlist themselves. The problem with this is that it’s hard to have a playlist that’s long enough so that it doesn’t get boring.

TWILLEY: The other problem with the staff picking the music is that they don’t necessarily even want to hear the same kinds of things that customers who are sitting down and eating and drinking want.

PATTISON: The staff wants more upbeat music because they’re jamming, they’re working, they’re, they’re hustling. So they want like, boom, boom, boom. Like they’re working out. But then also, if a client’s eating, they might not want to listen to four on the floor house music because they’re not pumping, washing dishes and sanitizing glassware. They’re, you know, playing footsie and enjoying a beautiful meal.

TWILLEY: So clearly, having either staff or Spotify choose the playlist can be subpar.

GRABER: Instead, restaurants can sign up with companies that make a playlist for you, they’re mid-priced and not super fine tuned to your particular restaurant.

TWILLEY: Some of these are big companies. Muzak is the one you might have heard of. The service they offer is you pay a fee, and their algorithm selects some music for you, and that’s what you play. It’s very hands off, you won’t get Baby Shark, but it’s also a little bit same-y. This is what you’ll hear if you go to somewhere like the Cheesecake Factory or PF Chang’s.

GRABER: But like with restaurant acoustics, there is a higher end option. If you have a little more money to spend, or if you really care about the music you’re playing in your restaurant, you might end up hiring someone like Doug or Megan to personally curate your soundtrack.

TWILLEY: Basically, Doug and Megan are like the Meyer Sound of playlists. They’re not just passive, they’re actively curating music to achieve certain outcomes.

MARSHALL: What we try and do is, we’re experience designers. So it’s about using music to manipulate human behavior in order to get results.

GRABER: They talk to restaurant owners to get a sense of the vibe they’re going for, then they’ll dig into their own music collection and look around at the world of music—they’re basically DJing dinner. And they need to come up with a lot of music.

PATTISON: Because if you had a six hour playlist and it would go through every song, you would hear that—you know, even though it’s randomized, every night. So I try to at least double or triple it to start. And then some clients we continue to beef it up and then we max out at maybe 40. So that means that, you know, in a couple of days, you might not hear the same song to avoid fatigue. And then, a lot of clients do monthly updates where I remove 20 percent of that, and then refresh it. So eventually, after a certain amount of time, you have a cycled-out, completely fresh tunes.

TWILLEY: Doug also says he updates his playlists by 20 percent every month for restaurants. And he actually measured the results of that playlist freshening process at a burrito restaurant called Freebirds in Texas.

MARSHALL: And we managed to increase staff retention. From just changing the music.

TWILLEY: Retention is actually a huge issue in restaurants.

MARSHALL: The hospitality industry right now is in a situation where it’s becoming really difficult to hire good staff and keep them.

GRABER: And so paying someone to help you cycle out your playlist might make economic sense.

TWILLEY: It’s not just about the staff experience though. Just like how the Meyer Sound system can allow you to build more of a buzz as the evening gets going, Doug and Megan both also create different playlists to match the customer vibe at different times of night.

PATTISON: So, when a restaurant first begins service at four or five PM, that’s going to be a different energy than say something that’s at six, seven, eight when it’s full swinging. And then we also have a moment where we’re kind of simmering down. So, we don’t play like a huge shuffle of, from open to close.

GRABER: Perfect, they choose just the right music, they change it up regularly so the staff doesn’t get burned out, they change it up for the time of night so the customers get just the right experience.

TWILLEY: Between the active acoustics and the active playlist curation, we truly have everything we need to create the perfect audio experience for eating. A-mazing. So, everyone should just call Pierre and Doug and Megan or their equivalent and do this, right?

GRABER: Well, as we’ve pointed out, it’s not a cheap thing to do well, and as we’ve also already discussed, the restaurant business operates at a really thin margin. They don’t have a lot of extra cash lying around. So, I mean, yeah, we’ve said it makes a difference, but really, how important is it?

WANG: I feel so weird saying what I’m about to say, but. I don’t think sound is that important in the grand scheme of things. And I, I feel really bad saying that because I’m a sound researcher. And I think this is perhaps why most restaurants don’t really care about acoustics, and they sound terrible. It’s because it’s not great, but people can live with it. And when it comes to eating, I think there is an attentional effect, where, when there’s a really great plate of food in front of you or a great glass of wine. Most of the time your attention will be diverted towards smell and taste, and perhaps the background noise will be less highlighted.

GRABER: That was pretty honest, does it mean we should skip all of this all together?

TWILLEY: I think it depends. Some people are good at tuning out things that are annoying, like the music or the loudness, and focusing on the food, like Janice says. I’m one of those people: if I’m eating something delicious, it really doesn’t matter what’s going on in the background.

GRABER: Whereas I get really distracted by loud sounds and really bad, annoying music. If that’s all going on, it’s going to make it a lot harder for me to concentrate on the delicious food on my plate.

TWILLEY: Plus there’s the issue of the people who have to work in these restaurants. And honestly, like Nate and Charlie said at the start of the show, noisy restaurants are just kind of hellish.

GRABER: And they’re not alone. Julia found that this is a very widespread feeling.

BELLUZ: I was surprised to find that both Zagat and Consumer Reports log noise is the chief complaint among diners. So it’s not the food. It’s not the service. It’s not the decor or whatever. It’s the noise. People find this really uncomfortable.

TWILLEY: Not to mention potentially dangerous to your hearing and health.

GRABER: And the basic fixes, the passive sound dampening acoustics like foam panels, they’re not *that* that expensive.

PATTISON: Truly, the sound treatment—how much it costs compared to what it does, it’s absolutely worth it.

GERMAIN: It’s not hard to treat a room and make it look good at the same time. And there’s, there’s just—there’s, yeah, there’s that stigma that to do one compromises the other. But, you know, it’s just, it’s just a matter of being—of the awareness. You know, spreading the awareness that, you know, sound is really important in a restaurant. It’s not, not just the food. It’s not just how it looks, but it’s, you know, you want people to have a pleasant overall experience. So yeah, it shouldn’t be a luxury. It should, it should be more of a standard.

GRABER: Doug does have some skin in the game, but he told us that both the acoustics and the music definitely matter.

MARSHALL: It makes a difference. And if you think it doesn’t, try playing some Slipknot in the restaurant for an hour and see what happens.


GRABER: Okay, not a great idea. Don’t do that.

TWILLEY: Even Janice, despite her doubts, she does think background sound matters—including at the level of deliciousness.

[00:25:10] WANG: While maybe it doesn’t matter so much for smell and taste. I think it could matter a lot for, for touch and texture.

GRABER: Like how crispy or crunchy or silky smooth something is. We reported on this before: food is sensed as crunchier when you can hear yourself crunch. So if you can’t hear the light, crispy sound of those tempura-battered vegetables as you bite into them, then you might not enjoy them as much.

TWILLEY: And, ultimately, even though there hasn’t been much good research on this topic, the studies that exist do show background sound does have some effect, even if it’s not the most critical element of the whole eating experience.

MARSHALL: Subconsciously, it’s changing the way that you’re behaving. You might not think it’s the most important, but it’s definitely up there.

GRABER: Megan says if people have a great meal and there’s great sound and great music, they may not exactly notice what it was that was so awesome—

PATTISON: So they might say, I just remember it being great. They, they don’t know why. And it’s, it’s because of the music was the finishing touch. It is the cherry on top.


TWILLEY: Thanks to all the folks at Switched on Pop for collaborating with us on this episode. We’ll drop a special extra bonus from them in your feeds next week all about restaurant jingles, featuring none other than Cynthia and me

GRABER: Thanks to all our guests this episode: Tom Sietsema, Julia Belluz, Pierre Germain, Janice Wang, Doug Marshall, and Megan Pattison. We have links to their articles, companies, research, and websites at

TWILLEY: And we have lots of fun extras for our supporters, including the future of restaurant audio— to get on that list. Thanks as always to Claudia, our producer. And we’ll be back in two weeks with a brand new episode.