Figuring out what music license your venue needs and what your dayparting strategy will be are just the tip of the iceberg in the world of background music. While it seems like it should be as easy as pressing play, as an executive decision maker, owner, or manager, there are a lot of factors you need to pay attention to regarding background music in restaurants and bars.
This article focuses on how music volume can positively impact your guest experience when done right, and how it can negatively affect your employees and business when done wrong.
The stats and the facts
According to the World Health Organization, noise can be a serious occupational health threat. Believe it or not, Noise-Induced Hearing Loss (NIHL) is considered the best characterized health outcome for occupational noise.
“The first effects of exposure to excess noise are typically an increase in the threshold of hearing (threshold shift), as assessed by audiometry. This is defined as a change in hearing thresholds of an average 10 dB [decibels] or more at 2000, 3000, and 4000 Hz [Hertz] in either ear (poorer hearing). NIHL is measured by comparing the threshold of hearing at a specified frequency with a specified standard of normal hearing and is reported in units of decibel hearing loss (dBHL).”
In other words, if your workers are subjected to loud sound levels daily, they are susceptible to NIHL. Not only are their communication abilities at work compromised, they also have a “decreased ability to monitor the work environment.”
This means they could miss warning signals (“Behind you!” “Hot food!”) or equipment sounds (“Ding! Food’s up!”) and misjudge the volume level of the background music at your restaurant. This obviously puts them at risk of injury, and it can impair the quality of service they usually deliver. This ultimately affects the ideal guest experience you’ve designed.
The risks and the responses
While the safety of your staff is top priority, there’s another very important reason to monitor the sound levels of your restaurant. Take a quick look at these reviews from real guests at real restaurants:
On top of risking a Yelp review that’s louder than your music, your restaurant could get written up on the app SoundPrint. Version 2.0 of the decibel-measuring app was released April 2019, and it lets users measure the decibel levels of their surroundings and publish them for everyone to read—and search for destinations that are more guest-friendly.
Shockingly, Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (the CDC) reports that 15% of Americans (that’s nearly 40 million!) over the age of 18 have reported that they have some trouble hearing. Greg Scott, the developer of the SoundPrint app, told Vox, “Overall, restaurants are too noisy for conversation in general, and a significant number endanger the hearing health of patrons. Bars are even worse. The average sound level for bars is very loud [over 80 dB]. It’s dangerous.”
The National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH) has stated that the Recommended Exposure Limit (REL) for occupational noise exposure is 85 dB—anything above is considered harmful. According to Michigan Medicine, normal conversation and background music usually falls in the 60-dB range, and Restaurant Engine reports that “a typical restaurant operates at 80 dB, but some restaurants are known to reach 110 dB — the levels of jackhammer noise!”
So, if your base level is at 80 dB, that means you’re forcing your patrons to communicate (yell, really) over 20–30 dB higher than their natural speaking voice just to be heard. This raises the base decibel level above the REL and is hazardous to employees and patrons.
The benefits and the backlash
While there are some financial benefits to creating an atmosphere that discourages people from talking with one another, the psychology behind why people drink more in loud environments is completely contradictory to providing a stellar guest experience. People generally come to your restaurant or your bar to socialize, not to damage their ear drums and vocal cords with a drink in hand.
Don’t believe me? The Zagat conducted a survey on frequent diners across America, and 24% declared that noise was their number one complaint, outranking service (23%), crowds (15%), high prices (12%), and parking (10%). And when noise has the potential to negatively impact their health, it’s no wonder apps like SoundPrint pop up to combat this troubling trend.
U.K. charity Action on Hearing Loss found that 43% of potential diners opt to get takeout instead of going to the restaurant for their meal. 91% declared they would never return to a place that was too noisy.
Chief Executive Paul Breckell says, “Everyone loves going out for a meal but with an increasing variety of takeaway options and the intrusive background noise levels exacerbated by fashionable hard surfaces, it’s no wonder customers are opting to stay in. It’s entirely reasonable for customers to expect to hear companions sat opposite them.”
The charity also encourages diners to use a free decibel app to measure the levels at restaurants and leave reviews so other prospective customers can determine if they want to brave the chaos. “We have contacted the top names in the industry offering our advice on the ways of getting noise levels down,” Breckell continued, “but despite overwhelming evidence that noisy venues are increasingly becoming a customer turn-off, there still seems to be a lack of interest, so I would urge customers to make themselves heard.”
The music and the emotions
Let’s be clear—the war against dangerous decibels is not a war against music. People love music, and the scientific and strategic reasons to play music at your restaurant are plentiful. Background music can add to the ambiance and tone you set, and from a neurological perspective, all four lobes of our brains fire up when we hear music, meaning music isn’t just “background noise.”
Music has the power to reduce stress, pain, and symptoms of depression. Kiminobu Sugaya is a neuroscientist at the University of Central Florida who teaches a class on how our brains respond to music. He likens music to an addictive drug: “Music increases dopamine in the nucleus accumbens, similar to cocaine.” Different types of music can produce different physiological responses in people based on their taste. For instance, listening to Mozart can reduce blood pressure for some people.
While Sugaya could explain the various neurological responses different people have to music, that goes far beyond what the typical restaurateur needs to know to get that magic mix for background music. There are studies on how beats per minute (BPM) can influence emotions, but not every song with a high BPM translates into high energy.
The energy and the volume
Control Play creates software that provides music and music video playlists for restaurants and bars. Our team of Mixologists add new music to the database every day, and each song is given a song and video rating, the BPM is registered, and a host of meta-data (like genre) is attached so the song can be sent to different dynamic signature playlists.
But the crowning feature of Control Play isn’t that we have more meta-data points than any other music provider—it’s that our Mixologists assign each song an Energy Level between 1–5, and our software can be programmed to select music that falls in the same Energy Level or gradually scale between levels for a smooth shift in mood.
They program different playlists to respond to different dayparts your restaurant has (lunch, happy hour, dinner, ladies’ night, etc). And the cherry on top? You can control different volume settings automatically.
Do you have a lot of people coming in at lunchtime for business meetings? Our team can automatically set the volume at a level that’s comfortable for patrons to talk shop. Want a little more oomph to encourage guests to order one more drink? We can schedule all the newest hits to play at a higher volume come happy hour.
You still have master control of the overall volume on your sound system, so you can make adjustments here and there, but changing the volume to fit different dayparts is one responsibility that you and your staff shouldn’t have to worry about. You all have enough on your plates! Let us manage everything relating to music, video, and digital signage, and you can stay focused on more important things, like the 4 C’s of the ultimate guest experience.
The sounds and the solutions
So, what can your restaurant do to improve its decibel levels? Aside from monitoring and adjusting the volume of your music, there are several ways you can combat the noise.
Sound bounces off hard surfaces like tile or hardwood, so consider adding carpets or rugs. Similarly, soft furniture like chairs with cushions or upholstered booths absorb noise better than solid wood or metal furnishings. If you already have these, sometimes simply rearranging the placement of these assets can help tame the acoustics.
If any of the above suggestions would interfere with the aesthetic you’ve created, consider a sound-absorbing ceiling. Unless your ceiling is one of the architectural features your restaurant is known for, installing soft tiles up there is an unobtrusive and effective way to cut down on the noise.
Another strategy that’s a bit more stylistic is hanging up acoustical foam panels and covering them with canvas paintings, fabric curtains, or artistic wall tapestries. This will add a splash of personality while simultaneously acting as sound sponges. Alternatively, there are paintable acoustic wall panels that local artists or designers would be more than happy to exhibit their talent on if you ask!
The boldest and the best
SoundPrint’s Greg Scott and Action on Hearing Loss’s Paul Breckell have both faced indifference and frustration in their war on noisy restaurants. But they’re not two outliers, they’re two generals leading armies in America and the UK that have the wellbeing of your guests in mind.
At Control Play, we’re constantly asking our subscribers what we can do better to serve them and their guests. Most of our software updates and upgrades exist simply because someone was kind enough to provide us with honest feedback.
You can seek out similar honesty from your guests! The best way to gauge if your efforts are having an impact is to reach out to your diners.
Some people are too polite to say anything to your face, especially when you’re considerate enough to express how much you value their input. If you don’t already provide comment cards with the bill, that’s a great way for guests to tell you about their experience without the potential bias of not wanting to offend the staff. Include questions about the music and the noise level, and what time of day they visited—this helps you figure out if and when you need to turn it up or down.
If you’re a Control Play subscriber and would like to set the volume to automatically adjust itself for different dayparts, follow the “Simple Scheduling” tutorial in our resource library. Just select the time of day you’d like to edit under the “Volume” column.
Chris McEwin, one of our Playlist Creators, says, “Generally, if people want to do it themselves, we suggest starting lower for open/lunch, bump it up at Happy Hour, back down for dinner (though not as low as lunch), and then higher volume for late night.”
Alternatively, since you have access to Chris and our entire Playlist team, you can simply shoot off an email to email@example.com, ask someone via the chat feature on our website, or call us at 1-866-684-8324 ext. 1.
If you haven’t signed up for Control Play yet, you can request a live demonstration by clicking the button below.