Music to Eat By

Vintage radio
Vintage radio Courtesy of Flickr user Fernando Candeias

Scientists say that the sense of smell has at least as much to do with enjoyment of food as taste buds do. Texture and appearance are nearly as important. But what about the remaining sense—hearing? Where does it fit into the equation?

Most restaurants use music to set a mood. And the results of a recent study published in the Journal of Culinary Science and Hospitality suggest that music and noise level can affect people’s enjoyment of what they eat. According to the abstract (the full article is available online to subscribers, but a blog written by a former doctor gives a good run-down), soft classical music increased diners’ satisfaction, while loud music and silence both had a negative impact.

The researchers didn’t experiment with different styles of music, but it would be my guess that classical isn’t the only genre that can color people’s eating experience. Cheesy though it may be, I like it when a restaurant plays tunes that fit with the ethnicity or style of the food I’m eating—a little bluegrass with BBQ, some sitar with tikka masala, opera with orecchiette, 1980s arena rock with hot wings (just kidding about that last one). I can’t even hear mariachi or ranchera without getting hungry for tamales.

Other research has looked at the effect of music on how much and how quickly people eat. One study, published in the journal Appetite in 2006, found that listening to music increased the amount of food eaten and the duration of meals, but that the speed and volume of the music didn’t have a significant effect. Other studies have found a correlation between music speed and rate of eating, which seems to make sense. I know that up-tempo music has a huge impact on how hard I can work out (I highly recommend “Wolf Like Me” by TV on the Radio or “Running Free” by Iron Maiden), so it sounds plausible it could also cause other activities, including eating, to speed up.

And, although I confess that the most frequent musical accompaniment to weeknight dinners in my household is the Jeopardy! theme song, on evenings when I have time for more leisurely cooking and eating, a little mood music can be just the thing. Nothing too overbearing—no Iron Maiden here. Maybe a little Edith Piaf to give some vintage French ambiance (plus, Non, Je Ne Regrette Rien is an inspirational sentiment to remember when kitchen experimentation has gone awry). Movie scores can also make for good meal soundtracks. Jon Brion’s for Punch-Drunk Love is a good one.

Or you can go truly thematic and match the lyrics to the menu. A friend once guest-D.J.ed on a local radio show and played two hours of songs about chicken. Or how about a cheeseburger in paradise? Do you like pina coladas?

What kind of music enhances your cooking and dining pleasure?

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