Is there a perfect tempo for restaurant soundtracks?

Gif: Allison Corr
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Given the music-analysis technology and streaming services at our fingertips, theoretically, a person should be able to determine the ideal beats per minute or tempo for any restaurant meal. Is seems it should be possible to quantify the exact snappiness of a lazy Sunday brunch versus an upbeat Tuesday happy hour versus a snazzy Friday dinner service. There should be a precise BPM that speaks “Saturday dinner.”

Despite having no STEM knowledge beyond high school statistics, I embarked on a loosely empirical analysis to test the relationship between restaurants’ music and meal times. I found publicly available restaurant playlists by soliciting friends, tapping into service industry sources, and using the fail-safe Google search term “restaurant playlists.” Most publicly available playlists came from chains, trendy cafés, or Michelin-starred restaurants. (Public-facing playlists from independent, family-owned, and especially immigrant-run restaurants were admittedly difficult to find; feel free to send some over if you know of any.)

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After compiling data set, I used Spotify’s nifty Sort Your Music tool that measures variables of a song from energy to danceability to acoustic-ness. Then, I averaged the BPMs across all songs. Below is a selection of the findings:

I found little evidence of a pattern. My hypothesis that there is a magic restaurant BPM tempo? Debunked.

However, like other failed hypotheses, this still delivered valuable findings. The majority of the playlists fell in the 115-120 BPM range, regardless of service. A 5-point BPM range seems relatively minute, considering reggae averages slightly below 100 BPM, and electrohouse errs towards 130 BPM. Neither would feel entirely out of context as you slurp a bowl of ramen.

The scourge of musical monotony

So is 115-120 BPM an ideal range? Perhaps—unless it all begins to feel too much the same. Food publications are penning articles lamenting “the unbearable sameness” of restaurant playlists. Eater restaurant editor Hillary Dixler Canavan put together the unequivocally brilliant and viral Spotify playlist, “Every Restaurant Playlist”, that parodies the generic, ubiquitous music she hears “while eating a $27 head of cauliflower.”

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Turn on the playlist, and you are hopelessly trapped in that-one-new-place-on-that-hip-street that has an ampersand in its name and serves “classic food with a modern twist” in dim lighting on hard stools. Noun & Noun serves exclusively fried cruciferous vegetables, classic cocktails reimagined as slushies, and $10 PBRs labelled as cheap alternatives to the aforementioned slushies. Most jarringly, every table is blasted with radio-friendly indie pop from 10 years ago—your MGMTs, your LCD Soundsystems, your Yelles.

If you’re curious, Canavan’s satirical playlist clocks in around 120 BPM.

The 120 BPM cap is not an uncommon standard. A human heart naturally rests at 60 BPM, and creates a complementary rhythm to 120 BPM; people also typically snap, applaud, or tap at 120 BPM. 120 BPM is typical of a band march, or a military march. As Blake Madden, a Seattle musician, writes: “120 BPM is our safe place, and the further we get from it tempo-wise, the more volatile we become.”

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In a restaurant setting, guests want music to mirror their biological rhythms so they feel more comfortable. Upsetting that status quo can affect a guest’s behavior: A slower tempo will increase individual sales, causing guests to spend, linger, drink, and order dessert more. Alternatively, a faster tempo can cause guests to eat faster, thus turning over tables more quickly.

Hey, remember this song?

Besides tempo, nostalgia is also often cited as a restaurant playlist’s goal. Chicago-based DJ Matt Roan tells me: “I think that Y2K era of music … is just so big because a lot of it was our last shared experiences with pop music, right? Now, everything is so splintered and everyone has their own Spotify playlist and listen to exactly what they want all day, everyday, and there’s not a lot of modern music that brings people together like that.”

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So, in 20 years, will we still be listening to Vampire Weekend? Who knows. Yes, there is still a shared musical experience in 2019, but perhaps not as extensive as it was in 2009. (Not that I’d mind listening to Lizzo or Maggie Rogers or BTS in 10 years with some eggs Benedict, of course.) But indeed there exists the undeniable decline of AM/FM radio, and a movement towards more individual, self-selected and curated audio inputs.

Danny Turner, Mood Media’s global senior vice president of creative programming, says the generic playlists at hip restaurants are disappointing because they show restaurants are just checking a box when it comes to the music, rather than putting in the same level of care they do to other details.

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“So many gastro-preneurs—I just made that up—are paying so much heightened attention to all aspects and touchpoints of their experience: the flatware, the lighting, the textures, the menu… but then we always invite Billy Joel to dinner. [Do music curators] have a responsibility to show people music that’s different? The good ones do.”

Charlie Reyes, founder of Audio Culture LLC, echoed this sentiment, telling me, “My biggest surprise [in this position] has been the disparity between the attention to detail that a lot of businesses claim to have ... but drop the ball on something like music.”

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How restaurants can do better

There are additional guidelines to inform a dining atmosphere other than BPM, and pitfalls to avoid.

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Matt Roan mentions “ear fatigue,” a phenomenon when a DJ becomes so accustomed to the volume that they keep turning the volume up and up, perhaps to the chagrin of guests. Charlie Reyes wants music curators to be mindful of the balance between music, acoustics, and dining room energy.

Ultimately, there is consensus that if a restaurant is trying to maintain artistic integrity through food, beverage, and decor, then that same attention should be applied to music. A restaurant shouldn’t automatically play to the lowest common denominator of what’s pleasant, falling back on low-hanging nostalgic fruit—unless that’s explicitly what a restaurant is trying to do.

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“There’s a billion songs, right? I think that people that care enough to dig a little bit deeper could find a million records that are just as good without feeling like you’re playing the same note over and over and over again,” Roan says. “There’s no reason to not at least try to make the listening a little more interesting.”

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