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Why music is so much more powerful than you (may) think

Updated: Jun 24, 2022

Written by Philippa Day

Business Development Director, MBC

Philippa has visited 100's of luxury hotels over the years and has always been dismayed by some GM's attitude to their music policy. It is her hope to educate and help them understand the importance of the correct background music and how it should be an integral factor in their marketing strategies and brand development.

Published March 2020

“Music is the language of the spirit. It opens the secret of life bringing peace, abolishing strife.”

Kahlil Gibran

Music is so subjective and everyone, and I mean everyone has an opinion about music. Of all the senses, we respond quickest to sound. It is the sense that reaches the brain first and functions as an organiser for the rest of our senses. Whether we realise it or not, sound guides our choices in every single moment. It is a universal language that is so much part of our daily lives that trying to navigate peoples tastes and opinions is a minefield. Everyone likes music and everyone has an opinion of what is perceived to be ‘good taste’ or ‘bad taste’ in music. One of the best pieces of advice we can give, is you have to begin your playlists from an objective standpoint and over ride the desire to put all your personal favourites on the playlist. It is not about your personal taste but understanding your target audience and knowing what works best for them. You can always tell when the boss is out of the hotel and the bar staff have sneakily put on their own music! Perfectly chosen tracks and carefully crafted playlists can literally change the whole ambiance of a space and in doing so completely change the guest experience and perception of a place. “Music is powerful. As people listen to it, they can be affected. They respond.”

― Ray Charles Listening to music leaves a major impact on each one of us. It can boost your mood, reduce stress and improve your health and overall well-being. However the wrong type of music can create the opposite feeling and leave people feeling irritated, unrelaxed and wanting to run away from the noise! "Music is a language that doesn’t speak in particular words. It speaks in emotions.”

Keith Richards What type of music should I be playing? Many General Managers often ask what is the best type of music to play in each area of their hotel. Let’s take a look at two outlets of a hotel that typically always need music, the restaurant and gym.

Bespoke background music in a restaurant is of the upmost importance and so careful thought should be given to every playlist that is curated. Every restaurant is different so unfortunately there is not a 'one size fits all' approach. Apart from the food, music is the second most important aspect as silence generally makes people feel uncomfortable & intimidated especially if couples are on their first date. This will be a massive deterrent for some customers who will probably look elsewhere for something more inviting and cosy.

Many studies have indicated that ‘People often consume more food and beverages in the presence of background music ’. Music has a direct impact on customer behaviour.

Research has found that fast music increases the customer turnaround in restaurants, and slow music, increases the individual customer spend. This is because loud, fast music increases arousal, meaning customers tend to eat faster. Similarly, slow music makes customers drink slower, eat fewer bites per minute and make them more likely to order that extra glass of wine or desert.

There is a very interesting physiological reason for this. Appetite is in part a function of the parasympathetic nervous system so loud, fast music activates the sympathetic nervous system (the ‘fight-or-flight' response), which opposes the parasympathetic system and thereby diminishes appetite. So in most restaurant settings, apart from fast-food joints, we would recommend playing discreet soft music with a slower tempo. Apparently listening to music while eating can enhance the dining experience and make the food taste better. But which genre of music has the most dramatic affect on your tastebuds effect? Researchers from the University of Arkansas discovered that Jazz, can affect how good something tastes, and in turn may impact how much you eat. They played four types of music – classical, jazz, hip hop and rock – while people were eating. Participants found that food was more satisfying when jazz music was played and less so when hip hop was playing in the background. Interestingly according to research from the Crossmodal Research Laboratory at the University of Oxford, people associate higher notes, flutes, and tinkling piano with sweetness; and deeper, more resonant notes with bitterness.* If the atmosphere in your restaurant makes guests feel more relaxed they are more likely to linger and spend more money.

Diners really do pay attention to the music while they are eating, as New York Times Journalist Ben Ratliff explains:"If I’m going to spend decent money on a meal, I don’t want the reservation-taker, the dishwasher or someone from the back office to be cooking it; I want someone who is very good at cooking food to do it. The same should apply to the music, which after all will be playing before, during and after the eating. I would prefer that music not seem an afterthought, or the result of algorithmic computation”

The article then explains how renowned Japanese composer Ryu Takahashi decided to curator his own playlists for his favourite Manhattan restaurant Kokage.

He said, "Let me do it. Because your food is as good as the beauty of Katsura Rikyu.” (He meant the thousand-year-old palatial villa in Kyoto, built to some degree on the aesthetic principles of imperfections and natural circumstances known as wabi-sabi.) “But the music in your restaurant is like Trump Tower.” New research suggests that the volume of music played in a restaurant also has a systemic effect on the type of food you order. If you find yourself opting for a cheeseburger and fries instead of a salad, your desire for greasy food might not be the only thing to blame. As such, softer music has a calming effect and makes you more mindful of what your order, while louder environments increase stimulation and stress, inspiring diners to reach for unhealthier options.*

They also discovered that louder music lowered appetites and customers weren’t able to perceive taste as well, meaning your customers might order less or enjoy their food less, reducing the likelihood that they will return in the near future. The National Restaurant Association (USA) said customers increased the average ticket size of their bill by 23% while listening to slower music. This is attributed to customers buying more drinks and other add-ons (like dessert and coffee) that typically have high-profit margins for restaurants.

Restaurateurs need to be aware that the perceived volume of the music varies according to the number of customers and amount of background noise in the restaurant, and that both can change significantly in the course of an evening. With only few diners to absorb the music it seems louder, and so the volume will need to be turned down and conversely the more customers the louder the volume of the music.

So the key elements to remember when creating the perfect restaurant playlist is to play soft slow music at the right volume and make sure the manager is able to change the volume throughout the evening to complement the number of guests dining. If your customers enjoy the food and enjoy the whole dining experience which means feeling comfortable and able to have engaging conversations whilst dining you will have repeat custom. If the music is wrong or too loud the chances are you will not see those customers again.

Music has many benefits for those doing exercise as it creates a motivational atmosphere. The right music can help people get through gruelling workouts, distracting people from the physical effort being put in, reducing the feeling of fatigue, allowing them to train harder for longer. High tempo music increases the heart rate which helps prepare the body for exercise, and the rhythms of music help with motor coordination helping people move more fluidly and reduce the chance of injury. The biggest benefit of all though is, it makes working out more enjoyable.

We would always recommend playing high tempo music with 120-140 bmp. High energy dance music is always a good choice and will get people into the zone. Don’t be tempted to play a radio as the presenters and advertising will distract the exerciser and it also sounds cheesy and cheap. We recommend curating different playlists for all the public spaces of your hotel. 75% of hotel guests like to hear music in the lobbies, bars, restaurants and public spaces*.

Due to the nature of a hotel a single playlist throughout the hotel doesn’t work. Over the past two decades the consumer has become more sophisticated and aware of the aural affect music has on a space and is no longer prepared to put up with “thoughtless music” so it is absolutely imperative that careful consideration is put into all the playlists of the hotel and how they change throughout the day. Music that keeps guests in the bar at night usually has higher beats per minute, but will annoy breakfast dinners who may have just woken up. This is a mistake that hotels make more often than you might think. It usually occurs when the hotels owners/managers do not fully understand the importance music has to the hotel and/or allow their staff to manage the music, which results in the staff playing music they like rather than music that fits the brand identity of the hotel. 69% of customers feel hotel music is an important factor in creating the hotel's atmosphere* When creating a playlist you have to understand the hotel brand, it’s location, guests demographic, etc. in order to create an atmosphere where guests feel relaxed and can’t help but enjoy themselves.

It’s important that your hotel plays the right music for the time of day to ensure guests are kept happy.

For example play music genres such as classical, modern instrumental, nu jazz and so on, which have a lower beats per minute, during breakfast. It’s also important that you’re playing the right music in specific areas of your hotel, as we demonstrated earlier with the restaurant and gym sections.

For example throughout the lobby vocals should be kept to a minimum, as they can be distracting and make it more difficult to speak to staff. They are always busy and hectic with lots of activity so bearing this in mind it is important to have relaxing mellow music. We always recommend not using vocals ( or keeping them to a bare minimum) as it adds another layer of activity to the atmosphere. The preferred type of lobby music is something that has a slower bmp be it chill out classical music or ambient minimal beats whatever genre you feel works best of your hotel keeping vocals to a strict minimum.

So now you know what genres of music work best in which areas let’s look at some important pointers that will help you create the perfect signature sound track for your brand: When creating a playlist it is important to leave enough time to source, locate and compile all the tracks that you will need for the playlists.

Make sure you know what type of atmosphere and ambiance you want to create before starting the playlist. Think of your music as a soundscape that is going to tell a story. You need to take into consideration the clientele, time of day and ambience required. Always make sure the music complements the decor, style and architecture of the property. But most importantly make sure you understand your clientele and chose the music accordingly. Another really good point to bear in mind is the geographical location of the hotel. Many hoteliers make the mistake of using homogenised music that is used in lots of 5 star hotels. For example this Summer the same compilation CD’s were being played all over the Europe. The favourite was a compilation of cover versions being sang in bland poppy female vocals. Whilst the music was nice it did nothing to add to the space and create a unique brand identity.

So we suggest checking out local and regional music styles in order to reinforce the geographical location of the hotel and give the guests a more authentic experience. For example if you are based in an Arabic country research what the local music is and make sure you have at least a couple of playlists with these tracks included in them. We have a hotel based in Utah and we use Native-American Indian music that is mainly based on the flute, pipe, percussion and chanting. It is also important to understand the difference between real music and production music and try and always use real artists wherever possible. Production music is copyright free so you do not have to buy a license to play it as it is made by unknown musicians who are trying to replicate sounds and genres from established and known musicians. They are paid by the length of music they deliver and it is usually what we refer to as Muzak or lift music. When this music is incorporated into playlists it has the unfortunate affect of cheapening the sound track which will reflect poorly on your brand especially if you are a 5 star establishment. You must also consider the time of day and how busy a venue is. It’s a very good idea to be able to switch playlists if your bar suddenly becomes busy on a Monday evening so having a flexible solution is a must. The volume is one of the most important factors and should be carefully monitored. In fact the last thing you want is your customers struggling to hear themselves, or more importantly, your staff. If your music is too loud, it can not only cause annoyance, but also force people to walk out. Alternatively if its too soft and you can’t hear it properly at all this can be equally annoying. It can therefore also be beneficial to change the volumes depending on the time of day in order to respect different footfalls throughout the day for maximum effect. Louder volumes, like playing nothing at all, effects people’s time perception as the average time a customer spends in your business shortened, in comparison to increased dwell time with quieter music.

One other point to bear in mind is that not all spaces actually require music and abstaining from music can actually be extremely refreshing. For example if your restaurant is set outside in a beautiful natural environment and the sounds of nature are quite prominent then birdsong is the perfect sound track, the same if your breakfast room is set on the beach nothing can beat the sound of waves crashing against the sand. Please always bear in mind that nature produces the best most soothing music and its free of charge!

It is also incredibly romantic to allow nature’s sound tack to take centre stage. So never be afraid of having no music playing at all in natural settings as in certain scenarios silence is golden.

Some people are extremely passionate about music and can’t live without it whilst others are happy to let any old pop songs wash over them. Because of this the majority of people assume creating playlists is an easy job and not a true profession. I mean how hard can it be right? Surely it can’t be that hard to make playlists, why waste our money on a professional company? Everyone has a Spotify account these days and make multiple playlists to suit their moods and different activities. However programming music for your personal playlists and taste is a totally different ball game to programming music for public spaces and people you don’t know personally. Most people have a pretty in-depth knowledge of their own favourite genre of music and could probably put together quite a decent playlist in that chosen genre. However it is a rare bird indeed that has incredibly deep knowledge of all the classical genres from Baroque to avant-garde, all genres of Jazz from swing to Nu jazz, all the electronic genres from deep house to minimal ethnic, (not many people know there are at least 45 sub categories in the genre) and all pop music throughout the decades.

So try and learn something about the genres you would like to use and try and think outside the box so you create an original playlist. Use interesting album tracks not only the hits that everyone knows. It’s good to catalogue all your tracks in an organised way so you can immediately find what your are looking for. Also it’s extremely important to make sure you change the playlists regularly otherwise the clients and especially the staff will feel like its ground hog day everyday!

If you or a member of your staff cannot put the time and effort into creating the playlists and are unable to update them on a regular basis, with so much at stake it really is important to consider handing over the business to a professional company. Not only will you have peace of mind at all times knowing that the correct music is playing at the right time in the right space but you will also save yourself valuable time, money and energy and create many magical moments for your guests.


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