Music is the ultimate mood setter. Faster beats gets us pumped up to work out. A slower rhythm can set a romantic mood or help one unwind at the end of a long day.
Music can also influence the kinds of food we crave.
A study co-authored by a University of South Florida professor and published recently in the Journal of Academy of Marketing Sciences found that the volume of ambient music at restaurants and grocery stores has a "systematic effect" on consumers’ preferences for specific kinds of food.
It’s the volume of the music, which directly impacts heart rate and arousal, that influences our decisions to choose something healthy to eat or not, the study said. For example, louder environments increase stimulation and stress, which inspires diners at a busy restaurant to crave a greasy cheeseburger and fries over a salad.
"People tend to get more excited when the music is louder," said Dipayan Biswas, a marketing professor at USF’s Muma College of Business who is a researcher on the study. He said that the findings can help restaurant owners and staff strategically manipulate music volume to influence sales.
"So when you’re excited, you’re more likely to order a more exciting meal, which likely has more calories. For example, fried chicken is more exciting than baked chicken."
Biswas conducted the study at a cafe in Stockholm, Sweden, which played various genres of music in a loop at different volume levels, 55 decibels and 70 decibels. The menu items at the cafe were ranked as healthy and non-healthy. Beverages like coffee and tea were considered neutral.
During the experiment, which lasted several hours over several days, researchers found that 20 percent more restaurant patrons ordered something unhealthy when exposed to louder ambient music compared to those who dined during a quieter time.
The study also examined the sales data of a supermarket in Sweden when various genres of music were played at different volumes, Biswas said.
The results of the study were what Biswas said he expected to find, but the data has practical implications for food service companies. For example, a brand like McDonald’s might be better off playing music at louder volumes to encourage sales, he said, while a healthier brand, like some of the new independent eateries popping up in Tampa’s hip neighborhoods, might benefit from lower volumes.
"There are a lot of restaurants that are already paying for a service that has done the research on music," said Darren Tristano, the CEO of CHD-Expert America, a Chicago-based food industry research firm. "Music is clearly built into the atmosphere and the experience of the restaurant, and while I think it will influence the experience slightly, it is very subliminal."
Tristano said there are companies that have studied the way music influences consumer preferences, and restaurants pay them to come up with specific play lists for their atmosphere.
"You’re not going to be playing heavy metal music during a romantic meal," Tristano said. "But if you think music can positively influence you, you have to think that music can negatively influence you as well. More relaxing, soothing, familiar music seems to be the best choice, when taking into account the level of noise already, for conversation and the atmosphere."
The Tampa Bay Times reached out to grocery store chains Publix and Winn-Dixie, and also Tampa-based Bloomin’ Brands, which owns restaurant chains Outback Steakhouse and Bonefish Grill, among others. None responded to requests for comment.
But Tristano was skeptical that music could influence what a consumer will choose to eat.
"I’ve heard that certain music can encourage consumers to buy more, but to say that somebody will eat less or more healthy when you’re hungry, it’s hard to imagine that music can influence that."
Researchers have studied other ambience features, like lightning, scent and decor, and their impact on food sales in restaurants and grocery stores. But, according to USF, this is the first study to specifically target how volume dictates healthy versus non-healthy food choices.
Contact Justine Griffin at [email protected] or (727) 893-8467. Follow @SunBizGriffin.