George Prochnik's recent piece in The Daily Beast explores the science behind restaurants' loud music, booming echos, and clattering tables--or as I like to call those things, "Why I'm still hoarse after a night out despite the fact that I don't smoke anymore."
As it turns out, there are several factors at play:
1) Loud restaurants draw people in. Restaurateurs have found that louder restaurants are perceived as lively and successful. Very few people want to socialize in a silent room. If you're going out to drinks and dinner (and you are not a monk), you want to go somewhere fun, somewhere with energy. And nothing says "fun" like a pounding bass line. Loud spaces are more attractive to customers.
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2) Modern design trends amplify the noise. Think unfinished spaces and naked tables. As Prochnik writes "...we chow down in spaces evocative of an Industrial Revolution sweatshop, or a family-run slaughterhouse. Somewhere along the way, we began thinking of tablecloths, carpets, and soft ceilings as signs of weakness." Without any textiles on the tables or floors, sound is unabsorbed and free to bounce around the space and directly into our ears.
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3) Loud music makes us "drunk." There's scientific proof that the louder and faster the music, the faster (and often more) people eat and drink. In the past, corporate restaurant chains have even developed soundtracks that switch to higher tempo music at a louder volume when they want to turn tables.
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At first I thought patrons might just be chowing down faster in an attempt to flee a restaurant before their ears start to ache. I had some personal experience with this last week in Los Angeles at the poured concrete-floored burger restaurant, The Counter. While munching on sweet potato fries, I was bombarded by a playlist that would have been right at home at a fraternity formal, both in song choice and volume. My dining companions and I ate quickly, if only to escape "Jessie's Girl" at 88 decibels.
But research shows that some people might be eating more and faster because they're enjoying the stimulus. "Sound waves literally energize us," writes Prochnik. When we are surrounded by sound, our brain chemistry changes and other senses are measurably enhanced.
So, all that noise, some of it ambient, some of it piped in, is having a real effect on our happy hours, making us eat and drink more and faster. I know that the next time I'm thinking about shouting my order for a second margarita ("ROCKS WITH SALT") and another round of chips, I might stop and ask myself, "Do I really want that or is this just an incredible remix of Umbrella?"
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