Loud Music in Restaurants

Dear Helena,
I was at a restaurant the other night and asked the server to turn the music down. She seemed irritated. She launched into a long speech about how the owners like the music loud to create "ambiance." In the end she did turn it down a notch (or so she claimed, I couldn't really tell the difference). She acted like she'd done us a huge favor. Were we rude to make this request?
—Ringing Ears

Dear Ringing Ears,
As well as drowning out conversation, overly loud music can make you feel like you're being manipulated. You've probably heard that loud music makes people eat faster and drink more. A recent UK study found that loud music can actually make alcohol taste sweeter.

But annoying as the volume may be to you, it's likely that the restaurateur has carefully considered what music to play and how loud to play it. Some restaurants purchase programs from companies like Muzak or Audiostiles, but others craft playlists that are the musical equivalent of house-made charcuterie or pickles. Some restaurants even tailor their playlists to the time of day or day of the week. Colin Camac, service director for New York's Fatty Crab (which has three locations), says the restaurants tend to have four playlists: "Early Evening, Mid–Dinner Rush, Late-Night, and Saturday-Crazy." If the room seems to lack ambiance, staff might switch between playlists, trying to find the right tune for the moment. So asking a server to change the music in any way is tantamount to asking her to bring you a different menu or get rid of the unisex bathroom: The music is part of the whole restaurant package, and if you don't like it, you should probably turn around as soon as you walk in the door.

But you can always ask for the music to be turned down. It's not a rude request, and if it's a slow night your wish may even be granted. But be prepared for the answer to be no. Fatty Crab's Upper West Side location is known for being particularly noisy, yet Camac says he would simply tell the diner: "I'm really sorry, but people come here for this type of experience."

It Might Not Be the Music
It's worth noting that if you're having trouble hearing your companions, the volume of the music might not be the problem. Echoes may be the real cause of your irritation, and there's not much the server can do about them, since they are essentially caused by the décor. Soft surfaces of course absorb sound, but when there are multiple hard surfaces, a single sound can bounce off one surface after another, causing multiple echoes. Unfortunately, hard surfaces have been in vogue for the last decade or so. Kellen Beaver, a sales consultant at soundproofing company SoundproofCow.com, explains: "For about 10 years, it's been concrete slabs instead of hardwood tables, tile floors instead of wooden ones."

Echoes compromise conversation even more than high volume. Why? According to Anthony Grimani, president of PMI, an acoustical firm, the part of the brain that distinguishes between sounds and echoes developed in prehistory. We evolved with this skill in order to defend ourselves from predators. "Imagine if a predator is after you, sound is bouncing off the cave walls, and you have to figure out exactly where it is," says Grimani.

When we hear a loud sound, our brains identify it ("loud electronica," for example) and then can choose to ignore it. But according to Grimani, we can't switch off the "ancient ear-brain system" that sorts out sounds and echoes. So if echoes are the source of your auditory discomfort, turning the music down won't help as much as you think. Next time you go out to dinner, consider picking a place with carpeted floors, even if it has loud music. The place with exposed-brick walls and poured-concrete tabletops might look good, but you'll have to work twice as hard at conversation.

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