background music in cafes

I was thinking about background music in stores this week as I made my way in to work, and after tweeting about it, found that I’m not the only one who is curious, so I thought I’d put together a little more information on the subject.

When I first walk into a new cafe, part of the experience that I’m trying to take in is the background music. In some places, it’s so quiet as to be unnoticeable. In others, it is noteworthy, but adds to the overall mood of the venue: the cafe has a sense of life to it. It doesn’t have to be “fast and loud” (though thanks for the suggestion ishan) but too slow tends to make a venue seem less likely to provide a valuable caffeine hit (ah, the days when I used to drink caffeinated coffee).

I’m going to leave to one side the idea of having live music in a cafe (sorry @schel): while this could be possible for short stints, or very select groups of cafes, most are going to have a turntable, CD-player or iPod hooked up to a speaker system to provide their background music.

This is a combination of my own experience and some quick searches to see what has been written. Trying to choose background music for a cafe is different to other retail segments: in many retail environments, the longer you keep customers in your store, the more likely they are to buy.

With a cafe, you want customers to feel welcome and comfortable, but then you want them to leave – and come back another day. A customer who stays all day is one who ends up costing you the business of the next customer who should have been in that seat. Perhaps most relevant to choosing background music for a cafe is this:

“If you want to speed up customer turnaround, the easiest way is to play music that changes in tempo, that sounds very busy, that includes a lot of brass instruments.” – Alex Petridis, Guardian, 2002

More high-brow research was conducted in 1999 – The Effects of Background Music on Consumer Responses in a High-end Supermarket; you would have to buy the report to read it, but it appears to have been summarised by this in-store music company website as a sales piece. In a retail environment, slower music (and keeping the tempo consistent) is better: customers become more contemplative, spend more time in the store, and buy more.

A commenter on a blog post from 2004 about background music says

The main purpose of background music in a restaurant is to create privacy for guests. If it’s at the right volume, you can still talk over it comfortably but don’t feel like you’re sharing your conversation with guests at adjacent tables.

While the background music is useful in setting the tone of a cafe as you first walk in, for those who are staying longer, it provides a point of contrast and distraction from the conversations of those around them. Having the volume of the music exactly right is important here. Too loud, and people begin shouting: too soft, and it provides no value to your cafe.

I would say that the best approach for cafe background music is to choose tracks that are to the taste of your target demographic, but to vary the tempo and instrumentation enough that people don’t get too settled in the cafe and feel compelled to stay there all day. If you have people from different demographics at different times of day, then you might like to have separate play-lists for each demographic, and change it over as appropriate. For volume, you’ll want something that is competing with the noise of the cafe (grinder, juicer), but still allows for softly-spoken customers to order their coffees, and doesn’t interfere with customer conversations. It will be worth thinking about how best to arrange speakers (and how many to have) to make sure this works the best it can.

What are your thoughts on background music in cafes?

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  1. Interesting post, Dave! I kept thinking about what we used to play in Dymocks when I worked there, and it was usually jazz standards—Ella Fitzgerald, Louis Armstrong, Bing Crosby, Harry Connick Jr playing the When Harry Met Sally soundtrack and the like. Unfortunately it meant things got a bit repetitive, so we often longed for something else.

    I once went to a cafe for breakfast that was playing dance/house music. That was a huge turn off; I was going there to eat, not to dance!

    I wonder if there’s a cafe that plays exclusively indie pop music. The Tea Centre was playing Sufjan Stevens once; that brought a huge smile to my face!

    And what do you think of the antiquated notion of the jukebox? Have you seen that as part of cafes these days in some sort of modern incarnation? (Pancake Parlour had something like that, I think, but it was pricey and the song selection was boring—way too conventional.)

  2. Interesting thoughts. I would also imagine one of the things to look at it is what type of music you are playing.

    I would pick music in a genre that works well as atmosphere music that’s not too unfamiliar (e.g. jazz, light pop, world music etc.) but with particularly B-grade entries into that genre. If it’s a genre they don’t particularly like or it doesn’t play well as background music (e.g. classical, heavy rock, etc.), they might get a bit jarred up, or on the other end of the scale, if they really like the songs that are being played, they might want to stick around as well.

    But if nothing really stands out, then people are likely to enjoy the atmosphere, but not want to hang around.

    It’s probably akin to the DJ challenge, but of a completely different variety. With a cafe, you’re looking for music that is inviting, but gradually fades into the background. On the dance floor in a club, you’re looking for music that the crowd loves – pull out too many dud songs in a row, and they’re sick of your club.

    One thing I have noticed as I’ve thought about music is how familiarity with music makes it comes alive and jump out at you, and unfamiliarity makes it sink into the background. So, for instance, if a classical CD was playing, I’d probably pick up on what most of the pieces were. In a pub, all I hear is a wall of sound. However, for friends of mine, it’s the exact opposite.

    So, yeah, genres that most people like – songs that aren’t particularly outstanding. And all of this at a suitable volume for talking.

  3. Oddly, my usual caf had no music on Saturday. It felt odd. Music on Sunday though. Genre is a mood thing, sometimes I like what they play, sometimes I don’t…genre varies but mostly they play a bit of indie or a bit of top 40 or a bit of a techo. As the first coffee starts to kick in, a solid techno track is sometimes nice to lift the mood on a sunny day. Only to be interrupted by the dulcet tones of the bloody juicer. Switching the hearing aids off reduces the music but the juicer remains. Jarring.

  4. In our cafe I have a mix off Jazz & Blues and it seems to go down well with our cafe guests. It is important that you get the sound level just right as it is very important that guests are able to converse with their friends with ease. Keep the music in the background. Boz Scaggs – very popular! You know you are playing good music when guests enquire about your music selection. We have feedback forms for customers as well. The music selection needs to be refreshed from time to time as well.

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