It is commonplace for cafés and restaurants to play music while you eat. A new study asks whether the volume of these tunes might impact how healthful our dietary choices are.

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Volume and food choice — what’s the interaction?

Music can have a visceral effect on us. Indeed, most people reading this will remember a time when music altered their mood — be that positively or negatively.

In the world of retail, manipulating mood can be the difference between a sale and someone walking out of the shop empty-handed.

Given humanity’s readiness to be moulded by music, it comes as no surprise that stores and restaurants are incredibly interested in its potential to drive sales.

Playing music is a low-cost intervention that can be endlessly manipulated: from classical to jazz to death metal, and from barely audible to ear-splittingly loud.

Although retail manipulation is outside of Medical News Today‘s remit, a recent study, published in the Journal of the Academy of Marketing Science, may have implications for anyone trying to lose weight.

Researchers from the University of South Florida Muma College of Business in Tampa investigated the impact of music on people’s eating habits. Specifically, they wanted to know whether the volume of the music influenced how healthful their food choices were.

According to the authors:

[T]his is the first research to examine the effects of ambient music volume on choices between healthy and unhealthy foods.”

So, to investigate, they focused on a particular café in Stockholm, Sweden. They played customers music from a variety of genres on a loop, either at 55 decibels or 70 decibels.

Each item on the menu was coded one of three ways: healthful, including items such as salads; non-healthful, cakes and chocolates, for example; or neutral, which included teas and coffees. Customers’ purchasing habits were observed across several hours over 2 days.

As expected, when the café was playing quieter music, people chose the more healthful items 10 percent more often.

Because the study was relatively brief, the scientists decided to investigate further. This time, they headed to a grocery store and carried out a similar experiment: music was played at either a high or low volume and the shoppers’ purchases were rated as healthful or unhealthful.

Across almost $60,000 worth of sales, shoppers who were exposed to louder music bought less healthful items than those who listened to quieter music.

Continuing on this theme, they set up another experiment that compared the effect of loud music, quiet music, and no music on the dietary choices of 71 students. The participants listened to classical music at 50 decibels or 70 decibels, or they were subjected to silence.

After several minutes, the study participants were asked which food they would prefer — fruit salad or chocolate cake. Once again, louder music drove less healthful choices.

Those who listened to quiet music chose the chocolate cake 14 percent of the time, compared with 44 percent of those exposed to loud music.

Interestingly, the individuals who listened to no music made unhealthful decisions half of the time — more similar to the loud music group. The researchers believe that the quiet classical music may have induced relaxation, which positively influenced their decision-making.

For their next test, they wanted to understand whether the genre of music made any difference. So, they repeated the above procedure on another 53 students. This time, however, they used heavy metal rather than classical music.

Participants were asked to choose between a granola bar and a chocolate bar. Once again, the team’s hypothesis was verified.

Participants listening to quiet heavy metal made the healthful choice 92 percent of the time, and those listening to loud heavy metal only made healthful choices around half of the time.

Keen to investigate every facet of this interaction, the researchers ran the heavy metal trial again, but with more participants: 178 students in all. They also made a change to the way in which the participants chose their food; this time, they used a scale ranging from 1 (definitely salad) to 7 (definitely pizza).

Although their results were more subtle this time, they were in the same direction. The average score for those listening to loud music was 4.86, compared with 4.12 in the low volume group.

The studies described here are just a selection of the battery of experiments that the team ran. After reflecting on their cumulative findings, the authors concluded:

A pilot study, two field experiments, and five lab studies show that low (versus high or no) volume music/noise leads to increased sales of healthy foods due to induced relaxation.”

This new knowledge could be used to assist in the retail and restaurant sector, but understanding this effect might also help those of us who are attempting to eat more healthfully or lose weight.

Perhaps by avoiding eateries with loud music in preference for venues with more sedate volumes, we might help ourselves to make better dietary choices. But, if your favorite restaurant is the type that prefers it loud, there are always earplugs.