“If music be the food of love, play on,
Give me excess of it; that surfeiting,
The appetite may sicken, and so die.”
~Duke Orsino, Twelfth Night
I was standing front row center at the Bruce Springsteen concert last week in San Jose, CA. While trying to rap my mind around the awesome fact that the Boss was practically sweating on me, I divided my mind between two other tasks: listening to the generations-spanning music, and eating my soft pretzel and Gummi Bears. My friend was beside me with a beer and a hot dog. The woman smashed in behind me was trying to finish her chicken nuggets before they got crushed. In fact almost everyone was eating something. What was it about the concert that drove people to munch? What is it about food and music that make them go so well together?
Music is often so seamlessly woven into our culinary experiences that we barely even notice it. Think about the diners you frequented as a teenager- maybe there was a jukebox, or some country music playing in the background. Maybe your favorite Mexican restaurant features an obnoxious Mariachi band that likes to sing to you while you eat chips. These are things that might not make us think twice, until we stop and ask, “why?” Why do restaurants believe music is a necessary part of the businees of food?
Restaurant music is itself an industry- of consultants, artists, DJ’s, and frustrated chefs and restaurant owners. It’s tough to please patrons, says Andrew Carmellini in a New York Times article on this issue. Andrew is both a chef and a musician, and he describes some of the difficulty involved when he tries to connect his two vocations: “You name the complaint- the jazz is too boring, the horns are too shrill, there’s too much brass- and we’ve gotten it.”
Danny Meyer, whose Union Square Hospitality Group operates nine venues in New York, talks in the New York Times about how music can affect the ambiance of a restaurant. When you get it right, he says, “the conversations in the room will be more energetic.” Yoshi’s, a restaurant with locations in both Oakland and San Francisco, has found a winning combination in high-end sushi and live jazz.
Restaurants seem to have jumped into the food and music fray in order to enhance the atmosphere of their venues. With the right music, a restaurant can be more romantic, more exciting, more sophisticated…and perhaps contribute to a patron’s experience with the food itself.
But there’s more to the connection between music and food than just the cultural atmosphere. There are biological reasons why food and music seem to go so well together. Morton Kringelbach, a research fellow at Oxford University, explains that food and music both activate the same area of our brain, one which relates to experiencing pleasure. When we like the food we’re eating, the mid-anterior orbitofrontal cortex (an area just behind our eyebrows) is activated. This same area is activated when we listen to music we enjoy. (Incidentally, it’s also activated by other pleasure-inducers, like drugs, art, and sex. We’ll save that for another article).
So food and music both activate the same pleasure center in our brain. While most neuroscientists categorize music as a more “high-level” pleasure and food as one of the basics along with sex and other people’s company, the fact that there is no neurological distinction in the type of pleasure given is a fascinating phenomenon. How do they interact, I would ask? Perhaps experiencing both at once gives us double pleasure, a higher level of activation. More pleasure. This would definitely explain why we like to listen while we eat, and we like food while we listen.
Next time you’re at that Mexican restaurant, don’t be so quick to dismiss the Mariachis. Consider playing some Disney tunes for your kids while they munch on Cheerios. While you’re running out the door with a banana, late for work, slip your iphone buds in your ear. It just might improve your mood.