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How Music Affects the Amount You Drink

Music triggers people in plenty of weird ways: It can calm you; it can make you happy; it can help you eat less; it can improve your driving. And it’s not always as simple as the tone or lyrics — studies show there’s even a specific number of beats per minute (BPM) that’s ideal for motivating you to exercise (145, according to researchers, who say that anything faster “doesn’t contribute much additional motivation”).

As alcohol enthusiasts, all of this got us wondering if there was such a thing as an ideal BPM for drinking? A particular tempo that, for want of a better word, “makes” people want to drink more? We do know that loud music makes people drink more at bars, thanks to multiple studies, simply because when it’s too loud for people to carry on a conversation, they take more frequent gulps, and so, they drink faster.

But is there anything that drives us on a more physical level?

As you’d expect, lots of bartenders and owners have anecdotal stories about how simply changing the music can transform the vibe (and subsequent sales) in a bar. “People are definitely drinking more during Metallica than Radiohead,” says Kristian Zaspel, who tends bar and handles logistics for VIP areas at large music festivals such as Coachella. “There’s some kind of mental handshake that takes place where people say to themselves, I’m having a good time; this music is loud and fast; and I need to drink more. And when there’s snoozier acts, people don’t drink as much — we see a correlation in sales for sure.”

So yeah, it all makes sense intuitively, but intuition isn’t science.

Fortunately, Lorenzo Stafford, a psychologist at the University of Portsmouth in Great Britain who studies the effects of music on behavior, has tested this very thing. In his 2013 experiment, 45 women, separated into three groups, drank alcohol while listening to “Stress” by Justice at either 142 BPM or 85 BPM, or while listening to no music at all.

Not surprisingly, the groups who listened to music drank faster than the ones who didn’t. But there was no difference whatsoever between the different mixes of the song, which was unexpected even for the researchers (although if you listen to that song, it’s pretty intense at any speed).

A similar study on the effect of music tempo on restaurant behavior was conducted in 1999 by Clare Caldwell and Sally A. Hibbert of Scotland’s University of Strathclyde. The study took place at an upscale restaurant in Glasgow, this time using jazz music by Ella Fitzgerald. Counterintuitively, they found that customers spent much more time at the restaurant when slow music was played — and much more money on food and alcohol. This study cited a similar one on music tempo done way back in 1986, which found no difference in money spent on food, but that people spent way more on drinks while listening to slower music.

So what does all this mean?

Likely that people’s expectations of their drinking experiences are situational — which is to say, it’s not so much about the music being a particular BPM as it is fitting the music to the customer’s perception of the venue. If, for example, a snooty restaurant was playing Cannibal Corpse or GG Allin, most people would very likely drink less and leave earlier, if not immediately. The same thing would probably happen if a dive bar tried playing Bach.

“In terms of the type of music that’s appropriate in particular settings, there’s a notion of ‘fit,’” Hibbert told us. But it’s also personal: “The idea of optimum stimulation level — some people prefer higher levels of stimulation that result from exposure to high intensity stimuli; others prefer lower levels — is also relevant,” she says.

Here’s another wrinkle: Even when the music is appropriate for the venue, it doesn’t necessarily lead to more drinking because it, too, is situational, and in particular situations, alcohol may not be the drug of choice. “At many of the bigger electronic festivals, no one’s really drinking that much,” Zaspel says. “Especially the millennials, either because other substances are involved, or they aren’t necessarily looking to drink.”

So can music make you drink more? Definitely.

But as any good DJ will tell you, only if you can read the mood of the crowd. If you get that wrong, you’ll be drinking all that booze by yourself.