Eating with our ears: The right music can make dinner taste better

October 16, 2020

I want to thank everybody for the great feedback and commentary about last week’s Rehoboth Beach Jazzfest column. I wrote that music has power, and I guess that’s right.

In and among the comments were some questions about restaurant music in general, so - be careful what you ask for - here we go again. Another music article. On the bright side, I can’t think of a better weekend to write this one.

Long before our official jazz festival became the official jazz festival, our beach eateries were already getting into the act. Longtime residents still have fond memories of Sydney’s jazz club on Rehoboth Avenue; she was one of the very first to brave the winter months by providing live music to her guests. Now, locals and visitors have the opportunity to enjoy beachy cuisine and the talents of our local musicians in many of our local eateries. The combination of food and live music is, and always has been, pitch-perfect.

Over the last few years I’ve had the honor of providing a bit of live music at some of our better restaurants. One of the most difficult things (at least for me) about playing in an eatery is coming up with a list of songs that match the ambiance, the clientele and the menu. Having owned restaurants as well as played in them, I get that the entertainment is there to improve the dining experience - and consequently the bottom line. If we are six notes into the first song and half the guests raise their hands and cry, “Check, please!” then something isn’t right. Playing music in a restaurant is very (very) different from appearing on a stage in a theater or auditorium.

There are scientific studies and websites that focus on the pairing of music with food. A good example is Turntable Kitchen, a music and food blog that shares recipes and reviews of carefully selected songs. Every month, the writers on the site create a Monthly Pairings Box that includes menu ideas and ingredients - right alongside suggestions for musical pairings.

We are lucky to have so many great musicians in the area!

From quiet piano musings to hard rock and blues, they all tailor their sets to please the guests. But in the end, much of the musical pairing responsibility lies with the restaurant ownership: A band that specializes in heavy metal rock might not be the ideal choice for 1776 Steakhouse. Cocktail piano musings behind a smoky-voiced chanteuse probably won’t bring in the bucks at Conch Island. This correlation has been borne out in scientific studies, including those at Oxford University’s Crossmodal Research Laboratory where the relationships between the perception of taste and certain audible frequencies (i.e., pitch) are compared. For example, sounds of a higher frequency (like a piccolo or a cymbal) seem to be related to foods with a sweet or sour taste. Low-frequency notes (a bass guitar or organ) have been tied to savory tastes often referred to as umami. So can the music we hear during a meal actually change what we taste? Research is ongoing. (And for better or worse, I’m doing my part. Pass the Tabasco, pleeeze….)

Restaurant consultants place a lot of importance on background music. Years ago, a specialist I used for one of my restaurants near Washington, D.C. believed that music can actually improve the taste of comfort foods, but haute cuisine (e.g., modernist cooking) appears to be unaffected by our aural experiences. It would be interesting to be a part of one of these studies.

As all this high-falutin’ science grinds away, our local restaurants continue to feature talented musicians to attract patrons. Hopefully sooner than later, live music will yet again become a way of life at Rehoboth Ale House, The Pond, Big Chill Surf Cantina, Irish Eyes (Lewes and Milton), Dogfish Head Brewings & Eats, Victoria’s, Crooked Hammock Brewery, The Starboard, Café Azafran, 1776 Steakhouse, Bluecoast Rehoboth and Casa DiLeo. The same applies to The Cultured Pearl, Conch Island Key West Bar & Grill, The Rusty Rudder, The Pines, Shrimpy’s in Midway, Blackwall Hitch, Sydney’s in Milton, Zogg’s, Jerry’s Seafood, the Wheelhouse, Atlantic Social and Bethany Blues. Some of our Cape Region eateries add live music to the menu only during the jazz festival and sometimes over the holidays.

Our very own “mini-Jazzfest” going on right now isn’t the only reason to venture out for live music. Add an audio track to your dining experience by keeping an eye on Cape Gazette’s Steppin’ Out section and on the various restaurants’ websites. You’ll not only be helping the restaurants during this difficult time, but also the musicians and support staff who depend on our local eateries for their employment.

  • So many restaurants, so little time! Food writer Bob Yesbek gives readers a sneak peek behind the scenes, exposing the inner workings of the local culinary industry, from the farm to the table and everything in between. He can be reached at

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