[This is the opening chapter of a book I am writing on how to use music for dinner. I’ve actually made a somewhat serious study of what music works as dinner accompaniments and how it works, mostly during a period when I held weekly dinner parties for years. The book is more than half done, and, if anyone wants to publish it, I’d be very delighted to complete it quickly!]

What’s Playing for Dinner?
Enhancing Your Meals with Music

One night in Woodstock, New York, I went to dinner at The Crossroads, a new restaurant which was in its “preview” stage–not officially open, but advertising and serving meals. The decor of the place was reasonably attractive, the food quite good. It should have been a pleasant evening.

For background music, the owner had loaded a classical music cartridge into his eight-track player. Hey, it was classical music. Had to be good, right? Well, it was Tchaikovsky’s Path├ętique Symphony. My companion and I endured that wrenching, tragic music two and a half times, enough to spoil the dinner experience and the Symphony. We never went back, and The Crossroads never got out of its preview.

Some years later, right around the corner from where The Crossroads had been, I went to dinner with a new companion at another new restaurant, The Artist Grill. The food had been highly recommended by some friends, and it was indeed pretty good. But the place was full of cigarette smoke–from the chef, a chain-smoker. The chef had loaded his favorite music into the CD player: Bob Dylan, all through the meal. You may or may not like Bob Dylan, but I think even his most enthusiastic admirers would agree that Dylan does not make good dinner music. The Artist Grill didn’t last very long either.

The right music can greatly enhance a dining experience, whether you are eating at a restaurant, at a party, or a quiet dinner at home. But in my opinion, not enough people realize the special qualities of good dinner music, or music to accompany any meal.

Your favorite music won’t always do. In fact, it usually won’t do, for the same reasons that it’s your favorite music. If you like to listen to it, the music is strong enough to capture and hold your attention. That’s not what you want at dinner. You want music that enhances an experience, not music that provides an experience. Bob Dylan doesn’t create good dinner music. He wants you to listen to him, to be aware of his lyrics, the strengths and nuances of his voice, the rhythms of his accompaniment. He probably wouldn’t want you to play his music while you are conversing at dinner, and you probably shouldn’t.

On the other hand, I am not an advocate of what’s usually called “background music.” That typically means music so bland that you couldn’t focus on it for long even if you tried. This might be better than Dylan or Tchaikovsky, but it also doesn’t add much to the experience. It’s like aural wallpaper, something you quickly stop noticing altogether. Good dinner music should be noticed on some level. “Smooth jazz” has become popular as background music, and some people find it soothing and relaxing. Most of us who love music find it awfully bland. The same goes, as far as I’m concerned, for most “New Age” music.

There are some exceptions to these general suggestions. My favorite restaurant in Woodstock (actually just outside of town), New World Home Cooking, cultivates a rather rowdy aural atmosphere. It goes with the assertive food pretty well (although sometimes I have asked the staff to turn it down). If you’re eating hot dogs and drinking beer, you might like Mardi Gras music to go with them.

This book, though, is going to focus on the typical dining experience. My presumption of a good meal is sitting at a table with a loved one or a group of friends, enjoying food and conversation, with something playing in the background which has a positive effect on the experience without dominating it. I have helped program for restaurants and given hundreds of parties, and thanks to my experience as a music reviewer and avid collector I am familiar with a wide variety of music. Much of it works well for eating; much does not.

Here are a few general principles:

1. Stick to instrumental music. Avoid singing. The human voice has a natural tendency to grab your attention, whether it’s opera (very bad dinner music in general) or country blues. Singing in a language you don’t understand is less dominating, but still, with all the instrumental music in the world, it’s not necessary to have someone singing while you eat.

If you’re having a romantic dinner and you want Frank Sinatra to sing to your loved one, that might be OK for a while. But eventually someone is going to want to say something, and Frank doesn’t like to be interrupted. Find instrumental versions of his type of songs.

2. Keep a groove going. Don’t use random or “shuffle play” (also known as “God’s jukebox”) on your CD changer. Pick a CD that has the right amount of music on it for your needs and stick with it.

Constant changing of CDs is distracting. If you hear three minutes of Fats Waller playing piano and it’s immediately followed by a movement of a Mozart Sonata and then by a salon orchestra, every time the sound changes you’re likely to notice it. I had this point made most dramatically one night in a restaurant, where a Schumann piano piece was on one of the CDs in the changer. When the random choice brought up the Schumann disc, it played a section of a piece which lasted about half a minute and ended on a dominant chord, leading your ear into the next section which never arrived. It was followed by some other music entirely.

3. Don’t rely on anyone else’s programming, especially radio, even satellite radio. Radio programmers aren’t always satisfied to be background to someone’s experience–and I know, since I’ve been one and have known lots of others.

Some radio stations or services have dinner hours especially programmed for that time of day, and if they don’t have commercials (a killer for dinner moods) they might be OK. But still, you know what kind of music you like. And the types of CDs I’m going to recommend can usually be had so inexpensively that you can buy a dozen for under a hundred dollars. Do that every year for a few years and you’ll have a library of music that you know serves your purposes. If a disc doesn’t work, don’t keep it in your dinner music collection.

4. Keep a dinner music collection. If you own a lot of CDs and you want to keep everything filed so you can find a disc, find some way of marking your dinner music discs. Avery label dots are probably the best idea, and you can even write a word or two on them like “sparkly” or “relaxing.”

5. Make sure the volume is right. This can be tricky, so practice. Ideally the music should allow ordinary conversation to be heard without any strain, but it should be loud enough so that if you stop talking for a moment you can easily tell what is playing. I have a Philips-Magnavox CD changer (which holds three discs, enough for any meal) which has a remote control. I use it often if a new disc begins and its volume level is substantially higher or lower than the disc before.

6. Suppress your love of music during dinner. The next track on the disc may be your favorite piece in the world, a delicious Joplin rag or a tender Bach adagio. Nobody cares. They’re eating and conversing and they don’t want to be interrupted for a music appreciation lesson. This advice is particularly aimed at myself. I hate for people to miss my favorites. But if they want to have a listening session with me, which I love to do, that’s for another time.

Similarly, if someone asks you about the music that’s playing, it’s usually not a good idea (as I would naturally do) to launch into a dissertation. Unless it’s only the two of you at dinner, just show the person the CD box and offer to discuss it later.

It may surprise you to find that there aren’t many long lists of specific CDs included in this book. I’m doing that on purpose. The music industry is going through a time of great change these days. Fewer CDs are being sold, and more people are downloading. (In fact, my advice may seem old-fashioned to people who get most of their music from a computer and load it into an iPod or other player, although you can easily follow the same recommendations using those media.) CDs go out of print with bewildering speed, and a discography can date as quickly as a container of yogurt. While I’ll recommend a few specific recordings and CD issues, in general I will be recommending music rather than discs.

There are a few general tips that might be useful in building your library. Since classical music can be expensive to record and sales of individual new issues seldom make any money, most of the major labels publish more reissues from their back catalogs than new issues. These discs typically sell for half the price of new recordings and sometimes even less. So if you want a Mozart Serenade, look for an EMI, Universal (Deutsche Grammophon, Philips, Decca), or Sony-BMG (Sony, RCA) disc at a bargain price. It’ll probably be fine.

The most successful label in classical music at this time is Naxos, which grew from a small distributor of Western recordings in Hong Kong to a major international company. In some European countries Naxos outsells all other classical labels combined. Naxos’s success is due to providing good music at low prices with fantastically effective distribution. I have been to record stores in shopping malls in the midwestern U.S. with about three hundred classical CDs. Half of them were famous names (“Itzhak Perlman’s Greatest Hits,” “The Three Tenors,” and the like) and the other half were Naxos CDs.

Naxos’s emphasis is almost entirely on repertoire and hardly at all on performers (except for its historical series, not currently available in the U.S.) When you see Naxos’s set of the Beethoven Symphonies, you will never have heard of the conductor (Bela Drahos) or the orchestra (Nicolas Esterhazy Sinfonia). It happens that I like the performances in this set quite well, but that’s beside the point, which is that you can buy all of Beethoven’s Symphonies and his Piano Concertos in a tidy little box for a pittance. Naxos covers the whole range of classical music from the earliest Early Music to the most contemporary. It hasn’t recorded everything, but if you want something by a famous composer the chances are you can get it from Naxos in a recording which will sound fine, with performances that are at least decent and sometimes wonderful.

The copyright laws for sound recordings are completely different in the U.S. and in Europe. In the States, our Congress in its wisdom has given in to demands from the entertainment industry to protect valuable old properties (like Gone With the Wind or Elvis Presley’s recordings) and extended copyrights beyond any rational need to protect the rights of creators and their heirs. In Europe, there is a 50 year limit on sound recordings. Companies in Europe have taken advantage of this limit to flood the market with amazingly inexpensive CDs of all kinds of music that is more than 50 years old. This includes lots of jazz and popular music.

Since it’s more economical to sell several CDs at a time than one, this typically results in boxed sets of music. Among the labels producing these discs are Proper and Membran, both of which have issued many four-disc and larger sets of fine music. One of my favorite jazz sets of all time, a four-disc set of the great saxophonist Don Byas, is issued by Membran in its Quadromania series (“Moon Nocturne,” 222414). It makes for great listening or dinner music, and despite its ultra-low price the sound quality is quite good for recordings from the 1940s. I bought it through an eBay seller for $12 including shipping! Many similar bargains are available from these labels.

Is all of this effort to get the right dinner music worthwhile? I think so. We frequently read in the press about how the American experience of family and love suffers from a lack of intimacy. Many couples and families don’t eat their meals together, and that’s a pity. My wife and I eat breakfast together every day and dinner almost every day, and the time we spend talking about our experiences and our feelings is a major component of the glue that holds us so firmly together. Having the right music adds something tangible and valuable to those precious meals.

What kind of music works best for dinner? Being a classical music specialist, I would usually pick that first. Among other reasons, many of the greatest classical composers–Haydn, Mozart, Telemann, Schubert, Beethoven–wrote music intended for eating or dancing. If you see a classical piece called Divertimento or Serenade, it was almost certainly intended as dinner music. A rich nobleman with his own court orchestra would have this music played, indoors or outdoors, to accompany fancy meals. What music could serve our purpose better than a piece designed by a great musical genius expressly for dining?

But there’s much other music that works well for dinner. Good instrumental arrangements of popular and show tunes can be effective. Some jazz works very well, some doesn’t. Fats Waller piano solos are really excellent, varying between bouncy uptempo numbers and quiet lyrical songs. Records of Fats Waller and His Rhythm usually include Fats’s lively vocals; I love them, but they make poor dinner music. You could make up a whole dinner music library with Duke Ellington recordings, but you’d still have to listen to them to decide which ones you want to use. “Money Jungle,” the aggressive, angry-sounding trio album with Charles Mingus and Max Roach, is a memorable listening experience but you don’t want to eat with it.

Some dance music works fine for dining. The seemingly endless piano and orchestral dances by Schubert make wonderful dining music, as do many of Benny Goodman’s big band recordings. Older tangos, like those of Ernesto Nazareth, work fine; newer tangos, in the school of Astor Piazzolla, could give you indigestion because they are so passionate.

I like to avoid music that has a lot of repetition for dinner listening, whether it’s Vivaldi or Philip Glass. I like to avoid music that has a lot of repetition for dinner listening, whether it’s Vivaldi or Philip Glass. I like to avoid music that has a lot of repetition for dinner listening because if I’m not listening to it carefully it can really get on my nerves. If you find either of these composers conducive to promoting conversation and digestion, fine, although I’m a bit skeptical.

And this last point is an important meta-comment that you should remember throughout this book. My general principles and specific suggestions are going to provide you with a lot of ideas that I intend to be helpful, and I hope they will be. But every person, every dining room or kitchen, every restaurant will be different. If I can focus your attention on the process of enhancing your meals with music, and the kind of music you choose–even Bob Dylan!–winds up working well for you, that’s great.

What’s Wrong with Muzak?

Actually, nothing is wrong with Muzak. It does exactly what it is supposed to do, and it does that very well. You can even verify that scientifically, as the Muzak people do. They measure the exact tempos they want for their music, and they have all their recordings made to order so they will do exactly what they are intended to do.

The problem from our point of view is that what Muzak does is not what we want. It is intended to be as bland as possible. Most people riding in the elevator don’t even notice that Muzak is playing in the background. This doesn’t enhance the mood for a gathering much. The qualities of these recordings have earned the term “Muzak” a pejorative connotation. “I don’t like that stuff. It’s Muzak.” Well, OK. If it’s really Muzak, there’s nothing to like. On purpose.

The music we want for our meals has a more positive profile than Muzak. We do want it to be noticed, although not too much.

How About Movie Music?

It all depends.

For the most part, movie music is designed to be not quite noticed. There are some obvious exceptions. Sergei Eisenstein had Prokofiev write the music for the film Alexander Nevsky and then built the film around the music, which is often in the foreground. Many contemporary movies have what I think of as MTV scenes built into them; the dialogue disappears and you hear an entire pop song while the action takes place without words. This is an obvious marketing tool, for the music.

The problem with much movie music for our purposes is that it is meant to reinforce action and emotions. The music accompanying the battle scene or car chase isn’t what you want for dining. And a lot of movie music, not wanting to call attention to itself, begins to fall into the Muzak category.

So, don’t presume that movie music is going to be perfect for dinner. Most of it isn’t. But a lot of it is, and I’ll be recommending some.

After each section, I will be offering further suggestions for listening if you like the kind of music I’m recommending for non-listening. It’s great to have music for meals, and it’s also great to enhance your life with the experience of music.

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