What Music Works Best for Cafes & Coffee Shops?

For many, the cafe and the coffee shop have achieved an almost mythical status. It was in cafes that philosophers like Jean-Paul Sartre wrote their magnum opuses. It was in a cafe that the scientist Isaac Newton once dissected a dolphin in front of a group of astonished members of the British nobility.

It was in cafes that Ernest Hemingway first read F. Scott Fitzgerald’s manuscript for Great Gatsby. People in Japan first fell in love with Jazz in cafes where speaking was not allowed, and people would sit for hours enraptured by records selected by the proprietor cum DJ, and, to bring us closer to the present, it was in a coffee house that the characters in the sitcom Friends gathered every day to catch up and hatch plans that would keep the audience entertained for the rest of the episode.

These days, the cafe has evolved while carrying on the legacy of its illustrious past. It's the land of steady wifi and colorful baristas. It's the place where you get work done, either by yourself or in collaboration with others. It's the place you take your date to show that your favorite coffee house is most certainly better than theirs, and the other place that the same date takes you and you discover how wrong you were.

It's the place you get the drink that fuels you throughout your day and the place you go to chillout with friends, oblivious of the hours that pass like sand through lazy fingers. The point is that cafes, coffee shops, and coffee houses are so much more than a place to get coffee, and for that reason, most coffee shops cannot depend on the expertise of their baristas and the quality of their coffee alone to ensure success.

Just as important is creating an ambiance that promotes a positive customer experience, and one of the most important factors that contribute to the ambiance of a coffee shop is the music being played over the speakers. The question of what music to play is deserving of serious contemplation and discussion amongst proprietors and managers of coffee shops.

However, before one can decide what music to play, they must decide what type of mood they want to curate in their cafe. The answer to this question will influence not only the type of music they play, but also the volume of the music (will it be background music or will the music be foregrounded like in the jazz cafes of the 1980s Japan?).

Another decision they will have to make is that of who plays the music (will the barista act as DJ choosing song after song as the whim takes them or will the manager choose a specific Spotify playlist, or will the manager subscribe to a service that generates playlists that accord to the general parameters that the manager requests?

Finally, when choosing what music to play, one must consider the role of organizations like ASCAP, BMI, and SESAC which are performance rights organizations. If you are publicly playing music by artists that are members of ASCAP, BMI, or SESAC you will be required to pay royalties to these organizations.

Since many prominent musicians are members of ASCAP, BMI, SESAC, as well as a number of other performance rights organizations, one cannot ignore the requirements and restrictions in place when deciding upon the right music to play.

As you can probably tell, the answer to the question, “what music works best for cafes and coffee shops” is not as simple as it might initially seem. Luckily, we are here to help. And while no one cafe is exactly like another, there are certainly types of cafe music and music playlists that work best across many different cafes and coffee houses.

How Does Music Affect Customer Behavior and the Overall Customer Experience?

It should be no surprise that countless studies have shown and confirmed that music has the ability to affect behavior. One needs only to look at the difference between people at a symphony performance and people at a techno club. Surely, social conventions have a large effect on the behavior of these two groups, but one might just as easily argue that the social conventions are largely influenced by music.

If DJs hadn’t pieced together samples of different songs to create what we now call hip-hop, break dancing would likely never have developed, and if modern clubs still played the music of classical composers, a rave would look a lot different. However, the influence of music on behavior extends far beyond the confines of designated music performance spaces, and one of the areas where the effects are most visible is in the behavior of customers at restaurants and cafes. Here is what the studies have shown:

  • Dance and upbeat music: Dance music and other forms of music with a fast tempo will generally make customers eat faster. This typically means that people will leave the cafe more quickly and will result in increased table turnover.
  • Instrumental and acoustic music: Instrumental and acoustic music, such as lo-fi beats, singer-songwriter music, and music with a slow tempo and soft vocals, has been shown to increase the average bill amount of customers. This is because this easy listening music results in customers spending more time in the cafe which means that they will typically order more food or drinks as they hang out.
  • Classical and jazz lounge music: Classical music, smooth jazz, and jazz lounge music tend to inspire feelings of sophistication. This, in turn, leads people to be more willing to buy more expensive food and drinks.

The Right Music for Different Types of Cafes

Different cafes will have different kinds of moods which, in turn, means that different kinds of music will work best at creating those moods. Below, we list a number of different kinds of cafes and the music that will work best for each type.

1) Bakery Cafe

The bakery cafe is the favorite spot for brunch for those in the know. It's the place you go for the bread and pastries and, of course, a cappuccino in a cute mug to wash down your meal and fend off the nap your body oh so badly wants to take after experiencing total satisfaction of the tastebuds. There are rumors that the owners once owned a cafe in France before taking their delicacies statewide.

Whether the rumors are true doesn’t actually matter. The baguettes speak for themselves. This is the kind of cafe that wants the customer to stay for a while, enjoying the food and ordering just one more pastry (or maybe two) as they chat with friends or family. The right music for the bakery cafe is soft instrumental music that helps to induce a feeling of relaxation and tasteful indulgence.

In addition to instrumental music, indie rock or pop of the singer-songwriter variety provides the perfect backdrop to comfortable conversation and soul-warming treats fresh from the bakery.

2) Work and Study Coffee House

This is the place where students spend more time than in their classrooms, where freelance writers find inspiration in a cup of extra strong coffee, and groups of professionals make collaborative decisions that count.

The only thing that is stronger than the coffee is the wifi connection, and the late operating hours are an acknowledgment of the fact that this is the de facto office for customers who work overtime and the honorary study room for the student you can’t help but picture on the cover of Forbes a few years down the road.

Despite the fact that people come here to work, the mood is casual for people whose definition of casual is a bit more extreme than the dictionary might define it. The music in this type of cafe should not distract the customers from the task at hand.

It should soothe the listener without putting them to sleep. It should form a background rhythm upon which thoughts can dance. The best kind of music for this cafe will typically be lo-fi music with a steady beat. Lo-fi hip hop beats without vocals and ambient electronic music fit the bill perfectly.

3) Chic Cafes for Everyone

This is the cafe that you think of whenever anyone mentions wanting to grab some coffee and chill. Often, this cafe is part of a chain, either local, national, or international. It's a name that if you are from the town it is located in, you are bound to have been inside at least once. The decor is comfortable. The feeling is warm and casual. You might see someone studying and someone else reading a book.

At a different table, others are chatting and laughing at an inside joke next to two people engaged in a serious political discussion. A man in a suit walks in and leaves not a second after the barista hands him his coffee. This is the coffee house for anybody. So, what kind of music would work best here?

A mix of chill jazz, R&B, and maybe even the occasional hit pop song will create a somewhat sophisticated atmosphere that only a place that isn’t trying so hard can achieve. The music will typically be at medium volume. Not too loud to disrupt those who have chosen this place to study or read but loud enough that people can engage in excited conversation without worrying that the entire cafe will hear what they are saying.

4) Hipster Coffee Houses

This kind of coffee shop is typically found in an urban area and is popular amongst trendy youngsters and older people who live the type of life that might be considered alternative. The decor is important and unique to each place. There are often live plants by the windows and stickers from local bands covering the walls of the restroom.

The customers come here in search of delicious coffee and high-quality food that will more often than not find its way onto an Instagram feed. Here, you are just as likely to find someone writing their first novel as someone who does odd jobs on the side while pursuing a PhD.

The best kind of music for this place can truly vary, though indie rock, indie pop, and that piece of obscure sound art that actually sounds amazing might all find a perfect home here. One thing that won’t cut it is generic lounge jazz or lo-fi beats that are the mainstay of other cafes.

5) Sophisticated Cafes

Not every city has this kind of cafe, and if your city does have one, you’ve likely heard that the pastry chef really did apprentice in Paris. This isn’t just a rumor. The review in your favorite foodie magazine has confirmed it. Here you will find people dressed in chic clothing with pockets bulging from the size of the wallet. You come here because of the reputation and stay for the pastries.

The ideal music for this establishment is classical music. It sets the tone of sophistication that one expects from a place with prices like these. Here, you discover that luxury has a taste and sophistication has a texture. You might only come here on special occasions but each time you’ve seen the same couple sitting by the same table at the window. You look at the waiter questioningly–is this just a coincidence?-- the waiter shrugs and says matter of factly, “its brunch.”

Where to Go From Here?

So, you know what type of music you would like to play at your cafe, and now your thoughts wander back to something mentioned earlier. How do you play the music you want to play without violating the regulations established by ASCAP and BMI while also not troubling yourself with paying royalties which would not only mean extra work but would inevitably cut into your bottom line?

Luckily, there are many playlists on streaming services like spotify that are specifically catered to cafes and coffee shops in that they only include royalty-free music.

There are also a number of services that provide your business with curated channels that are also royalty-free, such as Loop TV. This streaming service for businesses provides hundreds of fully-licensed music channels (as well as a wide range of non-music content), all divided by genre and theme. You can easily schedule different types of music for different day parts as well.

Luckily, we live in an era of music streaming where you can get exactly the type of music you are looking for without worrying about royalties. It's time to set the soundtrack to your cafe!