Outside of the coffee itself and maybe the friendliness of the staff, few things make or break the atmosphere of a coffee shop more than the music playing. We have all been there; walking into a cozy little café with neat art on the wall, good coffee and comfy chairs but something is off. The music is just not right. Sometimes it can be difficult to pinpoint what about the music is wrong, but to be sure… something is.
As a barista and an audiophile, I am convinced that fewer things blend better than good music and good coffee, and while there is no formula for perfect coffee shop tunes, here are a few different styles of music that you might hear at your neighborhood coffee shop and how they influence the café’s ambiance, identity and flow. On a five-star rating system, here is a (not nearly) comprehensive look at what to expect in coffee shop music.
Bluegrass**: Confession: I love bluegrass. I could listen to it all day, every day. But it can come off as a bit strange, and the harsh banjo, Appalachian vocals and percussive guitar, can disturb the ambiance of a slow, lazy afternoon. But can be good for a fast-paced morning rush. Be careful with this style.
Classical **: Classical is a big umbrella, but most classical will do just fine during a slower time. Can be instantly inviting and make for a pleasant atmosphere that encourages chitchat and lingering. On the downside, it can get a bit dull-drum, but still a good weapon to have in the Barista Audio Arsenal (iPod).
Electronic/Disco ***: Always a fun choice. Good electronic/disco tunes will have the staff in a boogie while they are slinging lattes. An excellent, excellent choice for the morning hustle & bustle. But can be distracting for the patrons who are hanging around looking for a down tempo afternoon at their favorite café.
Folk/Americana ***** Okay, I am a bit partial here. This is my first musical love. But all allegiances aside, I would argue that this large, diverse style of music is perfect for any time of day at a coffee shop. The twang and the harmonica add a cutting and distinct sound that sends the shop into a sepia tinted nostalgia, while the acoustic guitar keeps it “easy listening”. Americana is a diverse genre that can do nothing but add to the atmosphere of any café. Take the Avett Brothers, for example, their music is good for the busy and the slow times (and everything in between). A safe bet unless, of course, you don’t like Americana music.
Heavy Metal * Do you want to scare your customers away and stress out all of your co-workers? If so, this is your genre! Avoid at all costs, because chances are, somebody in the shop’s ears might start bleeding. Or a mosh pit might break out. Either way, that is more messes for the barista to clean up. Again, avoid at all costs.
Indie Rock ****: Indie Rock has become coffee shop status quo, and for good reason. It is diverse, “hip,” and listenable (for the most part). Since it is what a good quantity of baristas listen to outside of work, it just makes sense that it would seep its way into the coffee world. Good indie rock can serve as ambient background music for those unfamiliar with it and have those who know the songs tapping their feet. Indie is a solid fallback for those not looking to be too experimental.
Jazz *****: Jazz music can be a perfect fit for any and every shop. With the genre ranging from the cool, mellow sound of Miles Davis to the frantic jive of Charlie Parker, there is always a Jazz album that will complete a coffee shop vibe. It adds the sophisticated atmosphere of classical with the cool vibes of indie music. Perfect for music for cranking out a term paper or getting lost in a book. A must play! If you walk into a coffee shop playing good jazz music, you know you’ve stumbled upon a gem.
Oldies **: Don’t get me wrong, oldies are great and can sometimes add a much needed approachability to a shop and the staff. But sometimes it can just be a little too novel. Humorous and nostalgic, sure but the barista might want to change it after the 18th reminiscent anecdote about seeing Bob Seger live in 1974. Not that there is anything wrong with that, but sometimes when the music becomes the focal point of the shop, it can actually take away from the ambiance. Play sparingly.
Punk Rock *: Again, unless you are trying your hardest to scare off the most docile customers, punk rock may be a little too much for the shop. Sure, some folks might like it, but it’s a little too harsh for the masses. Unless your masses are punk rockers, of course.
Radio Pop (2stars)**: Despite the radio’s “uncool” stigma, popping on some boy band dance tunes during a busy morning can be surprisingly energetic. But it can get real old, REAL FAST. Especially with all of those darned advertisements. If the radio is all you’ve got (or you are forced into the situation) make the most of it by dancing around like Timberlake… or just switch the station to talk radio after a while for a much needed break.
Radio Country *: Maybe the worst of the worst as far as ambiance goes. Avoid at all costs (unless you are located right in the middle of the state fairgrounds or in a cornfield). While not all radio country is bad, the popular template for radio country songs does not lend itself well to a relaxing environment (comically overrealized twang, pithy lyrics, average blues guitar riffs). Plus, nobody is neutral with country music; half of the world hates it and the other half loves it. STAY AWAY. If you’ve got a hankerin’ for hillbilly music stick to Americana or Bluegrass in the shop!
Rap/Hip-Hop *: While there are some exceptions (closing time, a hoppin’ rush, a multi-shop break dancing competition) hip hop is best to be avoided. It can be vulgar at worst and harsh on the ambiance at best. Avoid unless you are going for a high paced, aggressive atmosphere.
Reggae ***: Yah mon. Can’t go wrong with the rasta music! It gives off a cultured, eclectic, international vibe. Same goes for other world music. Can get repetitive and tired quickly but as long as you aren’t sick of it, it can function in just about any shop as quality background music. Jam on, mon!
For the baristas out there, remember that the music that you choose (or is chosen for you) during your shift should be (almost) as thought through as the grind you set for your espresso, because those two things alone can make or break the customer’s experience. And for the coffee shop patrons out there, enjoy the tunes and the coffee! Few things in this world are as atmospheric and pleasant as a great coffee shop with great music.
** This is an opinion piece and the views reflect the author, they do not represent the views of the Coffee Hound.