SAVORY SOUNDS Dinner music that all your guests can swallow


The singer Maire Brennan is misidentified in the story "Savory Sounds" in today's Distinction Magazine. She is the singer from the group Clannad, as well as the older sister of Enya.

The Sun regrets the error.

It was supposed to have been the perfect dinner party.

They planned the menu with care, fussing over everything from the entree to the appetizers. They polished the silver, pressed the linens and put together the perfect centerpiece. They chose their guests with care, and quietly exulted at the way the pre-dinner conversation sparkled.

Things were going so well, in fact, that they barely gave the dinner music a second thought. He just grabbed one of his favorite CDs, and she slipped it into the player as the guests sat down to eat.

That's when the trouble began.

"We're not going to have to listen to this all through dinner, are we?" sneered one guest halfway through the first song.

"What's the matter -- you got something against AC/DC?" challenged another. "Personally, I love 'Highway to Hell.' "

" 'Highway to Hell'?" gasped a third. "You're not having us listen to devil music, are you?"

Eventually, they found an album their guests could agree on (or at least wouldn't gripe about out loud). But by then, the damage had been done. The mood, once festive and effervescent, had turned crabby and querulous, and the food never quite seemed the triumph it should have been.

And all because they invited the wrong music to dinner.

How can you keep that from happening to your holiday party? Simple -- all it takes is a sense of what your guests like, a careful look at your equipment, and an understanding of just what it is that dinner music is supposed to do.


Before deciding what songs will go best with your supper, it helps to think about the kind of flavor you want to add to your gathering.

Music can be enormously effective as a social seasoning, but like any spice, it works best when it works subtly. You don't want the music to overpower the occasion, to be too loud or too intrusive; nor do you want it to be so far in the background as to be practically inaudible.

What your dinner music should do is complement the occasion, suit the circumstances, and add to your guests' enjoyment. For instance, if you're planning a quiet dinner with soft lights and close friends, the music should be equally intimate -- a hushed voice with low-key guitar, for example, or an introspective piano solo. On the other hand, if you're expecting three or four couples and plenty of conversation, you'll want something more buoyant and upbeat, with a stronger sense of rhythm and a pronounced melodic bent.

Deciding what mood you hope to set is only part of the job, though; it's just as important to consider the music's dynamic range.

By that we mean the distance between its loudest peaks and quietest valleys. You don't want a sudden burst of sound to startle your guests -- particularly if you're using the good crystal. By the same token, it doesn't do the mood much good if the music seems to fade to inaudibility from time to time.

Classical music is particularly prone to these sudden fits of quiet and clangor, and the more instruments there are at work, the greater the variance in volume will be. That's why big orchestral pieces are seldom the wisest choice for a dinner party -- better to opt for the quiet consistency of a Mozart quartet or a Schubert sonata than risk knocking your guests over with the blaring brass of Tchaikovsky's Fourth.


Before you turn the stereo on, it helps to think about where the music is going to be coming from. Ideally, you should have one set of speakers in your living room or parlor, to provide sound for the pre-dinner part of the party, and another set in the dining room. There aren't too many speakers that look right sitting on a sideboard, but several manufacturers make in-wall speakers that will fade into the woodwork in any dining room while delivering first-rate sound.

If that seems like too much trouble, then try to set up your stereo in a room fairly close to the action. After all, quiet music loses a lot of its charm when it's been cranked up to carry across the house.

Also, think a bit about what you're going to play the music on. Radio may seem the easiest option, since you don't have to worry about getting up and changing the CD or flipping the cassette, but it also puts you at the mercy of someone else's taste. (And do you really want to listen to ads and announcers while you eat?)

Customized cassettes, on the other hand, allow you the chance to do your own programming -- mixing and matching the music as it best suits your need. Even better, with 100-minute tapes and auto-reverse cassette decks, you can get through almost any evening on just two tapes. Trouble is, customized dinner music tapes require just as much effort and advance planning as a complicated dinner menu, and not every host is up to that challenge.

If you aren't, then the CD player may be your best bet. With many CDs holding more than an hour of music, you won't have to worry about getting up every 20 minutes to change sides, as you would with LPs. You also can program around tracks that wouldn't suit the mood you want to set, and you can use the repeat function to ensure that a good album keeps going and going and going.

Better still would be a CD changer. With five or six discs cued up and ready to go, most hosts will be set for an entire evening.


According to a study at the Johns Hopkins School of Public Health, people eat more and faster when the background music is loud and fast. By contrast, the researchers found that digestion was enhanced when the dinner listening was slower and softer. Flute music, in particular, was mentioned as being particularly soothing.

As with any spice, however, music's perceived potency is largely subjective. For some folks, nothing could be more soothing than a string quartet; others would rather eat broken glass than endure classical music.

So it helps to have some sense of what your guests are used to hearing before you plan the musical menu. For instance, if a couple like rock and a few like country, consider selections that play up to both tastes, albums such as k.d. lang's "Ingenue"; Roseanne Cash's tuneful, contemplative "Interiors"; or the Cowboy Junkies' deliciously low-key "The Trinity Sessions."

Jazz can be a great way to add pizazz to an evening, but be careful -- what may seem interesting and adventurous to your ears may be too far out for some of your guests. So it's best to stick with recordings that are quiet and song-intensive, like Miles Davis' "Ballads," Ella Fitzgerald's "The Cole Porter Songbook" or "Smokin' at the Half Note" by Wes Montgomery with the Wynton Kelly Trio.

Whatever you choose, try to remember that you're playing the music for your guests, not for your own enjoyment. Think about what songs or sounds would enhance their enjoyment, and program the music from that perspective.

pTC Besides, you can always crank the AC/DC when they're gone.

Copyright © 2021, The Baltimore Sun, a Baltimore Sun Media Group publication | Place an Ad