Turning Up the Music Makes You Down Drinks

Loud music in bars may cause patrons to talk less, drink more, study shows.


July 18, 2008 — -- Bar owners may be blasting loud music not just because they think it's cool. It turns out the louder the music, the lighter patron's pockets are at the end of the night, according to the results of a new study in the journal Alcoholism: Clinical & Experimental Research.

Professors in western France struck a deal with two local bars to experiment on young men. The bar owners agreed to let the scientists control the volume for two nights and plant undercover patrons to document the drinking habits of 40 men, age 18 to 25.

With louder music, the young men drank a beer three minutes faster, ordered an extra drink and took slightly more gulps. The French scientists gave two, highly researched hypotheses as to why.

First, the scientists theorized that loud music increased "arousal" and, in this hyper state, the men drank more. Second, the scientists theorized that the young men couldn't hear themselves over the music and so, instead of talking, they drank more.

Whichever reason is true, the French researchers suggested something should be done about loud music to help combat widespread alcohol abuse and alcohol-related deaths, which account for 70,000 deaths a year in France, or about 13 percent of total deaths.

"Is loud music a stimulant? Absolutely. That's why rock music is loud," said Gene Bowen, a former tour manager for a variety of artists and founder of Road Recovery, a nonprofit program designed to help young people stay sober through collaboration with musicians.

"People want to listen to music that affects them," Bowen said. "But does it affect them to make them want to put substances in their system? That's debatable."

Bowen may be right on track, according to Harris B. Stratyner, regional vice president for Caron's New York Recovery Center and a clinical associate professor at the Mount Sinai School of Medicine in New York City.

"We know certain things about arousal states," said Stratyner, who added that sound, lights and other sensory inputs can arouse the mind and body to the point of changing behavior.

Stratyner said that given alcohol's effects as a mood inhibitor and a central nervous system depressant, the young men in bars might be doing two things in reaction to loud music: trying to calm their systems down if they are bothered by the music, or trying to keep their excitement flowing by loosening up with alcohol.

"The one I vote for is they were looking to calm themselves down," said Stratyner, who added that a single factor like lowering music volume may not have an effect on the complicated path to alcohol abuse.

Road Recovery's Bowen, who has years of real-world experience with the effects of drinking, entertainment and the music scene, agreed with Stratyner. Since the early-1980s, Bowen said he has sometimes had to obtain drugs for certain artists or tried to keep some artists clean.

On the one hand, he said he knows certain music and communities can feed abuse, such as ecstasy and raves. On the other hand, he thinks the decision to get out of the music lifestyle should be one made by an individual with a problem.

"I've been sober 16 years, and I was a tour manager," Bowen said. "For many people, they need to actually remove themselves completely in order to arrest that behavior in a controlled, safe environment. When I got sober, I had to literally change all of that life to give myself the opportunity to recover."

But during his time in rehabilitation with trained clinicians, he realized that his job wasn't the root of his addiction.

"It certainly wasn't the environment that I was putting myself in, it was in my life," Bowen said. "After two years, it allowed me to go back on the road and exist in those environments."

While Bowen thinks an individual must assess his or her environment, many alcohol abuse experts call for regulating environments, like bars, that put people at risk for abuse.

Nicolas Gueguen, the lead author of the French study and a professor of behavioral sciences at the Université de Bretagne-Sud, called for just that.

"It will be interesting to encourage the owners of bars to display music with a moderate level in order to struggle against alcohol consumption," Gueguen wrote in the study. "Making the clients aware that loud music influences their alcohol consumption with the help of TV advertisements, radio advertisements or poster advertising is an opportunity for consumer education."

Both approaches -- consumer education or regulation of behavior -- have generated great debate in the past century with smoking bans, warning labels, prohibition and now junk food patrol.

"To me, the broader question is about how do we put together a society in which personal freedom is highly valued and, on the other hand, there's public health management?" said Thomas Horvath, a psychologist and president of Practical Recovery, an alternative addiction treatment center in La Jolla, Calif.

"The more uncontrolled or unregulated freedom people have, the more addictive behavior people will have," said Horvath, who pointed to food as a 21st century example: With an unlimited amount of food, people started abusing it.

"In 1900, 5 percent of the population was overweight; now it's 60 percent," he said. "The level of personal self-control that's required to live in this tempting environment is beyond most people."

The solution?

"We're left with two routes," he said, "massively more public health education, or you do things like control decibel level in bars."