Noise can be a big problem in today’s cocktail bars – and can even cause hearing damage. But Hannah Lanfear has some sound advice to help make for a better and safer bar environment.

The bar you’re in is starting to fill up, and you are fine with that – you’re a Martini down and filled with love for humankind. But as the night draws in, the bartender asks you a question, which you don’t quite catch.

Increasingly there are shrieks and laughter from the growing crowd and cocktail tins crack together like shotguns. The bar back just threw a bottle in the glass bin that made your ears ring and the bartender is shouting to be heard. Now everyone is yelling at each other to be heard over the din.

The scene we’ve just played out represents what is, according to a survey by Zagat, the most common complaint in hospitality: noisy venues. When an environment begins to get busy, something called the Lombard Effect kicks into play: everyone else starts getting louder so they can be heard. When the voices start to overtake the music, the manager turns up the music and the voices get louder again until the noise levels become stressful.

For business owners, who cares? If the bar is busy, you’re printing money, but let’s consider that bottom line for a moment. The most essential guest to any business is the repeat customer. That person who keeps on returning to put money in your till. That regular profit stream is the easiest money to make, because you don’t have to keep finding new custom to take that seat at the bar. Yet your bar is unpleasantly loud – forget repeat custom. Having to rely on new trade is a cliff edge for any business model, so do I have your attention now?

The problem of noisy bars isn’t only a hospitality issue, it’s an accessibility issue too. Those with autism or ADHD will find the background noise impossible to filter out, creating a feeling of stress, or contributing to exhaustion. Those who have trouble hearing find themselves unable to participate in conversation. When I go out for dinner with my dad, sometimes he just switches off his hearing aid and sits there in silence, unable to participate in conversation. And while I hate to be a Debbie Downer, if you work in a bar then that person who is struggling to hear may soon be you.

Irreparable damage

Above 85 decibels, noise is damaging your hearing – damage that cannot be repaired. Yet by the time you notice it’s too late to do anything about. Bartenders working night after night in loud venues are being exposed to noise levels that are harmful to their health. An extensive study at the Shanghai Jiao Tong University School of Medicine showed that, while low-intensity sounds or music can enhance immune function, high-intensity noises have the opposite effect; suppressing immune function can cause sleep disorders, cardiovascular disease, and endocrine diseases. 

This summer I took a seminar named Shaping Sounds to Tales of the Cocktail, to identify and address the issue of noise in cocktail bars – work that has informed this article, because the truth is that loud bars don’t have to be harmful.

The solution to the problem is acoustic treatment. Every architect knows it, but few are given remit by their client to use it. In cocktail bars we favour shiny surfaces and durable, wipe-clean materials. Think of any of our top cocktail bars and how they look – brass, glass and hard, flat surfaces, all of them. These hard surfaces reflect the sound back into the room and it’s these clashing, competing sounds that give the impression of a cacophony. The design of our bars is literally deafening us.

While industrial chic is the current fashion we’re living in, it wasn’t always that way. Hospitality spaces used to favour carpet and opulent soft furnishings, and these were perfect for deadening sound. Any surface that can absorb, diffract, or deflect the sound can lessen the harm. On the rare occasion that a venue gets the acoustics right, you can hold a conversation with people from across a table and hear every word, with the background noise just that, an indistinct hum of chatter.

Perhaps you’re not the type to get stressed by loud noises – lucky you – but how do you know if your bar is a problem to others? There are two easy ways. First, the clap test: when your bar is empty, clap your hands and listen. Does it echo with a snap? That’s the reverberation bouncing off the hard walls. Second, when the bar is busy, pull out your phone and download a decibel meter to measure the noise. Anything above 75 decibels should have you concerned.

Fixing an existing problem might seem like a headache, but it is possible. While it might seem counterintuitive, adding more speakers means you aren’t trying to push music past people. You can lower the volume meaning guests can speak more softly. Adding soft furnishings might not fit with the designer’s vision, but there are ways of sneaking them in. You can hang acoustic panels on the walls and ceilings, maybe even printed with the artwork of your choice. Hanging fabric artwork or tapestry is an effective diffraction technique; tables can have acoustic foam glued beneath them. Liberally decorating the room with plants can help to stop sound waves relentlessly bouncing around.

Your music choice will be tailored to your bar – or should be – but we should talk equalisation. The way we hear music changes dramatically depending on how many people are in the room, and so needs adjustment throughout the night. Once a bar is full the treble is lost – vocals and lyrics disappear. The only hint to the song is often the thud of a bass line. Boosting the mids and trebles on a busy shift should be as second nature as dimming the lights.

Together we can create accessible, transportive hospitable spaces that protect the health of our workforce, spark joy and welcome all. 

» For a free toolkit on sonically accessible bar spaces via Hannah’s Instagram bio: @lanferocious