Does what we hear (or listen to) change what we taste? While the intuitive response might well be “Don’t be silly, of course not!” a growing body of rigorous scientific research conducted over the last few years has shown that it most definitely can. In fact, it turns out that there are a number of qualitatively different ways in which what we hear changes our perception of taste/flavour and how much we enjoy the experience of eating and drinking. Think here of everything from the sound of food (consumption) through to the sound of packaging, and from ambient soundscapes through background music. All of these sonic cues influence us more than any of us probably realize.
And while the dream of enhancing our food and drink experiences through coordinated ambient sound has been around for almost a century, until recently, the technology has always lagged behind the aspirations of those culinary creatives who would like to match different music or soundscapes to different tastes. However, with the new Sony Multi-room audio products, it allows for the delivery of different music (or soundscapes) in different rooms. This new technology sets the stage, then, for the delivery of truly multisensory dining experiences where no matter which room you find yourself in, the music can be matched to help bring out the best in whatever you are tasting. By allowing for the possibility of different music being played in different rooms, the Sony multi-room also opens up the possibility for people to take their food and drink from room to room and to experience how changing the music that they listen to can really change the taste (see Spence et al., 2014b; Velasco et al., 2013).
Culinary artists such as Bompas & Parr (http://bompasandparr.com) are perfectly placed to take the latest scientific findings regarding the cross-sensory influences on our perception (see Bremner, Lewkowicz, & Spence, 2012; Calvert, Spence & Stein, 2004, for reviews of the crossmodal research literature), and use them to create tasty treats. Never before has the science tasted, or sounded, so good.
The remainder of this report looks into the various ways in which what we hear can change what we taste, and summarise briefly what is known about some of the neural mechanisms underlying these effects.
The sonic chip: Multisensory integration
At the simplest level, think only of the sound that many foods make as we bite into and chew them. Just take, for example, the sound of the crunch that, if made louder, radically enhance your experience of the freshness and crunchiness of a crisp – what the North Americans call potato chips (Zampini & Spence, 2004). In fact, many of our favourite sensory experiences around food and drink, think here only of the crispy, crackly, creamy, and carbonated sensations that we all know and love, are dependent, in large part, on the associated (often distinctive) sounds (see Spence, 2015a, for a review). Such crossmodal effects likely result from multisensory integration – that is, from our brain’s tendency to integrate the inputs from the different senses that belong to the same object, event, or in this case, food (see Spence, 2015b, for a review). We are currently investigating which musical sounds best match the popping of the bubbles in a champagne or fizzy drink. Specifically, we are investigating what influence listening to music with a rapidly plucked sound of a harp has. We are also investigating whether slow music results in flavours lasting longer in the mouth than more up tempo music (cf. Wang & Spence, in press b).
It is important to note that, our brains sometimes exhibit sensory dominance – using one sense to construct the experience in the others – as when making the crunching sound louder can make the crisps actually feel different in the mouth. At other times, our brains combine weak inputs from each of our senses to give rise to a multisensory flavour experience that can be much richer than the sum of the parts; this is known as superadditivity (Spence, 2008).
The sound of packaging: Anchoring and setting expectations
Beyond any sounds that are associated with consumption, the sounds of the packaging in which a food is experienced – think the rattle of the crisps packet, or the pop of the champagne cork can also influence our enjoyment of what comes next too. Such effects likely reflect the role of sensory and hedonic expectations in anchoring our subsequent food and drink experiences (see Piqueras-Fiszman & Spence, 2015). Whenever we hear the pop of the champagne cork, or the rattle of the crisp packet, certain expectations automatically come to mind. In a sense, then, we are all like Pavlov’s dogs, salivating in response to the dinner bell (see Spence et al., 2011).
Background noise and the masking of taste sensations
As well as enhancing the experience of taste, it is important to note that what we hear can also suppress our ability to taste (see Spence et al., 2014). Here, think only of the loud noise (c. 85 dB) of the engines on the airplane. Such loud background noise suppresses our ability to taste sweetness and saltiness, but counterintuitively enhances our perception of the umami taste that can be found in drinks like a Bloody Mary (Yan & Dando, 2015). Next time you fly, then, just take a look at how many people order one of these drinks – many of them would never thing of ordering tomato juice while on the ground.
As to why background noise should have different effects on different tastes is not yet known. One possibility suggested by Yan and Dando (2015) is that there may be some interference from the auditory nerves on those that transmit information about the taste of food and drink from mouth to brain. Interestingly, a few years ago, researchers discovered the existence of direct neural connections between the ear and nose (Wesson & Wilson, 2010), suggesting that specific kinds of loud sound might lead to a direct suppression of olfactory function. This merging of smell with sound some have wanted to call a new sense, and christened it ‘Smound’; Peeples, 2010)!
The problem with background noise isn’t restricted to the air, though. The noise levels in many popular restaurants are currently in the range of 90-100 dB. No wonder that a growing number of restaurant critics now include noise ratings alongside the quality of the food (see Spence, 2014a, for a review). Cross-sensory masking, then, is another route by which what we hear changes what we taste, and how much we enjoy the experience.
Making food taste better through music
Assuming that the background music isn’t too loud, just what impact does the type of music that you listen to have on the taste and flavour of whatever you are eating and/or drinking? Can you really enhance the taste of food and drink by making sure that the music matches the taste/flavour? Well, the extant research already shows that listening to classical music is likely to make wine, and possibly also other drinks, taste more expensive. Meanwhile, if you want to bring out the authentic/ethnic feel in a dish or a drink, make sure to match the music to the food and drink (see Spence & Piqueras-Fiszman, 2014, for a review). Think about a little French accordion music to accompany that Bordeaux wine, this combined makes the taste more authentic. Some researchers believe that these crossmodal effects – of music on taste, can be explained by sensation transference, priming, and anchoring.
In recent research conducted together with the London Symphony Orchestra (Spence et al., 2013), we found that people rated their pleasure in the experience of tasting wine 10-12% higher when matching, rather than mismatching music was played. We found that people rated Tchaikovsky’s String Quartet No 1 in D major turned out to be a very good match for red wine (a Château Margaux, from Bordeaux), and a particularly bad match for white wine (Pouilly Fumé). Meanwhile, Mozart’s Flute Quartet in D major, K285 turned out to be an especially good match for the Pouilly Fumé but a poor match for the Château Margaux. We were also able to demonstrate that people rated the wines as tasting sweeter, and enjoyed the drinking experience (10-12%) more while listening to the matching music than while tasting the wine in silence.
It turns out, generally-speaking, that the more you like the music, the more you will like what you are tasting. This is an example of what is known as sensation transference – the idea is that we transfer what we feel about the music to what we think about the food and drink.
Mood music: When music-induced emotion influences taste
The mood and emotion that can be induced by listening to music can influence the taste of food and drink (see Spence & Piqueras-Fiszman, 2014, for a review). Whatever you do here, though, don’t put Samuel Barber’s Adagio for Strings on the music system. This piece of music has been shown to be the most universally depressing music known, no matter which corner of the world it is played in (Huron, 2007). Instead, you should generally go for some uplifting music instead. This can be thought of as a musical palate cleanser. After all, given that we taste with our minds, rather than just with our tongues, getting the brain ready for flavour experiences is probably even more important than just cleansing the palate.
Research conducted by Prof. Adrian North has shown that if you drink wine while listening to zingy music like Nouvelle Vague’s ‘Just can’t get enough’ then the wine will also be rated as tasting more zingy as well (North, 2012). Meanwhile, if you want to bring out the heavy notes in your wine, why not put some Tchaikovsky’s Late String Quartets on the music system, or perhaps a bit of Carmina Burana by Carl Orff instead.
Perhaps the wine critic who suggested that: “Red wines need either minor key or they need music that has negative emotion. They don’t like happy music…Cabernets like angry music.” (Gray, 2007; cited in Spence, 2011, for a review) was right after all.
In research that will be published in the coming couple of weeks, Janice Wang and I demonstrated that changing the music that people were listening to exerted in a significant effect on the perceived acidity and fruitiness of wine (Wang & Spence, in press b). In particular, people rated a French Sauvignon Blanc (a wine with grass, citrus, and gooseberry notes, light body, and high acidity) and an Argentinian Malbec from Mendoza (expressing black fruit, oak, and vanilla notes, medium body, medium acidity, and soft tannins) as tasting fruitier while listening to Rachmaninoff’s Vocalise, a piano and cello duet played in a slow tempo (roughly 80 beats per minute. than while listening to Debussy’s Jardin Sous la Pluie, at roughly 150 beats per minute, a virtuosic piano solo with many fast passages in a high pitch range. By contrast, people’s ratings of acidity of the two wines were significantly higher (by an average of 20%) when Debussy was played than while people listened to Rachmaninoff.
Synaesthetic matching of music to taste
Now, beyond all of the above ways in which what you hear affects what you taste, one of the most exciting new areas in the study of multisensory science comes from the finding that there are also synaesthetic links between music and tastes, food aromas, and flavours (Spence & Deroy, 2013). So, for instance, in research conducted here at Oxford University’s Crossmodal Research Laboratory, we have been able to demonstrate that most people will match high-pitched sounds with the sound of tinkling piano or wind chimes with sweet tastes (think Track 7, from Mike Oldfield’s Tubular Bells, or Aquarium, from Camille Saint-Saëns’ Carnival of the Animals). Meanwhile, people associate bitter tastes in foods with lower pitched sounds and the sound of brass instruments instead (see Crisinel & Spence, 2012; Spence, 2012). You can try this yourself with sweetened black coffee, or very dark chocolate. As to why matching music should influence taste and flavour in this way, one suggestion is that what we listen to can direct our attention towards those elements of taste and flavour that happens to correspond crossmodally.
While you cannot use music to create tastes out of nowhere, what you can do is use certain music to subtly bias one’s attention toward focusing on one element or another in a complex taste/flavour experience. In this sense, synaesthetic sounds may work much as verbal or written suggestions that a food is ‘bitter’ or ‘sweet’ have been shown to. Interestingly, the results of brain-imaging research demonstrate that such descriptions of a food’s likely taste quality can have an impact on the earliest parts of the brain’s response to taste (see Figure below). That is, if you bias a person to expect a particular taste, or to attend more to one element in a complex flavour experience, their experience of taste and flavour really will be different.
The brain’s response to tastes can be changed, even from the earliest processing sites, by expectations and associations.
Given such exciting results, it should come as no surprise to find that there are now composers and designers out there who are creating music specifically to match each of the basic tastes (and flavours). And while the worry has always been that the resulting sounds (both music and soundscapes) might only work in the culture that they were originally tested in/created for, the latest results suggest that these synaesthesia like mappings between taste and music work cross-culturally too (Knöferle et al., 2015). There are even musical menus specifying which musical attributes go with which taste (see the Table below, taken from Knöferle & Spence, 2012).
In our latest research, we have shown that people associate consonant musical soundtracks with sweetness while associating dissonant musical soundtracks with sourness instead (Wang & Spence, in press a). Furthermore, we also found that mixed fruit juices taste significantly sweeter to us if we listen to consonant rather than dissonant music.
Finally, there is evidence to suggest that the sound of the piano is a good match for fruits such as blackberry, apricot, and raspberry (probably because they are sweet). By contrast, for musky, smoky, dark chocolate flavours, pick music having lower notes instead.
This graph shows that people associate lower musical notes with smoked, musky, woody aromas, whereas they associate higher notes with fruit aromas.
The fascinating result to have emerged from the latest research is that if you know which sounds match a certain taste or flavour, then by playing the right sort of music you can enhance the matching taste or flavour in the food. This was the idea, behind the Sonic Cake Pop dish that was served at The House of Wolf restaurant in Islington recently (see Crisinel et al., 2012). No wonder that many big brands are starting to jump on the digital seasoning bandwagon (Spence, 2014b).
One thing to remember here, though, is part of the effect of sound comes from contrast. It is the higher-pitched of two sounds that will be rated as sweeter. By playing low-pitched first, then playing a higher-pitched piece, the listener’s attention will hopefully be drawn to the difference in pitch. Notice how the Sony multi-room allows such a contrast to be brought out by having people move from room to room.
Music’s influence on eating drinking behaviour
And beyond music’s effect on taste, the beats per minute and loudness of the music can also influence how quickly we eat and drink (see North & Hargreaves, 2008; Spence & Piqueras-Fiszman, 2014, for reviews). So, given the above, can there really be any doubt that what we hear changes what we taste, and can do so in a number of ways. To conclude, the next time that you find that you don’t like the flavour of whatever it is you happen to be tasting as much as you expected, or hoped, then you might just think about changing the music you are listening to, or else, if you happen to have a Sony Multi-room sound control system, change the room.
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