The delicate connection between sound and taste

Which type of music should you play if you wish to enhance the taste of the spicy soup or delicious creamy chocolate you are serving? And what has bad acoustics to do with certain flavors?

Charles Spence, professor of experimental psychology at Oxford University, explains what the latest scientific research has uncovered about the intricate connections between our ears and our taste buds.

Loyal readers of Troldtekt’s news themes may recall our previous interview with Professor Charles Spence. If you have not read it, do yourself a favor and check it out, as it is packed with interesting insights about the relationship between what we hear and what we taste.

As Head of the Crossmodal Research group at Oxford University, which specializes in the research about the integration of information across different senses, Charles Spence has a unique overview of how our senses are connected. He has kindly agreed to give us an update on the latest science.

– There is a lot of really interesting research happening in this field, which continues to deepen our understanding of multisensory flavor perception. In addition, we have seen some creative applications of that knowledge in practice, says Charles Spence.

For example, Spotify has teamed up with the alcohol delivery service Jimmy Brings to create the ‘Songmelier Edition’, that pairs a range of wines with the perfect music. And with the app Wine Listening, you can scan the bottle label to get suggestions for your own tasty soundtrack to match your preferred vintage.

In London, Charles Spence’s team helped arrange a series of eating experiences at various restaurants where a German DJ enhanced the menu with carefully crafted compositions built on the science of sonic seasoning. One coffee shop in Korea even supplies its customers with headphones and music to match their coffee.

The four ways sound and taste interact

Since the first scientific studies into the interaction between taste and sound, researchers have identified four general ways in which what we hear affects our perception of taste.

  1. Sensory suppression:
    Loud noise suppresses our ability to taste sweetness and saltiness, while it in some cases enhances the taste of umami. Disturbing sounds and bad acoustics simply seem to distract us from fully tasting certain flavors in our food.
  2. Semantic association:
    We tend to associate distinct types of music with different levels of social standing, cost, and quality. The research shows that playing background classical music leads consumers to spend more money on their food and beverages than if they were listening to Top 40 pop hits instead. Some restaurants have experimented with serving their seafood to the sounds of the sea.
  3. Sonic seasoning:
    Music can be composed specifically to bring out specific taste elements. The pitch, tempo and tonality can be arranged to draw attention to certain characteristics. For example, music that can enhance the sourness or sweetness of what you are tasting.
  4. Sensation transference:
    Our experiences tend to carry over from one aspect of what we are doing to the other. For instance, the more you like the music you are listening to, the more likely you are to enjoy whatever you are tasting.

An increasing awareness

The four factors are not mutually exclusive. At any given moment, dozens of different influences could be in sending signals from your ears to your mouth. With each new study, Charles Spence and his colleagues around the globe become more skilled at using sounds to guide and shape our sensory experiences.

– The total soundscape will determine your perception. But by testing the “tasty” compositions, we have identified the key components for creating a new musical menu. Spicy music, for example, is high tempo with lots of shifts and transitions, energetic and arousing, he says.

Charles Spence expects that we will see an increasing awareness about the link between sound and taste play out in many ways. From restaurants and architects taking greater care to minimize noise and optimize acoustics to chefs and orchestras joining forces to host stadium-sized culinary concerts.

Test your musical taste

These sound clips have been designed to enhance distinct flavor elements:

Facts: About Charles Spence

  • Professor (MA, PhD) of experimental psychology at Oxford University
  • Fellow of Somerville College
  • Areas of research: Applied cognitive psychology, Consumer psychology, Sensory marketing, Multisensory perception, Gastrophysics