Add some sonic seasoning to people’s tasting experience
Eating is the only thing we do that involves all the senses.
But sound is rarely considered part of this experience.
Our senses are intertwined and what we hear while eating will influence our sense of taste. Our brain picks up all these environmental signals and sound is also part of this taste mix whether we realize it or not.
Maybe you’ve felt it while eating a potato chip or popcorn.
I bet you like hearing the crunchy sound in your mouth while you eat these things. It’s a pleasurable experience. However, if we didn’t hear the crunch, would it be equally tasteful?
Science tells us it wouldn’t.
Let’s dive into the effects of sound on our sense of taste.
The right music fit
There’re two main outcomes of our eating experience when we apply sound to the equation.
The first one is what we choose to eat.
Playing certain songs in a food environment (e.g. restaurant, supermarket) can guide our purchasing behavior.
One study in British supermarkets found that when playing French music, people bought more French wines than German. When they changed the background music to German music, German brands outsold French wines.
Another experiment found similar results with American students at a university canteen. When researchers played Spanish instrumental music, more students chose Spanish food, seafood paella, compared to the Italian dish, chicken parmesan.
This might not always lead to liking the option you chose, but it can influence your food selection without your awareness.
And the second effect is on the food itself.
Changes in our sense of taste
If you want to become a music sommelier, here’s what you should know about how food interacts with sound.
Taking several studies into account, the most common ways to enhance certain flavors goes as follows:
Sweet: use high-pitch sounds, soft volume, legato articulations (no space between notes), consonant (pleasant) chords and melodies, and recur to songs containing the piano timbre.
Sour: use hight-pitch sounds, a fast tempo, dissonant (tense) chords and melodies, and include staccato articulations (notes sharply detached one from another).
Bitter: use songs that tend to have more low-pitch sounds. Melodies with trombones can amplify that flavor as well.
Salt: your music selections should have songs that are more in the medium pitch range of sounds.
Now, if you want to dampen people’s taste intensity for sweetness and saltiness, use loud (75–85dB) white noise. Any noise that sounds like radio or TV static, or even a whirring fan, creates this type of noise.
White noise weakens our perception of taste.
And don’t worry about the volume level in this case, although it’s a high volume, the average noise level in restaurants is around 80dB.
Putting things into practice
One of the most prolific researchers on the topic of sound-food associations, professor Spence from Oxford University, teamed with celebrity chef Blumenthal to apply this knowledge in one of the best restaurants in the world, the Fat Duck.
They presented a group of people with scoops of bacon and egg ice cream.
Some of them heard the sounds of fried bacon and others heard chickens clucking while eating. Now, the ice cream was always the same one, but guests exposed to bacon background sounds felt it more “bacony” while the other group experienced it “eggier” while listening to chicken sounds in the background.
They also tried it on another dish. The chef mixed the sound of waves, gulls, and other seaside ambiance while serving oysters and found that people felt it more tasteful than when they ate it with farm noises in the background.
The chef later created a course called “The sound of the sea” containing clams and oysters, served with a special side dish: an iPod. People experienced this new “recipe” while listening to the sounds of the ocean through headphones.
And the result?
People marveled at the taste of this delicacy.
The use of sound for marketers and doctors alike
Food marketers spend time trying to highlight the sound of their products.
They enhance its crispiness or its crunchiness in their ads. Just think about Coca-Cola’s bottle opening sound. It instantaneously lures you into going to buy a Coke, right?
It’s the power of sound.
But that same desire can be helpful for patients with a diminished sense of taste or with low appetite. Think about cancer patients after chemotherapy. By enhancing certain sound properties of food products, patients can increase their sense of taste and improve their eating experience.
Sound can also help us stay healthy.
We might need less salt or sweetener if we add a pinch of sound to the mix.
So next time, put your headphones on and get immersed in your plate.
Eating involves all senses but we tend to neglect the role of sound in our food experience.
Now, sound can augment or diminish a certain taste but it can’t change it completely.
Changing the background music or sound of food won’t be able to convince you that your scrambled eggs are now caviar.
The flavor has to be there.
You’ve learned the basics of a music sommelier. You’ll be able to pair the right music with the right meal, influence people’s food choices, enhance certain flavors, or even dampen them.
The LA Times wrote about this job back in 2012, and with more awareness about the role of sound in food now might be the right time for this skill to become a trend.
Welcome to sonic seasoning!