Sometimes a toffee sounds really good--not just the suggestion of it, but the actual toffee itself. That’s according to a study that found altering the pitch and type of instruments used in an accompanying soundtrack can modify the way food tastes.

The experiment was conducted using background music that was developed based on previous research that explored associations between variations in pitch and the perception of sour, sweet, bitter, and salty tastes. Each volunteer was given four pieces of toffee. Two pieces were eaten accompanied by a soundtrack of a lower pitched brass instruments. The remaining toffee was consumed listening to a high pitched piano piece. The result was a bittersweet symphony. Although all of the toffee was the same, volunteers rated toffee consumed during the piano music as sweet while pieces eaten with the lower pitched music were perceived as bitter.

These findings might be particularly illuminating for those who may have associated the experience of something dissolving on the tongue and musical pairings with a trip other than one to the science lab. It might also be useful for those who thought senses intertwining were only limited to those with synaesthesia, a neurological condition in which the senses cross over. For those with synaesthesia, a sense such as hearing or vision is experienced in a part of the body other than the part stimulated. It’s believed abstractionist painter Vassily Kandinsky had synaesthesia, hearing colors and seeing sounds. Although it has been theorized that everyone might have the potential to develop synaesthesia, only 1-4% of the population actually experience the condition. Since everyone might have a bit of it, you don’t have to be Kandinsky to experience an element of synaesthesia. Nor do you have to be Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds to taste music.

The exploration of sound and taste is relatively new; it has been noted that the International Standards Organization doesn’t include the element of sound in its definition of flavor: Complex combination of the olfactory, gustatory and trigeminal sensations perceived during tasting. The flavour may be influenced by tactile, thermal, painful and/or kinaesthetic effects. Recently, though, researchers are finally coming to their senses (all five of them) for a more inclusive look at flavor.

Amongst them is Dr Charles Spence, who leads Oxford University’s Crossmodal Research Laboratory. He has applied his research outside the lab, working with Starbucks on a soundtrack to complement their coffee, and been recognized with awards including the Friedrich Wilhelm Bessel Research Award and the Ig Nobel Prize.

In addition to working with food companies, Spence has collaborated with chefs including Heston Blumenthal. Together, Spence and Blumenthal conducted two experiments examining environmental sounds and their influence on taste. To do so, participants were given two samples of bacon and egg ice cream that were either accompanied by a soundtrack of chickens clucking in a farmyard or paired with the sounds of bacon sizzling in a frying pan. Although the same ice cream was served both times, participants rated the bacon flavor as stronger when paired with the sound of sizzling bacon and more eggy when the sound of chickens played.

Their other experiment found oysters presented in a shell and basket accompanied by sounds of the sea were rated as more pleasant than oysters served in a petri dish while farmyard noises played. The experiment inspired Blumenthal to create one of his signature dishes at his restaurant, The Fat Duck. The ‘Sound of the Sea’ consists of razor clams, sea urchin, and oysters paired with seafood foam, tapioca and panko sand. The dish is presented with a soundtrack of ambient waves crashing from an iPod that has been tucked away in a seashell.

Since this is our blog’s debut week, it seems apropos to kick things off by exploring why this particular aspect of food matters. For starters, it’s not just the digestive system that processes food. The potential exists to discover how the brain processes taste and sound for people in different environments, along with those who are deaf or hearing impaired.

Sound could also be a different pitch for advertisers. This could be possible for the food itself along with its packaging. As Pavlov’s dogs demonstrated the effects of associative learning, the same might be true with the sound association between a product and its packaging. Although the salivation may have had more to do with the cameo of a shirtless Brad Pitt, Pringles made a commercial that used the signature sound of its packaging opening as an auditory cue to eat their chips:

Charles Spence brings up an interesting concept regarding the use of music in food marketing. Noting it has been found that French music has influenced consumers to purchase French wine and the same with German music and wine, he wonders if the study could be replicated by playing the sounds of the sea at the seafood counter. The research is still in its preliminary stages, but according to Spence, “it shows how what starts out as a principled demonstration about sound and food, as in the Sound of the Sea dish, can translate into real interventions that nudge us towards healthier food choices.” This is a slippery slope, though. Spence recognizes this could also be applied towards marketing junk food and the potential to sway consumers could “absolutely go either way.”

Finally, multisensory food matters because it fosters imagination and fun. As dishes like the Sound of the Sea demonstrate, food can be tongue in cheek. Or, in this case, tongue in ear.

Want to see how sound affects taste but can’t make it to The Fat Duck? Here’s Heston Blumenthal making his bacon and egg ice cream:

Along with his recipe:


Ice-cream base

400 g sweet-cured smoked back bacon

1 litre whole milk

30 g semi-skimmed milk powder

24 large egg yolks

120 g unrefined caster sugar

Crispy soldiers

clarified butter

1 brioche loaf, crust removed, cut into soldiers (1.5 x 1.5 x 5 cm)

golden caster sugar

To serve

6 medium eggs

pastry offcuts or other bits of dough, to plug holes

400 g dry ice

orange marmalade

Cook's notes

Oven temperatures are for conventional; if using fan-forced (convection), reduce the temperature by 20˚C.

We use Australian tablespoons and cups: 1 teaspoon equals 5 ml; 1 tablespoon equals 20 ml; 1 cup equals 250 ml.

All herbs are fresh (unless specified) and cups are lightly packed.

All vegetables are medium size and peeled, unless specified.

All eggs are 55-60 g, unless specified.


Infusing time: overnight

To start the ice cream base, preheat the grill to high. Lay the bacon slices on a parchment-lined baking tray and place under the grill for 5-7 minutes or until crisp.

When the bacon is cooked, drain on kitchen paper and cut it into strips. Place in a bowl, pour over the milk then refrigerate to infuse overnight.

The next day, put the milk and bacon into a saucepan and add the milk powder. Place over a medium-low heat and bring to a gentle simmer. Remove from the heat.

In the meantime, blitz the egg yolks and sugar together using a hand blender. Combine the egg mixture with the warm milk and bacon and return the pan to the heat. Warm the liquid until it reaches 85ºC.

Once this temperature has been reached, remove the pan from the heat and pass the ice cream base through a fine sieve into a clean container over iced water, pushing the custard through with the back of a ladle.

To cook the crispy soldiers, melt a tablespoon of clarified butter in a non-stick frying pan over a medium heat. Add some of the soldiers and fry on all sides, remove and place on kitchen roll to absorb any excess fat. Repeat as necessary to cook the remaining soldiers.

Clean the pan completely then place it over a medium-high heat. Add enough sugar to cover the bottom of the pan and allow to melt.

Once the sugar has completely melted and caramelised, add some of the soldiers, no more than 4 or 5 at a time. Turn using tongs in order to cover every side, being careful not to touch the sugar as it is extremely hot. Once coated on all sides, remove the soldiers from the pan, place on a silicone mat and allow to cool. Repeat as necessary, cleaning the pan thoroughly after each use.

To serve the ice cream, use a large-gauge needle or an egg punch to make a hole in the top and bottom of the eggs and gently blow out the contents. Rinse the shells in cold water and place in boiling water for 45 minutes to sterilise. Remove, allow to cool and plug one of the holes in each shell with pastry.

Using a syringe, fill the eggshells with the ice cream base. Plug the remaining hole with pastry and keep refrigerated until needed.

To serve, make the ice cream in front of your guests by cracking an ice-cream base-filled egg into a saucepan and adding some of the crushed dry ice while mixing continuously until the ice cream is formed. This will take approximately 1 minute and it will look like scrambled eggs. Place in a bowl, add a teaspoon of orange marmalade on top of the ice cream, place a slice of crystallised bacon on top and serve with crispy solders on the side.

Now you’re ready to try this with your guests. Serve two batches, the first listening to this and the second with this playing.

Images: By author, Wonderlane and Mike_fleming.