It’s said that a person can have good taste in music but what about the taste of music? What would it taste like? Experimental psychologist Charles Spence and researchers at the Crossmodal Research Laboratory at the University of Oxford may be able to provide some insight.
The lab explores how the five senses--touch, taste, smell, vision, and hearing--interact with each other. Amongst the findings, their research on auditory and gustatory stimuli has suggested there may be implicit associations between taste and pitch. High pitched sounds are mainly associated with sweet and sour tasting foods while low pitched notes are more commonly paired with more bitter and umami tastes.
Further, their research found that taste may be altered depending on the accompanying soundtrack. In one study, participants tasted pieces of cinder toffee while listening to different soundtracks--one with higher and one with lower pitched tones. The toffee was then rated on a scale that ranged from bitter to sweet. The result was a bittersweet symphony, showing that the participants found the toffee sweeter when paired with higher pitches and more bitter when accompanied by lower pitches. Unbeknownst to them, the toffee was identical--it was only the sound that had changed.
Spence says it’s an exciting time in the world of pairing taste and music. Outside the lab, these experiments are being translated into the real world and can be experienced everywhere from high end restaurants to High Street shops. Inspired by the cinder toffee experiment, he collaborated with artist Caroline Hobkinson to create a "sonic cake pop" at the House of Wolf, an experimental restaurant in London. The dessert was a bittersweet toffee coated in chocolate that was accompanied by a telephone number. After calling the number, diners could decide to either press "one" for a sweeter dessert or "two" for a more bitter one and then corresponding high or low pitched notes were heard. According to Spence, altering the soundscapes resulted in a 5-10% change in ratings of bitterness and sweetness.
As far as music-taste pairings are concerned, the sky may not even be the limit for their possibilities. Spence recently created Sonic Seasoning, a 13 track playlist for British Airways that was designed to enhance flavors in the foods selected from their menu. Some the pairings are based on pitch, like coffee accompanied by Plácido Domingo’s Nessun Dorma from Turandot, since the coffee’s bitterness goes well with the tenor's lower tones. He explains that others are based on a different notion--that the experience of eating ethnic foods will be enhanced when accompanied by music from the same region. “If you have some sort of ethnic cuisine, be it Indian, Scottish, French, Italian, then if you put people in an environment with a matching atmosphere--with French accordion music for French wine, Indian sitar music while eating Indian food--if you get the right sort of music, that will increase the perceived authenticity of the sort of food that you’re eating.”
There is still much more to be understood about the relationship between music and taste. Spence says there is currently more anecdotal than serious scientific findings that could show how interactive the relationship is. He suspects music will have a larger impact on taste rather than the reverse. “There’s sort of a neural real estate,” Spence explains, “because there is so much more of our brain given over to hearing and vision than to taste and smell.”
Because music can alter a food’s perceived sweetness or saltiness, a long-term aspiration for Spence is to see how music and taste pairings could contribute to healthier eating. In order to do so, such studies would have to be more long-range than the current ones. Also, they would probably begin with sugar reduction strategies since sweetness is more easily understood than saltiness in musical mappings of taste.
Which music would you pair with food? If you can tear yourself away from deciphering which emoji you should be reincarnated as or just how well you know You’ve Got Mail, take this quiz on BuzzFeed. It was created by sensory branding agency Condiment Junkie based on research from Oxford’s Crossmodal Laboratory.
Image Credit: photo taken by author.