Manipulating Taste with Other Senses

If you eat something sweet, it'll taste better if you listen to higher-pitched music while you eat it. To enhance something bitter, turn on a song that's lower-pitched and brassy. This isn't some pseudo-spiritual nonsense. This is actual, legitimate science.

The findings come courtesy of the Future of Food department at Oxford University. Professor Charles Spence, is the man in charge of the department, and I spoke to him about the department's fascinating work.

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How long have you been looking at how sound alters flavor?

Charles Spence: We've been looking at flavor for a decade, starting with how changing the color of the food changes taste. And then around 2004 we started doing work on sound, we looked at how we could change the crispness of a potato chip just by changing the sound of the crunch. We started working with some chefs on the sonic chip experiment, and that evolved into the sound of the seafood dish, where people eat a plate of seafood and are given an iPod where they hear the sounds of the sea. From there, we took it into the world of music and taste. We want to build up a database, a musical menu, to complement different tastes and foods.

Has there been a sound shown to lead to particular bad flavors?

Spence: Oh, yes. Some sounds of a distorted Argentina tango, which is a very sour piece somewhere between music and sound, can make things very, very sharp. So, if you already have a kind of sharp acidic white wine, or if I stick a kids ultra-sour sweet in your mouth, that can turn into too intense of a sensation and unpleasant as a result.

What real world applications do these findings have?

Spence: People have picked up on the idea. British Airways introduced a sonic seasoning soundtrack, so that depending on what meal you order you can dial into the headset and get music that's been picked to match that dish. We're also seeing an absolute explosion of brands developing sensory apps. Scan the bottle of champagne, type in the code, and it'll give you a range of music that's been pre-selected to match. There have been a lot of experiential events around brands. We're going to see a lot of that in the UK over the next couple of months. Suddenly everyone is getting very excited about what they can do in this space.

Why does it not work for everyone?

Spence: Some people may just be less sensitive. Some might say that there are those synesthesists out there that see colors when they see days of the week, and taste things when they hear particular sounds, so maybe they're at one end of the spectrum. And perhaps autistic individuals may be at some other end of the spectrum, perhaps. We've also looked at expertise. If you're an expert musician or an expert wine taster or maker, they could focus on the taste and absolutely ignore the sound. That's what they try to do in professional competitions and such.

Why is there a connection between taste and other senses?

Spence: A year or two ago, people were finding -- in rats, but also in humans -- these connections directly between the nose and ear that might imply one route in, so what we hear could change what we taste and smell. This paper's just about to come out from Cornell looking at noise and taste and showing how airplane noise, or 85 decibals of background noise, can suppress your ability to detect sweetness and salt, but it doesn't affect your ability to taste umami. In fact, umami gets stronger with more background noise. That suggests some direct connection between the nerves, the codes, hearing, and taste. Separate from that, we think our brains pick up associations and correlations that are in the environment. That's why our brains know that fruits go from green and sour to red and ripe. That's a useful thing to know. A lot of correlation is out there from birth. We put our tongues out and up if somebody puts a sweet taste on our tongue, we'll stick our tongues out and down to eject a bitter taste.

Do you have future experiments planned?

Spence: Lots and lots. At the moment, we're doing a lot on champagnes. There hasn't been much music and champagne matching yet, thinking about what instruments go with the carbonation, playing with different kinds of harmonies, playing with the tempo of music. Will slow tempo music prolong the finish in wine? Will high beats-per-minute shorten the finish? The roughness, the rhythm, the pitch, the timber, so on and so forth. Try to pluck out all the things you could possibly play within the soundscape and see what they do to the aroma, the length of a wine, as compared to the taste. We started with taste because people can agree on basic tastes. When it comes to flavors, it becomes harder to get people to agree on the categories, so that will be another big line of research.

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