If you’re eating your favorite turkey sandwich surrounded by lively coworkers in a noisy break room, do you think that same turkey sandwich would taste different if you were eating it while sitting on a quiet park bench? Well, if your answer is yes, you are correct. There is growing evidence that sound is the “forgotten sense” when it comes to how we perceive flavors.
Dr. Charles Spence, who leads Oxford University’s Cross Modal Research Laboratory, has been studying the relationship between sound and taste for years. “When people think about flavor, they might think about taste, they might think about smell, they might think about what [the food] looks like, they might think about the texture and the mouth-feel—but they never think about the sound,” he says.
What is the Connection Between Sound and Taste?
In 2003, Spence invited 20 research subjects to his lab to try to answer a question that kept him wondering: Could the sonic quality of a chip’s crunch alter one’s perception of the chip’s taste?
He had each subject enter a soundproof booth, sit in front of a microphone wearing headphones. This setup would allow him to tweak both the frequency and volume of the sound the subject heard when he or she ate a Pringles potato chip. What he found was that participants rated the chips that made a higher-pitched and louder crunch 15 percent fresher than the softer chips, though the chips were identical.
As more research was conducted, Spence and others collected evidence that what we hear when we eat food, whether it’s the sound the food makes, the music we hear in a restaurant or even the white noise from an office, can make our food seem sweeter, more bitter, more savory or more fresh, depending on the quality of that sound.
Further research continues to deepen our understanding of multisensory flavor perception. Researchers at the Nathan S. Kline Institute for Psychiatric Research in Orangeburg, New York, determined how our brain plays a role. They discovered that something called the olfactory tubercle, a structure at the base of the brain that plays a role in the detection of odors, responds as well to sound. What’s more, sound can work on flavor not just through perception, but possibly also at the level of biochemistry.
How Does What We Hear Affect Taste?
Studies have shown 4 ways that sound affects our taste.
- Sensory suppression – Disturbing sounds and bad acoustics seem to distract us from fully tasting certain flavors in foods. Loud noises can suppress one’s ability to taste sweetness and saltiness. In some cases, the taste of umami is enhanced with loud noises. For those of you new to Umami, it is one of the five basic tastes and translates to savory.
- Semantic association – We often associate distinct types of music with different levels of social standing, cost, and quality. Studies show that playing background classical music encourages 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.
- 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.
- 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.
These individual factors are not mutually exclusive. Keep in mind, there are always different influences that can be sending signals from your ears to your mouth. But give it a try. Next time you are at a restaurant, do an experiment yourself. Does that pepperoni pizza smell – and hence, taste differently based on background music. You might find your pizza pairs better with James Taylor than with Beyoncé.
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