Hear the Sweet (or Sour) Sound of Supper

We’ve known for decades that sound has an effect on taste. Kellogg’s was promoting Rice Krispies with the onomatopoetic “Snap, Crackle, and Pop!” as early as 1929, a phrase and upbeat noise that predisposed cereal eaters to expect a tasty, crunchy eating experience—as opposed to a lackluster interaction with a crackle-less cereal that turned to sludge in the bowl. The three cartoon elves of the same names first appeared in the 1930s, joined briefly in the 1950s by a fourth space-helmet-sporting elf named Pow. Pow (said to represent the power of whole-wheat grain) didn’t last very long; at least part of the reason may be that pow simply doesn’t evoke the same sensation of crispness and freshness as snap, crackle, and pop.

Crackle makes a difference. Research by experimental psychologist Charles Spence and colleagues at Oxford University’s Crossmodal Research Laboratory showed that artificially modulating the sound of a potato chip’s crunch changed eaters’ perceptions of the crispness and tastiness of the chip. Loud chips were deemed good chips; inaudible chips, stale and blah—even though the experimental chips were all pretty much the same. Similarly, the louder the fizz of a carbonated beverage, the fresher it was thought to taste. The crunch of a crisp apple or celery stick, the crackle of a crusty loaf of French bread, and the sizzle of a plate of fajitas—even the slurp of soup and the pop of a soda can tab—all have an effect on our experience of taste.

The sound-taste connection, however, is a lot more complicated than the food-eating sounds of crackle, crunch, and munch. The taste of food also changes depending on sounds in the surrounding environment.

Research from Spence’s lab indicates that people inherently associate tastes with musical notes. Sweet and sour tastes are reproducibly linked to high-pitched notes—lemon and lollipops, for example, pair with piccolos and flutes —while bitter and umami (savory) tastes are associated low-pitched notes. (Dark beer or roast beef go with tuba and bassoon.) Similarly, musical notes are intrinsically linked with smell—that function of the all-important nose, which actually accounts for about 75 percent of our sense of taste. In these experiments, people equated the sweet scent of oranges with higher pitches—and, preferentially, with the piano—while pairing the smell of roasted coffee with lower pitches and brass.

People also reported that the sound of music changed the taste of food. Toffee, for example, was thought to taste sweeter when eaten to a high-pitched soundtrack and more bitter when accompanied by a low-pitched soundtrack—even though, in both instances, subjects were give the very same toffee.

Such sonic seasoning is now being tested in the real world of meals. Spence collaborated with food artist Caroline Hobkinson to create a dessert for a London restaurant—chocolate-coated bittersweet toffee—that came with a telephone number giving diners a choice of soundtracks, one for a sweet-leaning dessert experience, the other for a bitter. Results showed up to a 10 percent difference in taste perception, depending on the track chosen.

According to The Guardian, this was enough to capture the attention of Ben & Jerry’s, which is reportedly considering adding QR codes to their ice cream cartons which would allow eaters to use smartphones to access taste-enhancing soundtracks.

In another series of experiments, diners were given samples of chef Heston Blumenthal’s famous bacon-and-egg ice cream, a signature dish at his world-renowned restaurant, The Fat Duck. The ice cream was served to background recordings of either cackling chickens or bacon sizzling in a frying pan. In the first case, eaters reported their ice cream as tasting more strongly of eggs; in the second, more strongly of bacon.

Similarly, oysters accompanied by sea sounds were found to be noticeably more delicious than oysters accompanied by the cackling chicken soundtrack, which led Blumenthal to invent a dish called “Sound of the Sea,” a combo of razor clams, sea urchins, and oysters, artistically served with seaweed and panko “sand.” The dish comes with an accompanying iPod (cunningly tucked in a seashell) that plays an oyster-enhancing soundtrack of crashing surf.

The association of certain tastes and odors with musical notes, researchers guess, may be a low-level form of synesthesia—a neurological disorder experienced by an estimated 1 to 4 percent of the population, in which certain senses seem to be cross-wired. (See Kiki? Or Bouba: What is the Shape of Your Taste?)

However, taste and sound associations also may vary with an individual’s culture and personal history. For example, we perceive tastes and odors as more pleasant if we find the accompanying sounds or soundtracks to be congruent, as with chef Blumenthal’s oysters. Many of us, for example, link the smells of cinnamon and clove with Christmas carols—which, presumably, predisposes us to eat gingerbread men.

Ethnic food is perceived as more authentic if paired with ethnic music—which means that your tacos taste better if eaten while listening to to a mariachi band. Wine shoppers buy more French wine when listening to French music; and more German wine, when listening to German. In other words, if Beethoven’s 9th is playing in the background, you’re likely to come home with Reisling.

As Charles Spence and Betina Piqueras-Fiszman explain in The Perfect Meal, their text on the multisensory science of food and dining, background music can influence how much money we spend, how long we stay at a restaurant table, and how fast we eat. Music with “upmarket associations,” such as classical pieces, leads customers to spend more money, as opposed to pop music, no music, or selections from the Top 40. Slow music encourages diners to spend more time at the table; fast music—say, the William Tell Overture – goads eaters to gobble their meals and run.

Jackhammers or blaring heavy metal, on the other hand, can zap our sense of taste altogether. A reason for the legendary awfulness of most airplane food, researchers guess, may be that the drone of the engines suppresses our sense of taste. (The same may apply to cacophonous school cafeterias. Maybe the problem isn’t the sloppy joes; it’s the noise.)

Sensations of sweetness and saltiness are particularly susceptible to background roar; umami (savory) tastes seem to be more noise-resistant. Best picks for airplane travelers may be a Bloody Mary —and perhaps the umami effect may explain why kids love school pizza day.

Where to go with all this? It’s clear that the sense of taste is far more complex than previously believed. Rather than a single tidy sense, it’s a mash-up of all five. Researchers predict that a new multisensory model of taste may eventually help us to build heathier eating patterns, deal with eating disorders, and form closer social relationships.

At the very least, it may help us all have more fun with food.

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