Eating is mostly thought of as a four-sense experience. We see the salmon croquette in front of us, smell the aroma, feel the texture in our mouth, and taste the complex flavors as we chew. We hear sizzles and crunches, yes, but sound is very rarely considered part of the equation. But as researchers are rapidly starting to discover, what we hear while we dine is extremely important: The right soundtrack can, for instance, increase or decrease our interest in certain food, boost sweetness or even completely morph flavors. And this knowledge may forever shift the future landscape of food.
We are governed by sound. Our bodies are constantly scooping up sonic input and translating that information into usable data. What we hear tells us where to walk, when there’s danger, if someone is angry; it can make us remember events and feel empathy for things in which we had no part. Sound is not only one of our most powerful senses, but one of our most potent emotional triggers.
And it’s also a potent manipulator of flavor. “Taste originates in the brain as much as it does the belly,” says Dr. Tim McClintock, a professor of physiology at the University of Kentucky. While we think of our senses as operating independently, he says, this is not really the case. (Try eating a flavorful meal when you have a stuffy nose and you’ll understand the connection between smell and taste.)
Our senses, McLintock points out, are intertwined, piggybacking off one another to send us the most information they can about scenarios. “The brain,” he says, “is constantly picking up signals while we are eating to gain as much as it can about the experience. And sound is a large factor in this, whether we realize it or not.” Bite into a piece of fine dark chocolate; chances are you’ll enjoy eating it more if it has a satisfying snap. Or look at a 2007 study in which scientists from the University of Leeds determined that crunchiness — specifically the sound of the crunch — is extremely important when constructing the ultimate BLT sandwich.)
McLintock is a founding member of the International Society for Neurogastronomy. A relatively young field of research, neurogastronomy is a corner of culinary science that studies how certain brain processes impact the flavors we experience when eating and drinking. It’s a blend of biology, neuroscience and culinary arts and involves everything from food preparation on a molecular level to olfactory hacks that enable us to experience flavor differently (flavor being the combination of our sensory experiences and such factors as our expectations of the meal and what those allow us to experience). The growing body of research to come out of the field basically comes down to one pursuit: discovering the processes that enable our brain to perceive food and bending those processes in new and interesting ways.
“It’s more or less trying to figure out how and why we experience what we experience when we eat and how to harness those experiences,” says McLintock, whose primary field of study revolves around olfaction.
As it turns out, our sense of taste is easy to trick. And sound and its ability to modulate taste is one of the most intriguing arms of the growing body of neurogastronomical research. Take, for instance, a 2012 study from the British Journal of Psychology in which researchers sat participants in a room and asked them to sip and rate wine while four different songs, ranging from mellow to harsh, played softly in the background. As it turned out, the participants’ scores of the wines lined up with their feelings about the music. Meaning? They were unknowingly influenced by the aural triggers around them.
Another study conducted in 2004 and published in the Journal of Sensory Studies looked at the crunch of potato chips. Researchers had participants wear headphones and taste-test various chips. The chips were uniform and therefore indistinguishable from one another visually, but the sound was not: Researchers piped in different variations of crunch, some of which were manipulated, through the headphones. Nearly all participants gave the crisper-sounding chips a higher rating in terms of overall taste and tended to mark the duller-sounding ones as stale. The rub? All chips involved were identical Pringles, so the perceived taste was dependent on the sound. (A team of Italian scientists proved the same results a few years back using apples instead of potato chips.)
The Pringles test was performed by Charles Spence, a professor of experimental psychology at Oxford University. He runs the Crossmodal Laboratory at Oxford University, which studies the mingling of the senses, and he is a pioneer in the field of neurogastronomy, particularly in how sound shifts our perception of flavor.
And Spence is concerned with far more than crunch. In 2012 he had a group of volunteers sample the notoriously bittersweet cinder toffee while listening to two different soundtracks — one featuring twinkling piano (higher pitched), another featuring brass instruments (lower pitched). While all toffee was identical, tasters perceived its flavor in accordance with the song playing: Pieces eaten as the piano played were said to be sweeter; those eaten as the horns played more bitter. In other words? The sounds strengthened certain elements of the toffee’s flavor.
Professor Spence has run tests regarding nearly every manner of food sound, from squeaky to crispy to the noise of masticating, as well as the effect of environmental noises. And he’s taken his tests to actual kitchens: In the mid 2000s, he teamed with Heston Blumenthal, the chef behind London’s Fat Duck, a man whose Michelin stars have much to thank for his innately scientific approach. (For Blumenthal’s philosophy, simply read the note on one of his Tasting Menus: “Eating is the only thing we do that involves all the senses. I don’t think that we realize just how much influence the senses actually have on the way that we process information from mouth to brain.”)
Blumenthal and Spence presented a group of diners with scoops of bacon and egg ice cream, playing sizzling bacon for some and clucking chickens for another. Even though the ice cream served was the same each time, guests said the ice cream was more bacon-y when the sizzle was piped and more egg-y when the chickens were heard.
Another experiment found oysters eaten among lapping waves, cawing gulls and other seaside sounds were perceived better than those served as farm noises played. This latter discovery inspired Blumenthal to make a dish on the menu called “Sound of the Sea.” It features clams, oysters and edible sand made from tapioca and is served with a distinctive side dish: an iPod. The iPod plays sounds of the ocean, and diners rated the dish much higher when listening to the headphones.
It’s easy to see how all this information could be used for nefarious means by snack manufacturers or liquor stores looking to lure in new customers or boost flavor profiles. As Spence wrote in a 2015 paper: “Once you realize just how important the sound is to the overall multisensory experience, you start to understand why it is that the food marketers spend so much of their time trying to accentuate the crispy, crunchy, and crackly sounds in their advertisement.”
But it also has great potential to help: The International Society of Neurogastronomy was founded on the hope that such techniques as sound modulation could be used to bring the idea of flavor to the minds of cancer patients whose sense of taste is one of the many casualties of chemotherapy. Sound, too, could also be useful for helping us stay healthy: Imagine listening to a track that ups perception of sweetness or saltiness, thus preventing the need to add a Splenda or some Diamond Crystal.
Restaurants, then, would be wise to start paying as much attention to the music they play as they do to decor or lighting. In addition to the above, music volume, per a 2011 study, may alter how we perceive saltiness or sweetness in restaurants. Depending on the intensity of the change, this could be a big factor in how diners enjoy their food.
“We can use soundscapes and music to modulate a taste, but we cannot use it to convince that protein gloop is caviar.”
Now, stretching this further, could “music sommeliers,” those whose job it is to pair the right song with the right meal, be a regular presence in restaurants of the future? A Los Angeles Times article pointed out a trend of such nature, but it doesn’t seem to have been done for science, only for upping the hipster-chic vibe of a restaurant. Still, though, the thought is intriguing for what the right sounds can do.
“It makes sense that this could be something that pops up down the road,” says McClintock about this idea. “But it would still be a niche thing.”
Fair enough. But how about this: When the world eventually crumbles and remaining survivors are stuck in some bunker underground, could the sound-taste connection transform the colorless, flavorless future-gruel into something we think is filet mignon?
McLintock, not being as familiar with the area, didn’t have an answer. But Spence, while hard to pin down for this article, was kind enough to point out some pertinent studies — and write in an answer to the above.
“Thus far, we cannot turn water into wine musically,” he wrote. “The taste flavor has to be there in the first place. We can use soundscapes and music to modulate a taste, make it appear stronger or weaker, but we cannot use it to convince that protein gloop is caviar.”
So much for music saving our post-apocalyptic palates. But the fact that what we hear alters our perception of flavor, however small, is extraordinarily fascinating. And if listening to a scientifically backed track can help someone who’s lost their sense of taste experience flavor again and even provide us with the ultimate equation for the ideal BLT? Well then expect to hear a lot more about this slice of science down the road.