Eating With Your Ears: Can Music Change The Way We Taste?

Music and food are two of my favourite things. One feeds your ears while the other feeds your stomach. But can music change the way that we perceive flavour?
MUSICHEADER
“If music be the food of love, play on, give me excess of it; that surfeiting, the appetite may sicken, and so die.” – William Shakespeare, Twelfth Night.

Imagine your favourite food. Picture it in your head right now in all its technicolour glory. Think about what it tastes like; think about the varied contours of flavours and textures it has; and think about how it makes you feel when you eat it. Right. Now, try to imagine what your favourite food would sound like if it was a piece of music. Go on. Give it a go. I’ll wait.

Maybe it’s a millefeuille that sounds like a sweet and mellifluous Gershwin-esque composition. Maybe it’s a larb that’s got more in common with a toe-tapping bossa nova bop. Maybe it’s even a fried chicken sandwich that sounds like a pop-punk anthem from Blink-182. Whatever it is that you reckon your favourite food sounds like, you’ve got to admit that it’s not all that difficult to imagine, is it? That’s because there’s an intrinsic link between music and food that runs deep within all of us – a connection of the senses that's as chemical as it is emotional.

I first started to question the interrelationship between what we hear and what we taste after listening to Nadine Shah’s BBC Radio 6 show dedicated to Anthony Bourdain. Bourdain, in his committed and nihilistic love for the New York punk scene, was an (albeit unwilling) embodiment of the cliché that “chefs are the new rockstars”. Food and music were integral and inextricably connected parts of his life.

In a similar fashion, food and music have always been intimately connected to everything we do at MOB Kitchen. Our cookbooks are chocked full of track suggestions that you can pair with all of our favourite dishes and we pride ourselves on soundtracking our recipe videos with the freshest music we can find. Don’t worry, we haven't been doing that to instil a Pavlovian response within your stomachs – one that makes you hungry every time you hear Boogie Belgique, for instance – but there is something to be said about the extent to which auditory experiences, and the sonic environment you’re surrounded by, can literally impact the way that you taste. Various pieces of research have proven that factors like music genre and volume can directly affect our perceptions of what we eat and drink and that different soundscapes can evoke different tastes.

All it takes is a cursory scroll of TripAdvisor to see how many noise complaints are made by irate diners to realise the influence that an inappropriate playlist can have. It’s not hard to comprehend how playing death metal in a Michelin-starred restaurant might perturb the appetites of customers with particularly delicate appetites, but just how important is it to have the right music on while you’re eating? If you’re Alex Delany, a food and beverage consultant and Spotify influencer who knows a thing or two about making a lazy dinner playlist, that answer varies greatly depending on the scenario at hand.

“At a restaurant, incredibly important. At a bar, after my fourth glass of wine, kinda important. At a dinner party, important. At home, on a weeknight, eating dinner, nice but not important. Standing on the sidewalk, face buried in a slice of pizza, not so important. It's all circumstantial,” he says.

I definitely see eye to eye (or ear to ear) with what Alex is saying. Before the pandemic, back when going to restaurants packed with people wasn’t totally out of the question, I’d spend a lot of time thinking about the tracks I’d heard when I was eating out. Whether I’d had my ears bathed in punchy ‘90s hip hop at Satan’s Whiskers on Cambridge Heath Road or ‘60s rock ‘n’ roll deep cuts at Dishoom, I’d regularly return home having Shazam’d at least one song during the night. Sometimes I’d even get back with a better memory of the music than the food I’d actually eaten. Mea culpa.

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“It’s the most important when I'm eating out,” agrees Alex, “I can't tell you how many times I've sat for lunch or dinner at a restaurant and just thought, damn, they totally missed it with the music. Not even that it's bad. But just that it's nothing. It's not good, totally mediocre. It adds nothing. And it hasn't ruined the meal or anything for me, but I'm the type of person who will think about that for the rest of the day or evening. For me, the difference between a good restaurant and a great restaurant is rarely the food. It's stuff like the music. Did it make me feel a certain way? Did it make me happy? Did it feel right? Was it considered?”

Making sure that your music appeals to your clientele is key, but there are plenty of other variables for a restaurateur to consider aside from the vibe they’re putting out. Myriad scientific studies have indicated how violently music can affect the way we taste and choosing the wrong type of music could be disastrous for an adolescent restaurant trying to make a name for itself.

Professor Charles Spence is an experimental psychologist at the University of Oxford and the author of Gastrophysics: The New Science of Eating. He’s pretty much the go-to expert when it comes to the science of how sound impacts the way we taste. Specifically, how “too much noise” can alter our eating experience.

Spence's specialist area of research has become especially relevant in recent years with restaurants getting louder as a result of interior designers developing a penchant for hard surfaces, Nordic décor, and fewer soft furnishings to absorb sound. Even culinary queen Nigella Lawson has noted this cacophonous phenomenon, having once told the Telegraph that she was "allergic to all noise" in restaurants because she felt that it “drowns out the taste of the food”. And, as I'm sure you're well aware, Nigella is never wrong.

“Noise (defined as unpleasantly loud music of sound) can suppress our ability to taste sweet and sour, while sometimes enhancing our ability to taste umami,” explains Professor Spence over email.

You know when you have to turn down the volume of the radio in your car whenever you get lost? It’s kind of like that. It’s harder for your brain to concentrate on the subtle hint of aniseed in a bouillabaisse if you’ve got Mambo No.5 blaring in your ears. You need something punchy and savoury to cut through the noise.

Nonetheless, the volume of music doesn’t just change our perception of taste. It's also been proven to influence the food choices we make when we’re out and about. Research conducted by a group of savvy marketers in the United States found that playing quieter music led to increased sales of healthy foods in a retail store while louder music resulted in unhealthier food choices. The study supposes that this was due to the louder music making consumers more easily excitable. Which is fair enough. Hearing Slipknot at full pelt has, on more than one occasion, led me to make some terrible life choices. But while the volume of music is obviously a major factor, the type of music that’s playing can make a pretty big difference, too.

“Another way that what we hear influences what we taste is semantic, with classical music, for example, making food and drink taste more classy and expensive, and also tending to make us spend more,” says Professor Spence, “sometimes ethnically appropriate music, like Italian opera with your pizza, can also help to enhance the perceived authenticity of a dish.” Pay attention the next time you're out for an Italian and try to work out if Andrea Bocelli is being used to bamboozle your tastebuds.

On the note of hoodwinking your palate, there’s even such a thing as “sonic seasoning” which Professor Spence claims can be used to bring out specific flavours of a dish.

To verify whether Spence’s claims about "sonic seasoning" were true, I conducted my own blind taste test of a few different hot sauces while listening to the ‘Spicy 60 Edit’ MP3 (a piece of “specially designed spicy music to bring out a spicy taste”) that Professor Spence sent over to me.

I set up camp in my kitchen, armed with multiple bottles of hot sauce and a trusted pair of Bluetooth headphones, and got to work. The difference wasn't hugely noticeable at first but after cranking up the volume to a level my iPhone was not happy about, I've got to admit that listening to 'Spicy 60 Edit' made the sauces I was sampling taste hotter. It is, however, also worth admitting that 'Spicy 60 Edit' was one of the most unpleasant "songs" I have listened to. Like, ever. Regardless of how effective it may be at making your curry seem spicier than it actually is, it’s not exactly going to be a tune that's added to your dinner date playlist anytime soon. And it's not going to be one that Gilles Peterson is going to add to the playlist he made exclusively for Pizza Express. Yes, that's a thing.

Because whether it’s due to its volume or genre, there’s no denying that music can be an effective means of impacting your taste. Studies have even proved that lower-pitched background music can bring out the bitter notes of a bittersweet toffee while higher-pitched music is capable of making it taste sweeter. While that’s, quite obviously, not a completely foolproof experiment, it does back up my argument that the soundtrack you choose for your dinner can modify your perception of the taste – if not the actual, physical flavour – of whatever you’re eating. Or drinking.

Yep, music can fool your mind when you’re knocking back a post-work bev, too. One psychological experiment even found that the way people perceive wine can be directly influenced by the type of background music that plays while they’re drinking. The results from that experiment showed that music had a consistent impact on the participants' perception of different wines and that participants in the study tended to believe that their wine shared the qualities of the music (be that Tchaikovsky or Nouvelle Vague) that they were listening to. While that experiment suggested that auditory stimuli are capable of influencing one’s perception of taste, it failed to take into account the more emotional connotations that music can have for different people. Because, y’know, not everyone likes the same music.

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“I always kind of laugh at studies like this,” says Alex when I send him a link to a Wired article that quotes the above study, “because the assumption that every human reacts the same exact way to the same type of music is absolutely absurd. The way my brain and body react to Hugh Masekela's trumpet melody or Levon Helm's drumbeat or DJ Premier's loops or Maxine Brown's vocals is going to be different than the way your brain or body reacts. Maybe to varying degrees with every person. But it will be different.

So, while I do think that music can make you enjoy wine more or less, I think it's kind of ridiculous to say this type of music makes everyone taste this specific flavour more or less in wine. I enjoy wine, as a whole, more when I'm listening to Sister Sledge because Sister Sledge makes me happy. ‘Lost in Music’ might not make someone else happy. It might make their Chenin Blanc taste worse. It depends. And again, I'm not a scientist. But I think that's pretty logical. The beauty of art is that the same thing can make people react in different ways.”

As is the case with most things in life, context is key. Or, as Professor Spence succinctly puts it: “Frank Sinatra singing White Christmas in a curry house in June is just so wrong on so many levels.”

Music can have a tremendous impact on taste and it really is something that’s far too important to be left to chance. So, yes, death metal in a fine dining restaurant might not scan, but in a dive bar with £3 pints of Stella? It’s probably exactly what you want to be hearing. Because if there’s one thing I’ve learned from doing the research for this article it’s that making sure your music matches the atmosphere you want to create will not only help your food taste better, but it’ll also provide you with a better overall eating experience. And that’s not just, like, my opinion, man. That’s science.

Then again, maybe all this time I’ve spent reading and worrying about what music I’m going to listen to while I’m cooking – and what playlist is going to make my carbonara say, “I’m dateable” – could have been better spent actually improving my skills in the kitchen. Because, as Alex Delany tells me, “if a restaurant or chef [or website editor] is depending on music to psychologically convince their diners to eat and enjoy their meal… the food and vibe can't be that good in the first place, right?” And, writing this as I am with a sublime playlist on my laptop and a subpar pasta bake in the oven, I can’t help but think that the man’s got a point.

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