Does Food Taste Different Paired with Different Sounds?
Sound and Taste: Where Is the Connection?
Synesthesia is a neurological phenomenon in which two or more senses interact; stimulation of one sensory or cognitive pathway leads to automatic, involuntary experiences in a second sensory or cognitive pathway. One of the most common forms of synesthesia is grapheme-color synesthesia, in which people perceive individual letters of the alphabet and numbers to be “shaded” with a color. Other forms of synesthesia include correlating sounds with scents, sounds with shapes, or sounds with taste. This brings us back to: sound and taste, where is the connection?
Sound and Taste
Although not directly described as synesthesia, Charles Spence, an experimental psychologist at the University of Oxford has devoted much of his career specializing in research about the integration of information across the different senses. His work helps to explain why food can be more or less enjoyable depending on environmental features/atmosphere, colors, or in this case, sounds. Some of his most noteworthy work relates to how our perception of taste is effected by other sensory modalities, say sound, for example. As Spence writes, “Many of the food properties that we all find highly desirable – think crispy, crackly, crunchy, carbonated, creamy, and of course, squeaky (like halloumi cheese) – depend, at least in part, on what we hear”. Perhaps his most notable experiment in the field of cross-modal research was “The Role of Auditory Cues in Modulating the Perceived Crispness and Staleness of Potato Chips,” published in the Journal of Sensory Studies in 2004. From this research, Spence concluded that food can taste different depending on changes in sound. In general, higher pitched crisps with more crunch were reported to be more fresh and more desirable in taste. More recently, he found that higher-pitched music enhances sweetness. The evidence shows that when people are asked to match tastes with a specific pitch or musical instrument, the majority of people will match sweet-tasting foods with sounds having a higher pitch and the sound of the piano while matching bitter-tasting foods with lower pitched sounds and the sound of a brass instrument. Another thought: Ever think about why tomato juice or a Bloody Mary is more appealing on an airplane? Spence explains that the 5th flavor of taste, umami—a meaty, protein-like flavor described by the Japanese is actually enhanced in flight. According to research done by Spence, the loud engine noise of the plane at upwards of 85 decibels can influence how you taste food and beverage. It tends to suppress sweet and salty whilst enhancing umami, thus, you choose to drink tomato juice. Many drink options on planes tend to be sweet, hence juice and soda. Tomato juice is one of the only savory options. In fact, the German airline Lufthansa estimates people consume about as much tomato juice as beer aboard its flights! Spence’s suggestion to make more things taste appealing in air is to simply use noise-cancelling headphones. There is also work being done looking at different music people listen to on flights and how that can possibly contribute to how things taste. More work is being done in this area related to how restaurants can use sound to enhance the dining experience and food and beverage companies can utilize sound to better market their products.
Charles Spence recently published a book called Gastrophysics: The New Science of Eating. It is about the quirks of human perception and how they play out at mealtimes. https://www.amazon.com/Gastrophysics-Science-Eating-Charles-Spence/dp/0735223467
Also, click these links to view some interesting videos about the topics discussed above: