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Can Music Change Your Sense of Taste?

New research suggests that there's a connection between how things taste and what we're listening to when we eat them.

Emerson Rosenthal

Image composited by Beckett Mufson, via, via

It's the difference between the violin player at your sit-down spaghetti spot and the college radio they play at the pizza parlor—the relationship between good food and good music has always been a matter of taste. It's why some restaurants have jukeboxes and others, string quartets. But what if the way your food tastes depends on the things you listen to while you eat? New research from experimental psychologist Charles Spence and researchers at the Crossmodal Research Laboratory at the University of Oxford suggests that there may be a deeper connection between the seemingly disparate experiences of flavors and sounds—and that you don't necessarily have to be a synesthete to "taste" music. 

According to "The Sound (And Taste) Of Music," a blog post on Scientific American, "There may be implicit associations between taste and pitch. High pitched sounds are mainly associated with sweet and sour tasting foods while low pitched notes are more commonly paired with more bitter and umami tastes." For one particular experiment, Spence and company invited participants to taste two seemingly different samples of cinder toffee, one while listening to high-pitched sounds, and the other, while hearing lower frequencies. Although the samples were of the same dessert, test subjects "found the toffee sweeter when paired with higher pitches and more bitter when accompanied by lower pitches." For the participants of another study, piano music was preferred when it came to peppermint flavors, while brass seems to pair better with citric acid, orange flower, and especially caffeine.

A diagram from Anne-Sylvie Crisinel and Charles Spence's paper, "As bitter as a trombone: Synesthetic correspondences in nonsynesthetes between tastes/flavors and musical notes."

In the past, chef Heston Blumenthal discovered that the sounds of the ocean made oysters taste 30% saltier to diners than audio of barnyard animals. The research suggests that not only can the taste of food itself change depending on what you hear when you eat it, but that your taste itself can change based on auditory stimulus, too. As outlined in Charles Spence's new book with Betina Piqueras-Fiszman, The Perfect Meal - The Multisensory Science Of Food And Dining, even particulars like "People's wine choices can be profoundly influenced (far more than any of us likely realize) by the music that happens to be playing in the background of a store."

The implications range from improving airplane food flavors based on musical pairings to influencing healthier eating through better background music. “If you have some sort of ethnic cuisine, be it Indian, Scottish, French, Italian, then if you put people in an environment with a matching atmosphere–with French accordion music for French wine, Indian sitar music while eating Indian food–if you get the right sort of music, that will increase the perceived authenticity of the sort of food that you’re eating,” says Spence. But while more ground is needed for their research (“There’s sort of a neural real estate because there is so much more of our brain given over to hearing and vision than to taste and smell," he admits) we're just happy knowing that maybe, just maybe, singing the "Happy Birthday" song loud enough might make our burnt brownies bearable.

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