Eating is mostly thought of as a four-sense experience. We see something delicious on our plate, smell the aroma, feel the texture in our mouth, and taste the complex flavours. Sound is not often considered part of the equation. But as researchers are rapidly discovering, what we hear while we dine is extremely important: factors like acoustics, background music, noise levels, and the sound of the food itself can change our experience massively, with huge potential to shift the future landscape of food and food brands.
We’re all synesthesiacs
There may be certain aspects of synesthesia (a neurological phenomenon where stimulation of one sense leads to involuntary experiences in a second sense) that we all possess: sound can be a potent manipulator of flavour. This specific sense-pairing seems to happen to everyone, with largely standard observable effects.
‘Taste originates in the brain as much as it does the belly,’ explains Dr. Tim McClintock, of University of Kentucky. These effects are felt in a variety of ways, with the volume, pitch and personal preferences of the individual all playing a part. In one study, participants tasted and rated wine while four different songs, ranging from mellow to harsh, played softly in the background. The participants were unknowingly influenced by the aural triggers around them, believing the wine accompanied by mellow music to be higher quality.
There seems to be an innate connection in our brains of sweetness to higher pitches, and bitterness to lower pitches. The Crossmodal Laboratory at Oxford University explored this with cinder toffee. If we listen to a low-pitched sound, our taste awareness shrinks to the back of the tongue, focusing on the toffee’s bitter elements. When switching to listen to a high frequency, the sweetness takes a much more prominent role in the flavour experience.
Sound cannot create a taste that isn’t there, but can act as a ‘sonic seasoning’ to bring out different elements and draw attention to certain characteristics in your tasting experience.
You could experiment with this at home, tasting chocolate and finding some sounds to accompany you on youtube: a tinkling, high-pitched sound, like a wind chime or piano, will accentuate sweetness, while bitterness can be brought out using low-pitched sounds from brassy instruments.
Restaurants need to choose their background music very carefully to set the right ambience to compliment their food. They also need to think about how loud they play it: noises over around 80db suppresses our ability to taste sweetness and saltiness, leading to a less pleasurable experience. Conversely, the background hum of airplanes in flight has actually been shown to enhance the taste of umami, so no more complaints about airplane food!
Taking things a step further than the right level of background noise, restaurants may even want to employ ‘music sommeliers’ to suggest perfect pairings of song to meal. Sound could become the final frontier in high-end food presentation.
Experimental celebrity chef Heston Blumenthal has been experimenting with similar ideas since 1997, when he introduced his dish Sounds of the Sea. Guests were served fresh seafood and edible seaweed on a bed of sand-like tapioca while listening to the sound of breaking waves played into their ears via iPod. Blumenthal hoped to bring the multi-sensory experience to life and bring out the freshness of the fish.
Once we realise just how important the sound is to the overall multi-sensory experience, we start to understand why it’s so important in advertising to pick the perfect soundtrack to both accentuate the satisfyingly crispy, crunchy, and crackly sounds of the product, and suggest the specific flavour characteristics of the experience.
The perfect crunch of Pringles is central to their appeal, as proved by Spence and Max Zampini’s sonic chip experiment. When people were asked to judge the freshness of Pringles, scientists manipulated the crunching sounds that the testers heard over headphones. Hearing louder crunches resulted in people enjoying the taste more, and believing it to be crunchier and fresher than if quieter sounds were played back.
Ben & Jerry’s have also explored this territory, considering a sonic range of ice cream flavours, with QR codes on the tubs that would allow eaters to access sounds music pairing suggestions to many of their flavours via their website. Similarly, high-end steak restaurant Hawksmoor and Gousto currently offer playlists to compliment their dine at home kits, to make sure every sense is catered to and maximise the experience.
Caroline Hobkinson, a London-based experimental artist whose primary medium is food, is working with Sainsbury’s to explore the applications of sonic seasoning for a wider audience.
Coca Cola have taken a deep dive into the world of sonic branding to communicate flavour and the drinking experience through their advertising. You can almost hear the kt-ssss of the can opening from the picture below, right? The sound of a can opening is obviously not exclusive to Coca-Cola, but they have taken real ownership of the sound.
Coke operate a dual sonic logo system; they first have their melodic 5 note phrase “Taste the Feeling” which is also accompanied by a full song, and secondly they have a whole brand soundscape based around the sound of the product. This ‘soundscape’ revolves around the two states we feel when we consume a Coke; first, ‘thirst’ and second, ‘refreshment’. From the can opening, to the pouring over ice, to the clinking of glasses, to the glug, and to the “ah” noise you make after the first sip – these sounds intuitively tell the product’s story. They evoke a visceral connection in listeners and inviting us to imagine the pleasurable experience of drinking coke through sound, tapping into the multi-sensory experience of their product.
Sonic seasoning also has interesting applications in public health: The International Society of Neurogastronomy was founded to explore how sound modulation could be used to allow cancer patients whose sense of taste has been lost as a result of chemotherapy to experience a version of taste again. There’s also huge potential for sound to be used to keep our sugar consumption down- perhaps if we listen to a certain song while enjoying our morning coffee, we can cut out the spoonful of sugar.
There is huge potential to create new and powerful experiences through the connection of taste and sound, and we predict this will become a much bigger part of everyday life in the coming years as research continues to decode this mysterious phenomenon.