Holidays are a time for indulgence. Of course, this means we’re likely all eating much more than usual.
Food and drink are a multi-sensory experience. From flavor to sound to visuals and even the tactile shape of our glasses and cutlery, enjoying a meal with the people we love is undoubtedly an immersive experience.
As a music lover, I often wonder how sound—volume, texture and pitch—alters our culinary experiences, for better or worse.
Growing research among neuroscientists, businesses, and artists reveals a connection between our culinary experiences, literally how we experience taste, and sound.
Charles Spence, a professor of experimental psychology at Oxford University has studied these connections for years. He says, “When people think about flavor, they might think about taste, they might think about smell, they might think about what [the food] looks like, they might think about the texture and the mouth-feel—but they never think about the sound.”
Crispy, crackly, crunchy, carbonated, citrus, fruity, meaty, floral, creamy. These are all words we use to describe the food we eat. Many of these attributes are driven, at least in part, by what you hear when you bite into and interact with food.
Let’s look at some examples:
The Apple Study.
Think of the sound a crisp apple makes when you bite into it, versus biting into a soft spot.
Scientific research has proven that, as your teeth break through the fruit’s skin, the sound produced from that bite drives our appreciation of the apple’s crispness.
The Chip Test.
There’s evidence to support that changing a food’s sound, without any corresponding change in texture, can alter our perception of it.
In a study on potato chips, researchers found that, by altering the volume or pitch of a chip’s crunch, they could control participants’ perceptions of the chip’s crispness and freshness (Zampini and Spence 2004).
Now, imagine you have 3 ‘blind’ bags of potato chips in front of you. Take a bite of one chip per bag.
Which bag makes you want to reach for more: 1, 2 or 3?
Research shows that most people would reach for Bag 2, noting that it offered crispier and fresher chips.
Why? It turns out, these sound excerpts all use the exact same sample, but Bag 2’s sound is louder, with boosted high frequencies (above 2,00 Hz). Through this experiment, we can clearly see how sound alters how we perceive our food.
So far, we’ve focused on the sound that food makes, but ambient sounds can also manipulate flavors as Charles Spence demonstrated in recent research.
Let’s try it together. I invite you to eat a piece of chocolate while listening to the following music tracks. As you listen, focus on how the chocolate tastes.
Did you taste a difference? Did you notice sweeter or more bitter flavors while listening?
Spence’s experiment suggests a connection between pitch and taste. You likely noticed that the first track, a high-pitched track, brought out the chocolate’s sweetness, while the second track, with lower pitched notes, brought out more bitter flavors.
Noisy environments can also affect how food tastes. Have you ever wondered why the food served on an airplane tastes bad?
In addition to dry air and a pressurized cabin, studies show that loud engines dampen sweet flavors and heighten savory ones.
Sound is the forgotten flavor sense. What we hear has a much bigger influence than any of us realize.
“Like flavors and textures, sometimes sounds can be desirable, sometimes undesirable. Always, they add complexity and interest to our eating experience and, therefore, make an important contribution to food quality.”Zata Vickers, PhD, Professor at University of Minnesota.