Many aspects of music elicit certain sensations and feelings owing to how we experienced similar sounds throughout our evolution.
For example, long tones create a sense of ease in a way akin to gentle breezes or calm waves. Sharp piercing sounds are more reminiscent of animal cries or the cracking of twigs and leaves under predators feet. Music of course goes beyond simple comparisons to natural sounds. It is more complex and relies on many different characteristics to achieve what the composer wants—rhythm, key, instrumentation and so on.
Through this incredible complexity music can effect us in some amazing ways. It can make us happy or sad, it can bring on nostalgic memories, or drive us to fling our bodies around in a timed perfection that no other species can rival. In one way or another, music makes use of almost every brain region there is. Perhaps understanding this will make the next sentence seem less surprising:
Music can alter what we perceive from our other senses—from sweet scents to sour tastes, our auditory environment plays with other senses in surprising ways.
The term for describing the effect of one sense interacting with another is ‘crossmodal perception.’ It’s common to think that each of our senses stands alone, but the truth is that what we experience of the world is a mash of each of our senses combined—sometimes we can’t differentiate them as well as we might think we can.
One of the most popular examples of this is the McGurk effect, which contains the audio of one sound—such as “ba”—but the image of a person saying another—such as “fa.” The result is that you hear ‘fa,’ your brain takes the image and subtly alters what you hear so that the two conform. Charles Spence is a psychologist that specializes in this strange sensory cross-talk, and has done studies involving sound that should be of particular interest to those in the food industry.
For instance, one study found that increasing the loudness of a potato chip’s crunch leads to higher ratings of pleasantness, while a similar effect is evident in the fizz of soft drinks. Restaurants will clearly benefit from creating certain atmospheres, and as such should pay careful attention to the sound and music—a study found that increasing the loudness or BPM of background music lead to people consuming more food and drinks. Classical music, meanwhile, will get people to open their wallets further.
Here’s where it starts to get weird: Spence has found that certain elements of sound and music will cause people to interpret tastes and smells differently.
Spence has found that white noise—as opposed to both consonant and dissonant musical selections—lead people to interpret a range of 6 smells as less pleasant, less sweet, and drier. He found that a low-pitched soundscape helped to emphasize the bitterness of a bittersweet toffee, while a higher-pitched soundscape brought out the sweetness.
Sweet and sour elements of taste seem to be consistently associated with high notes, while bitterness and umami (savory) are related to low notes. The same is true of smell, in which smokey and woody scents were also related to low notes. Interestingly, people could even go so far as to associate certain tastes and smells to particular instruments—raspberry and blackberry scents along with the taste of caffeine went strongly with the piano; a vanilla scent was associated with both the piano and woodwind; while a musky scent went with brass.
Professor Adrian North of Heriot-Watt University, who has previously found links between musical tastes and personality, ran a study using music to change the perception of wine. He had 250 undergraduate students drink wine while listening to one of four songs that had been chosen for their emotional qualities—Carmina Burana by Orff for “powerful and heavy,” Waltz of the Flowers by Tchaikovsky for “subtle and refined,” Just Can’t Get Enough by Nouvelle Vague for “zingy and refreshing,” and Slow Breakdown by Michael Brook for “mellow and soft.”
Once the students had bottomed the glass they were asked to rate the wine on four aspects—powerful and heavy, subtle and refined, zingy and refreshing, and mellow and soft. Each quality was given a rating out of 10, where 0 meant the wine didn’t have that quality at all, and 10 meant it was a perfect match. As you can probably assume, the students ended up tasting the same qualities in the wine as in the music they heard—in essence, they rated the characteristics of the wine not based on the taste, but on the audio.
Music can make you want to dance, sing, or play air guitar; it can involve every area of your brain through it’s many different aspects; but also, startlingly, it can influence other seemingly irrelevant and distinct aspects of your everyday experience. It appears that the music you listen to, and the natural sounds of the environment that you’re in, influence the tastes and smells that you indulge in. While this effect is often unconscious, it does make for an interesting hypothesis: can you make your food taste better by playing the right music. The answer appears to be a resounding yes.
Written by: Sam Brinson
Sam is a writer and researcher with interests in the brain, personal development, and creative expression. He is currently writing a book on developing better learning habits— ‘Connecting the Dots.‘ You can follow him on Twitter @Smbrinson