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It’s already common knowledge that food doesn’t have an “absolute” value, and often varies according to the conditions in which we taste them. However, nobody has ever examined how our our sense of taste vary according to musical tempo – whether the “soundtrack” that accompanies our meals helps to shape our perception of flavour.
Let’s imagine that we’re indulging in a sweetly delicious English toffee (the beloved British dessert) during a leisurely moment. Researchers have found that the human brain will perceive the dish’s bitter notes in a heightened way if the music we’re listening to is hard rock, or one in which the bass is dominant over the melody.
It’s bittersweet notes, instead, are sharpened with “sweeter” music, with dreamy-sounding feminine vocals, ones lacking in high-pitched or sharp tones. So bitter is rock and sweet is pop? It’s actually not that simple, but it is clear that the ways we taste foods are influenced by the music we listen to.
This has been demonstrated with a study on the modulations of sound compared to food consumed, carried out in London by British researches who specialize in studying the senses. Using cinder toffee and 20 blindfolded tasters, their goal was to find the affinity between high tones and perceived sweetness, and low tones and heightened bitterness. The subjects were given different “soundtracks” to listen to as they tasted the same dessert, and then were asked to identify which part of their tongues perceived taste, rating it on a scale from completely sweet to completely bitter.
Apart from these results, the researchers also worked on getting certain flavours to surface when they were mixed with others, even in the same dish. Even in these cases, however, it’s possible to “manipulate” perceptions. One of the leading researchers, Charles Spence, explained it to the Smithsonian Magazine: “We’ve shown that if you take something with competing flavors, something like bacon-and-egg ice cream, we were able to change people’s perception of the dominant flavor—is it bacon, or egg?—simply by playing sizzling bacon sounds or farmyard chicken noises”. And so is it fair to say seem that music, can help to manipulate our sense of taste?
For another group of researchers, this time from Oxford, the answer is yes. To back up this thesis on manipulating taste through music, several colleagues from the Crossmodal Research Laboratory, which is part of the experimental psychology department, worked on pairing drinks and flavours with musical notes. And again, their studies showed that stronger, spicier and more complete tastes (like those based on the umami flavour) were easier to pair with low sounds. On the other hand, the sweetness and delicacy of milk and dessert, or the sweet but sour notes of lemon, “sounded” like a high note. These are only the first initial experiments, but they represent an important step for those who enjoy tasting either as a hobby or profession.
For now, until we wait for the next “taste” of evidence, we’d like to make a suggestion for a tune to put on just as soon as you finish reading this article: the Bittersweet Symphony, sung by The Verve.