music and food
A specific smell can trigger a taste of a favorite meal you haven’t had in years. Likewise, hearing a song from a decade ago can evoke long-forgotten feelings. Our senses are all connected, so it should be no surprise that listening to music while eating can enhance the taste of a meal and the overall dining experience.
In recent years, several universities have studied the correlation between what we consume and the aural surroundings. This discipline is called sonic seasoning research, which examines the effect of sounds on food taste. It turns out that food generally tastes better with a side of background noise. They found that silence took away from diners’ overall enjoyment of eating a meal. What a food sounds like is incredibly important to the overall experience of eating it. The sound associated with the food is the “forgotten flavor sense.”
At the highest level, restauranter’s aim to set a certain mood in their respective venues. Music is a powerful tool in establishing a place’s identity, whether the joint is hip and happening, classically romantic, a haven of tranquility on a busy street, or a buzzing hotspot. Studies have shown that music aids in message reception and retention in marketing and branding if it aligns with the brand and message. Ill-fitting and off-brand music will hurt one’s brand image and create a chaotic atmosphere, but just the suitable genres will create a desirable effect. The right vibe, right feel, and right taste all result in the right experience for diners.
One recent study showed that background music in restaurants directly affects the perceived taste of what patrons are enjoying. The researchers found that emotional foods, such as chocolate, were rated higher when music was playing. Non-emotional foods, for instance, bell peppers, were not affected. They found that the music genre was of influence as well. Jazz music showed a more significant effect in this respect than classical, rock, and hip-hop did. Thus, our taste experience is driven by various, sometimes surprising factors.
Besides music, it also rates to pay attention to a restaurant’s atmospheric noise and acoustics. An open kitchen, hard concrete or glass surfaces, and rattling cutlery all make for a lively vibe but are shown to trigger the stress hormones adrenaline and cortisol levels in some guests. Negative ambiance can result in shorter visit durations, lower satisfaction, and lower average ticket spending.
Now let’s have a look at lower-level influences of sound and music on how we perceive taste.
Some products are best when crunchy; chips, bread crust, cookies, and fresh veggies and fruits. There is a distinct mouth-feel to these products. We immediately sense when the product is stale due to softness or chewy-ness that is less enjoyable than the fresh, crunchy alternative.
Interestingly, research shows that a large part of this sensation is due to sound. Participants in the study were provided with headphones while tasting crunchy foods. The sound of the bite was either dampened or boosted through the headphones. As it turns out, the evaluation of both freshness and taste were directly related to the loudness of the crunch, regardless of any mouth feel from the product.
In visual composition, we can easily arrange a set of different colors from warm (e.g., brown) to cool (blue) or from low intensity (pale pink) to high intensity (saturated magenta). We can also apply the same adjectives to sounds, from warm bass notes to cool sounds like shattering glass. The same can be said about our communications, from whispers to high-intensity shouts. Thus, it appears our senses share some common vocabulary and associations when analyzing our surroundings.
You could try to do the same thing with taste. Any good chef knows that you want to balance the bass notes of bitters or fats with high notes of sweets or sours, around a middle range of umami or salts. The composition of complementary tastes seems to run perfectly parallel to how a music producer would aim to complement his bass lines with guitars and vocals in the middle and sizzling cymbals and high notes in order to achieve the perfectly balanced mix.
One fascinating study showed that the examples above align very well in practice. The taste frequency range and the music frequency range even influence each other. The researchers proved that playing bass-driven, low-frequency sounds emphasized the reported bitterness of a piece of chocolate, while high-pitched sounds would do the same for the sweetness. It shows how intermingled all our senses actually are and that switching sounds affects the perception of taste for the same piece of chocolate.
Music and drinks have always gone together very well, but it turns out music affects the taste of your drinks as well. A scientific study had people participate in a wine tasting. While the tasters we lead to believe that they were being served various and different wines, only the background music was changed across tastings. Music selections ranged from light-hearted Baroque music to heavy symphonies from the Romantic era.
As it turns out, people immediately started to attribute the music’s qualities to the wine’s taste. Under the baroque condition, the wine was reported to be light, clean, and fresh, while under romantic music, the exact wine was rated as much more full-bodied and heavier.
In the hospitality industry, food and atmosphere are often treated as two separate entities; The food and drinks provide the taste, the decor provides the mood. However, as our understanding of taste perception grows, the two entities start to merge. We are learning that every tiny detail matters and affects how we perceive the dish itself. Music and sound have a massive impact in this respect!