The taste of sound

New research shows that music and noise can completely reshape the way we experience food

Published March 11, 2012 6:00PM (EDT)

This article is an adapted excerpt from "Taste What You're Missing, available March 13 from Free Press.

If your sense of taste is offended, you can spit out an unappealing food. You can pinch your nose when an awful odor overwhelms you. To shut out offensive images, you can simply close your eyes. But since you have no earlids, your sense of hearing is often assaulted without your permission -- even during a meal.

A study conducted by the food company Unilever and the University of Manchester wanted to find out whether background sounds affect the perception of flavor. They found that people rated foods less salty and less sweet as noise levels increased. When noise levels decreased, the perception of those tastes increased. The results indicate that noise has a somewhat masking effect on taste. This is one of the reasons why airplane food doesn’t taste very good. The deafening roar of the engines can make the food taste less sweet and less salty (and possibly less other stuff, too, that these researchers didn’t test for).

Loud music may make the environment less pleasant to some people, but it can positively affect sales of alcohol. In a study conducted in two different bars, the researchers found that revelers ordered more drinks and drank their beer faster when the music playing in the background was fast and loud. When the sound track was played at a lower decibel level, drink sales were lower and the pace of drinking was slower. In other words, fast tempos beget fast-moving partiers who also, not incidentally, spend more money on drinks.

Musical tempo also has an effect on the pace at which diners eat food. So, if restaurateurs want their customers to linger longer, they should play slow music. Conversely, if their objective is to get you in, get you out, and turn over your table, playing fast music will help. Next time you’re assaulted by frenzied club music in a crowded restaurant, you’ll know you’re being given a not-so-subtle hint to eat and skedaddle.

The takeaways from these studies refer to averages, however, and it’s dangerous to assume that one or two people will respond in an average way. Julian Treasure, founder of The Sound Agency, has worked with food retailers such as Tesco and Marks & Spencer, cautions: The effect of sound will vary hugely depending on occupancy. For example, the impact of switching on loud music where there was none in an almost-empty bar is going to be very different in a busy bar with that music and a busy bar with no music. Where the customers experience the change in condition, that itself creates an effect — in the case of my friends, an adverse one.

My favorite study on how sound affects flavor perception was funded by Aurelio Montes, of Montes Wines in Chile, a man who believes so strongly in the power of music that he bathes his aging casks of premium cabernet sauvignon wine in the sound of Gregorian chant. Mr. Montes inspired a professor to test whether or not music could influence the taste of wine. The findings could be a boon to aging hair bands across the world. It turns out that listening to a heavy metal song while drinking a cabernet sauvignon — Guns N’ Roses’s “Sweet Child O’ Mine,” for example — can make the wine taste more robust. According to one theory, the wailing sound of Axl Rose lights up certain areas of your brain that, for example, might correspond to heavy, hearty, robust, and muscular. This stimulation then primes your brain to taste wine in the same way.

This type of research on sound has such delicious implications that chefs are already putting it into practice in the field. One such chef is Heston Blumenthal of The Fat Duck in England, which in 2010 took the number three spot in San Pellegrino’s survey “The World’s 50 Best Restaurants.”

Blumenthal has worked closely with Charles Spence, the professor who heads the Crossmodal Research Laboratory at the University of Oxford. Crossmodal refers to how one of our sensory modes, such as sound, can cross sensory lines and influence another, such as taste. Together, Blumenthal and Spence crafted two experiments to illustrate how environmental sounds can influence flavor perception.

The first one used a flavor of ice cream normally not found in nature: bacon and egg. Chef Blumenthal’s ice cream is served at The Fat Duck with a piece of fried bread, which unifies the dish and adds a crispy textural component that conjures up actual bacon and eggs. In the experiment, conducted at a conference on art and the senses, participants were asked to rate the “egginess” and “bacony-ness” of the ice cream while one of two sound tracks played in the background. When the sound of bacon sizzling, popping, and crackling in a pan was played, the tasters rated the bacon flavor higher than the egg flavor. When the researchers played a sound track of barnyard chickens clucking, eaters rated the egg flavor higher than the bacon. It seems that you can pull a flavor in one direction or another with auditory bait.

The second experiment was geared toward determining if they could manipulate the pleasantness rating of a food that, in the absence of culinary accoutrements, can look horrifyingly unpleasant: a raw oyster.

The first oyster in the experiment was served on the half shell, the way most restaurants serve them. In the background a sound track of waves crashing on the beach was playing. The second oyster was served in a petri dish, making that quivering, gelatinous, slimy gray mass look like an organ being readied for transplant. In the background they played the discordant sounds of clucking chickens. Not surprisingly, the participants rated the oyster on the half shell with ocean sounds much more pleasant than the petri dish oyster with clucking sounds.

Blumenthal demonstrates the oyster test results daily at The Fat Duck, when he serves a seafood course called Sound of the Sea. Diners are presented with a large seashell inside which is an iPod. Then they’re served a glass dish of edible foam and fresh seafood perched atop a box of sand. Diners are instructed to put on the iPod earphones to hear the sounds of the sea before digging in.

Blumenthal and Spence note that the dish does three things. First, it makes diners think more about the effect that sound has on the appreciation of food, something we often take for granted.

Second, as proved in their research, the soundtrack intensifies the seafood-y flavors in the dish. The sound of the waves lapping the beach transports you to the seaside, conjuring up aromas of salt spray and ocean air, which you ascribe to the food you’re eating.

And third, the earphones make diners focus on the dish more than on companions or conversation.

Your sense of hearing is also important once you put food in your mouth. As annoying as loud eating can be, the sounds of people eating can communicate a lot of information about their food. In laboratory studies, people who simply listened to the recorded sound of someone eating celery, turnips, and crackers gave the foods the same texture ratings as those who actually ate them.

If you wanted to conduct a study on how sound influences the perception of potato chips, you’d have to standardize the stimulus: the chip. If one tester got a thick, folded chip, his experience would be very different from that of another tester who got a thin, flat chip. Scientists have come up with the perfect solution: Pringles. Because each double saddle–shaped crisp is identical, Pringles are a food researcher’s dream. One study showed that consumers rated Pringles crisper and fresher when they heard loud sounds of them being eaten. Chips with lower sounds were more likely to be rated as stale or soft. The same test was done with carbonated water. The louder the sound the bubbles made, the fizzier the water was rated.

In 2010, Frito-Lay’s SunChips brand of snacks launched what was claimed to be the world’s first 100 percent compostable snack package. Immediately Frito-Lay started to receive complaints from consumers about the sound of the bags. Here was a snack food company trying to do the right thing for the Earth, and consumers were complaining. In fact, they were more than mad. They were frustrated. No longer could the cheating dieter sneak a handful of chips in the middle of the night without rousing his spouse. Consumers created a Facebook page called SORRY BUT I CAN'T HEAR YOU OVER THIS SUNCHIPS BAG. The company responded that a loud compostable bag is “the sound of change.” Then they pulled them off the market.

Actually, Frito-Lay was on to something. Amanda Wong and Charles Spence of the Crossmodal Research Laboratory found that people tasting Pringles (again, to assure that each crisp was exactly the same as the next) while hearing a recording of snack bags rated the crisps crisper when they heard the bags rattling than when they heard the canister of Pringles popping. SunChips could have parlayed this learning into some kind of response to the complaints, or they could have used this knowledge in the advance marketing of the compostable bag to head off the complaints in the first place: our extra loud compostable bag will not only save the earth, it will give you more sensory stimulation.

Much of the sound that influences our food behavior is “heard” without our conscious attention, perhaps because we’re so used to constant low-level noise in the background of our daily lives that we unconsciously tune much of it out. Yet even without your knowing it, the music that a food retailer or restaurateur plays can influence what you buy.

One study showed that playing French music in a supermarket makes people buy French wine more than wine from other countries (in this study, specifically, Germany). Playing German music had the same effect, making customers buy more German wine than French. Yet fewer than 14 percent of the shoppers admitted that the type of music that was playing might have influenced their wine choice.

The tempo of the music that’s played in a store can also influence your purchase decisions. Slow music makes grocery store shoppers slow down; that means they spend more time in the store, and this translates to more revenue per customer—a pretty awesome result from simply changing the radio station. We are so sure that we’re in charge all the time, but in fact we can be manipulated like puppets.

Perhaps the most sonically challenged food venue is the grocery store. What are the signature sounds of a grocery store? The soundscape at the front of the store is the ringing and dinging of the cash registers. The center of the store hums along with the cycling of freezer cases. The produce section sounds like, well, nothing. Retailers might consider adding the sounds of nature to influence sales of their fresh produce. If a clucking chicken can make bacon-and-egg ice cream seem eggier, wouldn’t the pleasant sounds of the outdoors make produce seem fresher?

In fact, a few retailers are dabbling in this area. Safeway, a U.S. grocery store chain based in California, spritzes some of its produce displays with water. Just before the water starts, you hear the sound of gathering thunderclouds. Boom! With a crack of thunder, the “storm” hits the lettuce section. Produce grows outdoors and that’s the sound that Safeway has re-created inside. It’s an incredibly powerful reminder of where the food comes from.

Recently, I was allowed to eat food in an anechoic chamber, a special room designed to eliminate the echoic effect of sound, which bounces around and gets reflected back to us in normal situations. I emailed Professor Emeritus Ervin Hafter, who ran the Auditory Perception Lab at University of California, Berkeley, and explored aspects of hearing such as the spatial perception of sound and how noise reduction affects speech cognition.

We took my bag of food in and Hafter closed the foot-thick outer door, and then another inner one. We were closed off from all the sound in the world, it seemed. Hafter told me to scream as loud as I could. I yelled. Once. Twice. Again. The. Sound. Stopped. So. Abruptly. It. Seemed. To. Disappear. When I crunched into a celery stick, the sound was pure, clean, crisp, and beautiful. The first bite of an apple—in sound isolation from everything else in the world—punctuated the air with absolute clarity and an unmistakable imprint. If I were given the choice between eating an apple or a piece of chocolate in the chamber, I would choose the apple. Eating it was like making music.

We don’t need to eat in anechoic chambers in order to appreciate the sensory thrill of sounds like that first bite of apple. We just need to listen more carefully to what our food has to say and find a new appreciation for its audio output. If only we could learn to take sensory pleasure from the sound of food, similar to the way we revel in the aroma or appearance of a dish. We might eat more healthfully if we fully realized that an apple delivers the type of sonic performance that you could never get from a bowl of ice cream. Even if all we did was pay more attention to the sound of the food we eat, we might take one less bite and enjoy it twice as much.

By Barb Stuckey

Barb Stuckey is a professional food developer at Mattson, North America's largest independent developer of new foods and beverages.

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