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How do sound and music affect the way we eat?

Sounds play a key role in our eating experiences – from the sizzle of bacon frying to the distinctive snap of a chocolate bar. But how much do sounds impact the way we taste food?

The sound of flavour

Extensive research has found that people across the world consistently associate certain sounds with specific tastes1 – a phenomenon known as ‘cross-modal correspondence.’ In general, higher-pitched sounds are associated with sweet and sour tastes; lower-pitched and dissonant sounds with bitterness; staccato sounds with crunchiness; and smooth, legato sounds with creaminess. Because of this, it is possible to compose music tracks designed to enhance specific flavours in food – as one study demonstrated for chocolate. Participants rated the chocolates as sweeter when they heard a high-frequency ‘sweet’ chocolate soundtrack, compared with a lower-frequency, more dissonant ‘bitter’ soundtrack.2 

The right music makes for the right ambience 

This means that background music can have a strong influence on our eating experiences and our food choices, even if we are not aware of it. Playing French music in British supermarkets, for example, can lead to French wines outselling German brands (and the other way around)3, whilst a study in a USA university canteen found that playing instrumental Spanish music led to more students choosing paella rather than the Italian chicken parmesan.4 Classical music seems to be associated with quality and sophistication, and has been shown to cause customers to spend more, especially in wine stores.5 Rhythm also influences our eating. Apparently, we tend to match our eating speed to the tempo of background music: faster music makes us eat more quickly, whereas slower music will make us linger over our meals longer (and usually buy an extra drink or two!).6

White noise, on the other hand, can reduce our ability to discriminate between tastes, and particularly weakens our perception of sweetness and saltiness.7 Since planes produce loud background noise, some researchers have suggested that this may be why so many people order tomato juice on a plane journey: tomatoes are rich in umami, and our perception of it may not be so affected by white noise.8  

Sound affects texture too

Sounds are not only important for taste, but for texture too – as we use the noises food makes to judge its freshness and quality. In general, crispy foods (such as lettuce and crisps) produce high-frequency sounds when we bite into them (above 5 kHz), whereas crunchy foods (like peanuts) make sounds at a much lower range (1-2 kHz). Manipulating noises – for instance, using closed-ear headphones to control what the wearer hears – can alter our perception of food’s crispness and crunchiness. Studies on apples and crisps found that participants rated these foods as less crisp and softer if the loudness and pitch of their biting sounds were reduced.9, 10 On the other hand, hearing pre-recorded sounds of people eating crunchy rice crackers led participants in another study to rate a whole range of foods (from marshmallows to chocolate pie) as being harder and drier.11

When packaging affects the eating experience

Even the sound of a food’s packaging can alter our perception of the food’s quality. Crisp makers know this well, and deliberately design their crisp packets to be as noisy as possible, to increase the impression of crispness and freshness. Many beverage makers have also heavily invested in giving their products distinct noises as they are opened and poured, such as the iconic ‘pop’ of Snapple juice drinks, apparently a cue for freshness. There is even evidence that the sound your spoon makes when it rubs against the side of a product’s container has an influence: for instance, one study found that yoghurt is perceived as sweeter and more expensive when contained in glass-sounding jars.12

How exactly does sound affect our perception of food?

But what is happening in our minds that causes sounds to affect our perception of food? Dr Qian Janice Wang, who studies how auditory stimuli interact with flavour, says there are three main theories: 

“According to the ‘expectation theory’, we are evolutionarily primed to make predictions about foods before we eat them, for instance to avoid eating poisonous berries,” she says. Our in-built associations and predictions mean that sounds can rapidly influence our judgements about foods.13 The second theory, ‘attention capture’, states that when foods have complex flavours, specific sounds can cause us to pay more attention to a certain taste or flavour above others. A high-pitched sound, for instance, could highlight sweetness.14 Finally, sounds and music can arouse certain emotions within us, which can carry over into how we feel about the food, known as ‘emotion mediation’ or ‘the halo effect’. “This would explain why people rate foods as being sweeter when listening to music which they like,” says Dr Wang.15

Sound could enrich our future meals in many ways

Innovative new meal concepts such as Heston Blementhal’s Sound of the Sea show that chefs are already keen to use soundscapes to create enhanced, multisensory dining experiences. ‘Sonic seasoning’ could also become an in-built feature of our dining ware – as demonstrated by the Sonic Sweetener, a cup designed to reduce people’s sugar intake by playing high-pitched ‘sweet’ sounds whilst they drink. When we asked experimental psychologist Professor Charles Spence, he said there is also great potential to use sound to improve nutrition within hospitals and care homes. “Several studies have shown that playing classical music can enhance the perceived quality of food and drink, which may help patients improve their nutrition. Also, music could have an important role in triggering nostalgia, especially for those older patients who may be suffering from memory loss, which could increase their enjoyment of meals.” 

In the meantime, we can all experiment with sound to improve our food experiences. It certainly seems worth the effort to shut out any unwanted noise and choose some fitting background music to ensure we can fully appreciate our meals. 

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