Can music influence the taste of food?

This week, I have found a little something to tickle the taste buds! I have been reading a 2010 article published in Perception entitled “ A sweet sound? Food names reveal implicit associations between taste and pitch”. This article comes from one of the world’s leading researchers in the field of cross modal research and multisensory perception, Professor Charles Spence. And the conclusions he and his co-author (Anne-Sylvie Crisinel ) lay down include interesting but very much still open ideas about how our perception of food taste might be influenced by musical sounds.

We live in a world of rich multisensory experiences, within which eating is one of the most evocative. Studies have shown that a multitude of non-gustatory factors can influence our evaluation of food, including its visual appearance (e.g. its colour), texture, temperature and the properties of its container (e.g. the firmness of the cup). Surprisingly however, stimuli that are unrelated to the food but which precede its presentation can also influence our evaluations.

In a rather nifty experiment Maga (1974) gave participants a task to assess different geometric shapes before asking them to take part in a cheese testing, and found that presenting a higher degree of pointy shapes in the shape task resulted in the same cheeses being rated as more ‘sharp’.

In a more recent experiment Crisinel and Spence (2009) showed that words that represent bitter and sour tastes were associated with low and high pitched sounds respectively. How did they determine this empirically? They used an implicit association test or IAT. In one block of trials low sounds and bitter words may be paired on one button, and high sounds and sour words on the other. Then you switch the pairings so low is now with sour and high with bitter. On each trial you show a word or play a sound and  participantsto classify the stimulus by pressing the correct button. If the word and sound that are paired are associated at some implicit level then participants should be faster and make fewer mistakes in their classifications than if the word and sound are not associated. In short – when there is an implicit association you get response facilitation

In the present paper the authors wanted to see if there were associations with other tastes, such as sweet and salty, and how these compare to their previous sour/bitter findings.


Experiment 1:
28 participants completed an IAT task with sweet and salty words. The sweet words were sugar, honey, vanilla and maple syrup while the salty words were salt, pretzel, crisps and broth. The auditory stimuli that were high pitched consisted of C6 played on the clarinet, piano, trumpet and violin while the low notes were D2 played on the bassoon, piano, bass trombone and cello.

Results: Participants responded faster when sweet tastes were paired with high sounds and salty tastes were paired with low sounds, as compared to the reverse connotation. Response sensitivity was also significantly higher with these pairings. Gender and level of musical training had no influence on the results. The results show that pitch/taste associations are not limited to bitter and sour but extend to sweet and salty too.

Experiment 2: They tried a go/no go task to test the associations with all 4 types of taste and high/low sounds. In a go/no go task participants see or hear the stimulus very briefly and have to respond with a fast button press if it belongs to a target category (e.g. sweet/high). Again they should be more accurate and faster if the category contains an implicit association. This time the authors found good evidence for a link between sweet tastes and high pitched sounds, and ok evidence for a link between sour and high pitched sounds, but no links at all for the low pitched sounds or for bitter or salty tastes. Again, gender and musical training had no influence and neither did ratings of pleasantness for the tastes.

So what does all this mean? So far the most consistent relationship between food and sound is the sweet/high association although it is not yet clear whether other complex parts of the sounds, like instrument timbre, are also important. Also the mechanism by which we form these cross modal associations is unclear – apparently the hedonic value of the taste (i.e. its pleasantness) is not important but this is only the first piece of the puzzle.

In general the authors postulate that a better knowledge of the way that we associate sound with flavour could lead to maximal matching of a dish with its environment, a strategy already employed in some of the World’s top restaurants including Heston Blumenthal’s Fat Duck restaurant.

So why do you think we pair sweet tastes with high sounds? And perhaps sour ones too? What is the best music to eat to in your opinion? Drop me a line and let me and my readers know what you think!

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