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How Music Affects Our Perception of Taste

Nick Rubright is the founder and CEO of Dozmia, a music streaming service that provides background music for businesses. He has a passion for helping musicians in their careers, as well as helping brands find their sound.

You’ve heard background music being played in restaurants before. Restaurants often use music to enhance the atmosphere, often with the help of services that offer music for business use, but did you know it could also affect the way we perceive taste? Yup. Exposure to different volumes and styles of music can change the intensity of sweet and salty foods.

Here are some ways music and sound affect the perception of how our food tastes.

The Effects of Volume

When you go to a restaurant, is the music loud and intrusive, or subtle and atmospheric? Many restaurants play fast paced music at high volumes to increase their rate of table turnover, and while the use of loud, upbeat music can help improve this metric, it can result in the suppression of your ability to taste the food.

One study has measured the impact noise on our ability to perceive the tastes of food and drinks, and found that with the presence of louder music, sweet and salty tastes were less intense.

Here’s what they did.

Researchers asked participants to snack on chips and cookies while either listening to white noise at either high levels of volume, or in complete silence. They found that the diners who were exposed to the loud levels of white noise rated the sweet and salty tastes of the cookies and chips as less intense than participants exposed to complete silence.

Unfortunately, restaurants are getting louder. Not only does this impact the perception of how food and drinks taste for guests, but it can result in damaged hearing over time for the people working in the restaurant.

While louder sounds can suppress your ability to taste sweets and saltiness in your food, another study, through similar experimentation, found that background noise like what you’d find on an airplane can boost the taste of umami, a savoury flavour found in tomatoes and mushrooms. Unfortunately for us, most airline food is packed with sodium. So next time a comedian asks what the deal with airline food is, now you know.


Musical Pitch, Bitterness, and Sweetness

According to research conducted by experimental psychologist Charles Spence, musical pitch can affect the intensity of different tastes. High pitched music is often associated with sweet and sour tastes, while low pitched notes increase the impact of bitter and umami tastes.

Here’s how the experiment worked.

Participants were invited to taste two seemingly different (though actually identical) samples of coffee, each while exposed to different levels of musical frequency. When listening to higher pitches of music, participants perceived the taste as more sweet, while lower pitches resulted in the perception of a more bitter taste.

So if you’re looking to increase the sweetness of your dessert, listen to music with high pitched notes.

It’s Not Just Music, It’s the Way the Food Sounds

Think about how the food you eat actually sounds. The deep thud when you bite into a chocolate bar, the crunch of potato chips, and the crisp sound of fresh bread all work to build up a multi-sensory experience that affects our perception of how these foods taste. The sound is part of what makes us salivate for our favorite food.

The same researcher mentioned above, Charles Spence, has also experimented with the sound of food. He had participants eat Pringles while wearing headphones where he could control the frequency and volume of the crunch, and found that when exposed to a louder and higher pitched crunch, participants perceived the chips as more fresh and crisp. This is why Pringles are designed with their unique shape – not because they fit into the package better, but because it results in a louder crunch when bitten into.

How food sounds is part of the multi-sensory experience that makes eating so great. Imagine if the food itself had no sound to it? It wouldn’t be as fun to eat. Food and music are two of the greatest things in the world, so putting them together is a no-brainer.

Do you have any unique ideas for food and music pairings? Let us know by tweeting @thefoodrush using the hashtag #EatingWithMusic.

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