Nigella Lawson recently complained that blaring music in a restaurant drowned out the taste of food – and the science backs her up.
Charles Spence, professor of experimental psychology at Oxford University, said there is no doubt that sound affects taste in various ways and loud music can even mask it. A study he conducted found that specific music can make food appear up to 10% more sweet or salty.
In fact, there is an emerging field of research called sonic seasoning, centred on how noise can affect the other senses – just not at levels where you can’t hear yourself think.
Curating a playlist to complement a menu could bring out a certain flavour, texture or aroma, explained Spence. For example, high-pitched sounds are associated with sweetness, while low-pitched ones work better for bitterness.
Spence and his team of researchers have actually worked with food and drink brands on marketing campaigns that use music to enhance their food. They designed audiovisual headsets for Guinness that were given to Tesco shoppers while they sampled the brewer’s Hop House beer and also created tracks for Godiva’s Symphony of Taste campaign to deliver a richer mouthfeel for people eating their chocolate.
“Among mainstream bars and restaurants there’s an increasing interest in thinking how to optimise or control music to improve sales and footfall – not just to leave it at random,” Spence told Food Spark’s sister site Food Navigator.
Musical menus might make a tantalising addition to a meal, but aren’t they really just something nice to have?
Not so, according to Spence, who believes that sonic seasoning could be used to nudge people into better food behaviours. The idea would be that consumers buy a cake, pastry or drink made with less sugar, then consume it while listening to music composed to enhance a sweet taste – so it still tastes the same but with fewer calories.
“We know it can do so in the short-term, but no one’s done a long-term study,” he said. “The food needs to have various properties in it already so that the music can extenuate something. There is maybe 10% wriggle room. But what you can do is extenuate some element you like or suppress an element you don’t like – although it’s hard to get a good salty soundtrack.”
Music can also influence purchasing choices, according to Spence, with studies showing that people are more likely to buy French wine when there is French music playing in the background or order paella when they hear a bit of Spanish flamenco.
It’s something that has hit recent marketing campaigns In January, KFC was promoting its new Gravy Mega Box through the sounds of frying chicken, simmering gravy and falling fries, while Canadian confectioner Reese released a film that highlighted the sensory experience of eating a Reese cup, including opening the packaging, sliding out the cup, unwrapping the cup and then eating it.
Music and food have perhaps best been explored in the air. Despite the bad reputation of plane food, flying is notorious for impacting on flavours, with 30% of taste lost when food is eaten on a flight. Spence previously teamed up with British Airways to design its Sound Bite menu, which paired in-flight meals with specific tracks to enhance the flavours.
The menu included classic British food paired with Lily Allen’s track ‘Somewhere Only We Know,’ as piano notes enhance the sensation of sweet and bitter tastes, while James Blunt’s hit ‘You’re Beautiful’ was considered perfect for dessert as high tones boost sweet food.
Food Spark reported on a partnership between London Stansted and luxury food outlet Not Always Caviar earlier this year that featured a sandwich designed with flavours that are enhanced by altitude.
So does Sparkie have hungry eyes for musical menus?
I have read a lot into the whole gastrophysics thing, and while it is interesting, it is a very niche market where it applies. The difference that the music has will be unnoticeable for regular consumers who aren’t actively thinking about it, especially if they aren’t trying the same food under both conditions – like the experimental set up. The science behind it all can get very complicated and there is a great deal of room for human error in the result due to outside influences and bias.
Where this kind of thing has its place is in a very high-end restaurant that already has it in place – the perfect food, service and everything else that is more obvious to consumers. The reason that the airlines are getting involved is that altitude and air pressure affects your ability to taste rather significantly – so under those conditions, there may be more of an effect.
On the ground though, 99% of restaurants would be better off putting the effort into perfecting the more obvious aspects of dining.