No one expects airplane food to be haute cuisine, but have you ever wondered why the meals seem to taste so terrible? When consumer-goods giant Unilever set out to discover whether music affects our flavor perception, its researchers learned that the less we hear, the better our sense of taste. All that loud noise from the aircraft engine can make food seem less sweet or less salty. Now Oxford University psychology professor Charles Spence has taken that research a step further and found that listening to different types of music can actually increase our perception of flavor.
“You can prime the brain for sweetness by playing a high-pitched sound,” he explained. “Tempos and instruments do seem to matter. Simply by changing the environment, it can have a big impact on flavor.”
Spence conducted his first sonic seasoning experiments in 2011 at Fat Duck, a popular restaurant in England. He gave diners an ice cream with an unusual flavor: bacon and eggs. When a musical track with the sound of sizzling bacon was played in the background, eaters said they were better able to taste the meat’s flavor. When a recording of chickens clucking played, tasters rated the egg flavor higher than the bacon.
According to Spence, the same theory can be applied with subtler sounds. Another test linked brass instruments’ low-pitched notes with the bitterness of caffeine, while piano music was associated with a higher perception of sweetness.
“In a way it’s all in our head, but then so is taste,” Spence told. “In the future we may see companies creating sensory apps which play while you are eating their product to alter taste.”