Ambient Music for Amicable Dining: How Sound and Music Affects Our Sense of Taste

A dinner table

A dinner table

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Taste is a story created by your mind, not by your taste buds.

In fact, there are multiple sources of sensory information that play a role, sound being a powerful player as studies have come to show. It certainly isn’t news that music has the power to impact our thoughts, feelings, and physical bodies in interesting ways, and so it wasn’t a surprise when I discovered that it has the power to enhance, deflate, and altogether alter our sense of taste.

I am a musician. My partner is a chef. My being in love with bands like Rammstein, Skinny Puppy, and Nine Inch Nails, I have long been banned from curating dinner party playlists at our house, and for good reason: Music that makes you want to start a riot does not compliment a cheese soufflé… As it turns out (sorry babe).

Groundbreaking discoveries around music’s influence on our experience of flavor have opened up a whole new world of exciting challenges for musicians. Let’s look at how sound and music affects our sense of taste, and in the process, explore how we might go about using these findings in creating ambient music for the most delicious dining experience.

Taste and Your Brain: Bittersweet Frequencies

Music can’t alter the characteristics of a toffee, but your brain can. A 2012 study by Charles Spence and the researchers at the Crossmodal Research Laboratory at the University of Oxford proved that identical items of food can taste different depending on the soundscape playing during the taste experiment. It would appear that different sound frequencies affect taste on a neurological level. The study focused on comparing the effect of high frequencies versus lower frequencies.

Their findings:

“A lower-pitched soundscape can help to emphasize the bitter notes in a bittersweet toffee while listening to a soundscape with a higher pitch tends to bring out it’s sweetness.”

This means that specific pitches in music emphasize certain characteristics in food. A song in which high-pitched violins take the lead, might reasonably make a crème brûlée taste sweeter, while a low-pitched cello will be more suited to an after-dinner espresso. Fascinating.

Perceived Taste Through Auditory Association

We give certain sounds certain perceived qualities, and those qualities become associated with taste. We believe, without even being aware of it, that something that sounds a certain way, should taste a certain way. A celery stick tastes “fresh” when it has a loud crunch. This is our constructed perception of fresh… The loudness of the “crunch” sound. Similarly, we associate greasy fast food with the sound of a sizzling grill. Once again, the louder, the tastier.

Subconsciously, we also associate certain foods with the sound of their origins. A 2008 study by chef Heston Blumenthal proved that seafood tastes saltier when being enjoyed whilst listening to the ocean. In his study, the sound of the sea was said to have made oysters taste 30% saltier. This is because we associate “salt” with “sea.” Since that wire is already spun in our brains, when we hear the ocean, our sense of taste goes to seek the salt.

I can confirm the latter. I like salted caramel, but I like the caramel part more than the salt part of the equation. The same salted caramel fudge that I always eat at home in Johannesburg, I found to be nearly inedible when I ate it on the beach in Cape Town. Crazy salty! That piece of fudge started seeking the exit moments after finding the entrance.

In these few examples, we can see how sound can heighten specific flavors. Think about other associations that your mind draws between sound and taste. Does your mind associate the sound of maracas with the taste of a hot habanero chilli? On that note…

Perceived Authenticity: What It’s Supposed to Taste Like

The chilli just mentioned will most likely hit you twice as hard if you listen to a Mariachi band playing as opposed to a band like The xx. Pairing a culturally inherent meal with music that is popularly traditional to that culture, can enhance its flavor. That is because the authenticity of the meal is being confirmed by the music. Authenticity confirmed, our brains tell us: “Yes, this is what it’s supposed to taste like.” Once we are assured that something tastes the way it’s supposed to, we open ourselves up to the flavors more readily.

When it comes to perceived authenticity, taste is more of a bias than a science, and so, music can act as a technique for confirming taste. A flamenco guitar will “confirm” a spicy paella, just like a vielle a roué might a creamy béchamel. Bustling sounds and beats per minute

Sounds that provoke anxiety, even in the slightest sense, have the ability to murder your appetite and distort your sense of taste. As confirmed by Medical News Today, anxiety releases cortisol into your bloodstream. One of the side-effects of this hormone is dry mouth syndrome, which leaves a bitter or “metallic” taste on your tongue. Needless to say, this completely messes up the flavors of your food, and that is if you are able to bite into it in the first place.

Stress, anxiety, panic, and even overexcitement are appetite suppressants — the proverbial knot in your stomach, won’t allow for that rack of ribs. I promise you.

In a restaurant setting, anxiety provoking sounds should be kept to a minimum. The open-plan kitchen idea is lovely; customers feel like they are a part of the show, it is interactive, and promotes transparency. However, a chef losing his cool over the wilted micro-greens, cups braking, and pots bashing, all create an anxious setting. The ideal ambiance of a restaurant should be relatively peaceful and calm-inspiring instead.

When it comes to anxiety and tempo, high BPMs are imagined to “rev us up” for the party. Club music such as house, techno, trance, dubstep, and gabber usually have tempos that range between 120-180 BPM. People interested in an exquisite culinary experience are not there to be “revved up.” “Revved up” is synonymous with “I’m anxious as all hell, but hey, let’s party!” You don’t want dinner guests to fall asleep, but you don’t want them to start grinding their teeth either. Find the balance. Music at a BPM of 100-120 is recommended for an environment in which to cultivate a great story of taste.

Ambient Sound, Ambient Art

Ambient music in a dining setting would be instrumental music that “speaks to and for” the internal and external environment of the diner, in essence. The type of ambient mood you want to create, is one in which the music compliments the surroundings, as opposed to intruding upon it — a popular notion of Brian Eno’s, the father of the ambient genre.

The music should be spacious and therapeutic in a sense. We want to compliment ambient sounds that already exists in the dining environment, and we want to compliment the experience of the diner. Chances are, there will be clinking and clattering of glasses and cutlery, coals crackling, grills sizzling, and a soft murmur of voices. Additionally, there will be the sounds of what’s happening on the plate and the palate (like the cracks and crunches mentioned before). The challenge would be to take what’s there, place it on the metaphoric canvas, and color in the blanks to the goal of creating a harmonious taste enhancing masterpiece.

Creating Music for an Ideal Dining Experience

Considering how taste can be altered by frequencies, how it can be manipulated by sound associations, enhanced or diffused through perceptions of authenticity, and lost or acquired through tempo — what would ambient music for a dining situation entail?

To compliment Spanish seafood cuisine, you could write an ambient song that incorporates a strong prominent bass sound, a sample of rolling waves, and use castanets as opposed to drums at 110 BPM. You could use an accordion, playing a high-pitched melody with some accompanying violins, at 116 BPM, to feature in an Italian gelato shop.

Play with ideas like these. Channel your inner Eno and remember the secret to the recipe:

  1. Don’t concur, compliment.
  2. Don’t intrude, inspire.

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Elijah Fox at the piano


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