(Munchies) Music Is Ruining Your Meal
Written by JONATHAN HIRSCH April 27, 2014 / 2:04 pm
There’s a restaurant in my neighborhood that plays smooth jazz covers of top 40 pop songs every time I go in for a meal. It’s awful. While I can’t fathom a less appetizing musical mashup, it would be crazy to think that music of any kind could actually change the taste of my food. I mean, no measure of mellifluous tones has ever made my parents’ bizarre casserole combos taste any better. But it turns out that sound can actually play a big part in how we perceive the taste, texture, and overall experience of food, and a handful of scientists and researchers are eager to explore this new territory, for the benefit of both science and industry.
Charles Spence is a scientist, consultant, and pioneer in the field of emerging science that connects sound with food perception. “Sound is the last thing you think of when you think of taste,” says Spence, who started working with commercial manufacturers of food and other products to use sound to improve its marketability; working on everything to what he calls “the crisp of the crunch” in a chip to the loudness of the packaging of potato chip bags. Spence is head of the Crossmodal Research Lab at Oxford, which studies how the five senses interact with one another.
Despite the wealth of research that has been done regarding how the brain processes and experiences specific senses, research that explores how sound and taste impact one another is still a relatively new concept in the field of science. Using auditory environments or even the sound that food makes when you eat it has many implications for scientific research. But it can also be used by restaurants and food manufacturers to manipulate the way the consumer experiences ingredients. According to Spence, “Chefs spend so much time worrying about what’s on the plate and not enough time on what their diners are hearing when they eat their finely crafted meals.”
This research is of particular interest to major food industry players, who have been a large source of funding for Spence’s research. In 2000, the scientist first got the idea to marry sound and taste while simultaneously working on two projects for the multinational company Unilever; while he was researching ways to improve the taste of food products for the company, Spence was also researching ways to make clothing appear softer by changing the sound that it made. “It suddenly clicked that we could look at the sound of food. Out of that came the first experiment connecting sound and food, called the ‘sonic chip’,” said Spence. By manipulating the loudness of certain frequencies heard when biting into a Pringles chip, Spence’s study showed a significant change in the perception of freshness according to how loud the crunch of a chip happened to be.
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