How music can affect your sense of taste

A bakery

Eating engages all of the senses. Including hearing.

But did you know that sound can enhance your meal? Dan Pashman, host of WNYC’s The Sporkful podcast, says the way food sounds has a huge effect on how much we enjoy it. 

“We now know that the people who designed potato chip bags didn't make them noisy for the sake of the chips. They made them noisy for the sensory experience,” Pashman says, “They understood that a noisy food was better complemented with a noisy package. And in fact research has shown that if people hear the sound of that packaging being crumpled while they're eating the chips, they will think that the chips are crisper, crunchier, fresher, better only because that sound is being played in the background."

One chef in London has begun taking advantage of this hearing-tasting connection and now serves up an iPod with ocean background noise along with his shellfish. 

Different sounds, or even different sound levels, have different ways of enhancing or detracting from taste experiences. 

“Research shows that when you're surrounded by very high decibel level, your taste perception goes down. So loud music means the food will have less flavor. It also it works the same in an airplane where you have a high decibel level. And that's one of the reasons why you get less taste perception on an airplane,” Pashman says. 

Listening to food also clues you in on important information when you’re preparing food. Some chefs can tell whether food is being properly cut by the sound of the knife on a cutting board. And even amateur cooks can tell whether or not a piece of bacon is cooking by the sound of a sizzle in a pan. Pashman says sound can also give you information about the quality of certain ingredients. 

“You can also learn a lot about a chocolate bar by the sound it makes when you break it in half,” Pashman says, “You want a thud. You want a deep, strong noise with a bit of bass to it. You don't want a thin sound. And that is an indication of how well tempered the chocolate is, because when you make chocolate, there are different crystal forms that it can take. And the more desirable ones will make a lower sound.”

Sound isn’t the only sense that adds to an eating experience. 

“The whole idea of taste and flavor is a construction of our mind and it is all kind of an illusion that we think we taste food and all with our mouth, when in fact most of the interesting stuff is happening in our nose,” says researcher Charles Spence. “There are certain smells that you will describe as sweet things like caramel and vanilla and maybe strawberry smells that do not actually have a taste. But I can use those sweet smells to almost trick your brain into tasting sweetness.”

Different types of music can also change the way the tastes of complicated types of food are perceived. 

“When you have a food like a dark chocolate or a coffee that has a lot of varying and complementary or even contrasting notes like sweetness and bitterness, it can be hard for your brain to make sense of it all and to latch on to something. And these different pitches of sounds and of music sort of act as ways to highlight certain features of a food,” Pashman says. 

Take a test to see how sound can change the sweet and bitter notes in food:

Take a piece of chocolate or a sip of coffee and register how sweet or bitter it is. Then take a second bite or sip, and hold it in your mouth.

Listen to clip #1. Do you notice sweet or bitter flavors more while listening?

Now listen to clip #2 with that same bite or sip. What flavors can you detect now?

In a study conducted by Charles Spence, sweet flavors are associated with higher-pitched sounds and bitter flavors correspond to lower-pitched sounds. Did your results match up?

This story is based on an interview that aired on PRI's Science Friday.

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