Intriguing new research into the effect of music on our palates may have us re-thinking our dinner party tunes.
On entering the Oxford laboratory of multi-sensory psychologist Professor Charles Spence, the first thing I spy is one of his colleagues busy working on the prototype for a musical plate and glass. Spence has already demonstrated that sound has a strong effect on the perception of taste and is now working on ways of heightening sensory intersections, in this case having music delivered by the actual vessels from which food and drink is consumed.
Spence shows me round the compact warren of booths at the Crossmodal Research Laboratory at Oxford University, where he and his team have increasingly come to focus their research into the way our senses intersect on the relationship between hearing and taste. It's an area that received scant serious scholarly attention until recently, when it started to create a buzz both in academia and the worlds of food and drink.
"Lots of people are getting interested in combining music with food and wine or perfume and music now all over the world," notes Spence, whose work designing foods that maximally stimulate the senses has seen him collaborate with the likes of chef Heston Blumenthal of Britain's Fat Duck restaurant on dishes such as the "Sound of the Sea", served with the sound of crashing waves.
Spence has also deconstructed the components of cognac to correspond with different instruments and pitches to assist in the creation of a musical piece to accompany the spirit.
Spence and his team's investigations have already made some fascinating auditory-gustatory connections, such as discovering that sweet and sour tastes were associated with higher-pitched tones and piano sounds, while bitter ones were linked to lower pitches and brass instruments.
These findings were employed in their "bittersweet symphony" experiment, which provided proof that what people were tasting could actually be influenced by music: when the same toffee was tasted with two different soundtracks - one designed to complement bitter flavours and the other sweet - participants rated the toffee as being significantly sweeter when sucked on with the "sweet" music and more bitter when consumed with the "bitter" track.
In another study Spence and co combined wine aromas with different musical instruments. This found that some aromas were preferentially matched to specific musical instruments and tones, such as fruity smells associated with high pitched notes.
The ramifications of these findings are certainly being noted by a growing number of restaurateurs and bar owners in particular, where the music they choose to play could be clashing with or enhancing what they're serving. There's also considerable scope for crossmodal creativity.
"At the Fat Duck we've been working on using music to really change the taste of the food," says Spence, who thinks the effect should be more powerful if the sound comes from close to what's being consumed, hence the musical tableware and the work he's currently doing on developing an iPad plate. However, he says they've yet to find something radical enough to put on the menu.
I mention to him the wine and music-matching workshops I've been running.
At these I've demonstrated that the heavy rock of the Skeptics' AFFCO can decimate the aromatics of a Marlborough sauvignon blanc, which has won round many who doubted that music could play tricks with their taste perception.
Spence is all ears and quickly sets about devising a test to put some science behind this compelling combination in an experiment he plans to conduct internationally.
I, as well as many sauvignon fans I'd imagine, will be intrigued to learn of the results, which should give us a scientific perspective on what music will heighten or impede the enjoyment of our flagship variety. But for now, here are some of my empirically based suggestions.
Mount Riley Marlborough Sauvignon Blanc 2012 $17.99
Crisp and light, this vibrant sauvignon exudes notes of green herb, lemon grass, zingy lime and blackcurrant leaf. But beware, heavy rock can wreak havoc with aromatics, so opt for something light and poppy such as Nouvelle Vague's cover of Just Can't Get Enough. (From New World, Countdown, Glengarry.)
DEEP AND DARK
Church Road McDonald Series Hawke's Bay Marzemino 2009 $32.99
There's already a musical connection with marzemino, an Italian grape variety that's evoked by the leading man in Mozart's Don Giovanni before he's sent to hell. For me Mozart's still a tad too light for this voluptuous number with its rich plummy fruit and notes of earth and spice. Some brooding and bombastic Scott Walker would suit, so drink with Such A Small Love. (From First Glass.)
Dunnolly Parish Family Estate Waipara Chardonnay 2011 $22
Fresh citrus and succulent peach call for something higher toned but light in this great-value chardonnay, while the complexity of its smoky, minerally undercurrent demands something serious. My match is the acoustic guitar of John Fahey in Some Summer Day. (From stockists including Wine & More, Millar & Co, Bacchus, La Barrique, Farro Fresh, Blend, Wine Vault.)