Music influences our tastebuds

A sweet or citrus taste is commonly linked to a more high-pitched, tinkling piano.
Photo / Thinkstock
A sweet or citrus taste is commonly linked to a more high-pitched, tinkling piano. Photo / Thinkstock

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Oxford University psychologist Charles Spence, who works with top chefs including Britain's Heston Blumenthal and Spain's Ferran Adria, says our enjoyment of food depends on a range of sensory responses.

He says all the senses - taste, touch, sight, smell, and sound - combine to contribute to our enjoyment when we eat and drink.

Prof Spence was behind the laboratory experiments that led to the creation of Blumenthal's signature dish, "the sounds of the sea", at his British restaurant The Fat Duck.

The dish is a delicate seafood creation with a twist - diners are provided with a set of headphones to listen to seaside sounds like crashing waves while eating.

Some diners were moved to tears by the experience.

Prof Spence's laboratory team played sounds of the sea to people eating oysters, while other diners listened to generic restaurant noises or more obtuse farmyard sounds including clucking chickens.

"We were able to show that people rate the oyster significantly more pleasant when they have the sounds of the sea in the background," Prof Spence said from Australia, where he is attending an international pain conference, Neurodynamics and the Neuromatrix.

His team also conducts research on the influence of flavours in alleviating pain, though his work with chefs and food - the area of neurogastronomy - is clearly a passion.

Prof Spence is currently working with Blumenthal's team to inspire a dish featuring bitter and sweet flavours, with a matching soundtrack.

The research invites participants to match bitter and sweet flavours with musical instruments and different pitches.

Most people opt for low-pitched sounds, and brass instruments, in response to bitter tastes like dark chocolate or coffee, Prof Spence said.

Meanwhile, a sweet or citrus taste was commonly linked to a more high-pitched, tinkling piano.

The Fat Duck has produced a dish based on the research, but it has not yet reached the table.

"It's not quite perfect yet," Prof Spence said.

"What the chefs are looking for is something that makes your jaw drop open."

Sound designers are working on tracks to perfect the experience.

Coffee chain Starbucks has also enlisted composers to create music, based on Prof Spence's research, to accompany coffee.

The plethora of aromas and flavours associated with wine provides potential to design music to match, Prof Spence said.

Experiments are also under way on the source of the soundtrack.

While 'sounds of the sea' diners are offered headphones, Prof Spence said it would be ideal to make dishes, plates and glasses that, when tilted, start playing music.

He is also exploring with designers the effect of cutlery, plates and glasses on a dining experience, suggesting that different materials and shapes might be better suited to some dishes than others.

"Why is it we've been using the same cutlery for 200 years?" he asks.

"What could the experience be like if we got rid of those cutlery forms and made new ones?"


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