Restaurants can enhance their menus by actively changing their background music
Eating is not just putting food into our mouths.
Ignoring the guy who invented a powdered meal replacement as his sole intake of food in life, the rest of us like to feel the food we eat.
And eating is a whole sensory experience. An experience not only influenced by the meal, but also by other variables that embellish the nourishment process.
Eating is a matter of good company, the place where we eat, the lighting in the room and, you guessed it, the sound and music surrounding us.
So, how does sound affect our taste of food?
We Don’t Only Taste Food, We Also Hear It When We Eat
When we chew we hear each bite — sometimes rather loudly.
An intriguing study assessed how people’s perception of the food’s texture changed when the sound they heard while chewing was modified.
In this case, the researchers wanted to see how people experienced the crispness of potato chips by changing the sound they heard when eating them.
They put the participants in a sound-attenuated booth and gave them one pringle potato chip to bite on for each trial. While seated, the participants had a microphone placed directly in front of their mouths. They would hear their chewing through a pair of headphones, but the sound signal would be changed for each trial.
Since air-conducted sounds are more important than bone-conducted sounds to determine the crispness of food, people will be more influenced by the sounds heard through the headphones.
The experiment showed that people can change their assessment of food’s crispness and freshness depending on their biting sounds. In this case, potato chips were judged to be fresher and crisper when the sound was louder and sharper (higher frequencies amplified).
A similar effect happens when people judge the level of carbonation of water. When the sound of carbonation is artificially increased, participants feel the water was more effervescent.
Thus, we see that auditory cues can change how we perceive the texture of food as we eat it.
The Connection Between Basic Tastes and Music Features
It’s strange to think of food in terms of sound, right?
Well, luckily researchers are curious enough to dive into weird questions and they do occasionally find intriguing results (rather than confirming the boring null hypothesis).
Let’s see what certain musical features (e.g. loudness, low/high frequencies, tempo) can do to our sense of taste.
Finnair — Counteracting low-frequency enhanced tastes
If you’ve ever flown in an airplane you may have had a weird feeling when you ate the food onboard.
Food doesn’t quite feel the same as in a restaurant or when you cook it (or especially those overly abundant and tasty meals from your grandmother).
A study from 2014 found out that during a flight our sense of taste is altered by air pressure, humidity levels, and cabin noise volume.
The same food we eat on earth can taste quite differently above the clouds.
It makes sense, but you’ve never really thought about it, have you?
Finnair created a variety of sound ambiances to counteract these physical effects on food.
As you can see in the screenshot above, the low-frequency buzz sound of aerial cabins enhances the taste of bitter and umami while it diminishes the sweet and salty flavors.
This led the team to design sound ambiances that primarily focused on high frequencies to counteract this effect.
They put sounds from nordic landscapes (the propaganda is always there, right?) and offered unique tracks to accompany their dishes onboard. People would eat their meals while experiencing these wonderful sound ambiances through headphones.
A nice touch to the normal eating experience on flights, but I would guess this isn’t really available in economy class!
Altering Salty and Sweet Flavors With Volume
We’ve all been to a bar that has deafening music that barely lets us talk with our friend sitting right next to us.
Apart from taking other means to communicate with each other (a lot of weird laughs, I might say), our eating experience is also different.
An experiment found that people felt salty and sweet food less intensely when listening to loud sounds (75 to 85dB), compared to quiet sounds (45 to 55dB), both conditions having experienced white noise.
A higher volume would diminish people’s perception of salty and sweet flavors. But why?
There are several explanations:
- We’re less able to perceive a gustatory cue if there’s a stimulus interfering with our experience. Intense sounds could mask other senses.
- Loud music is driving our attention from the food towards the music, so our food experience is diminished. It acts as a distracting factor.
- There may already be an implicit association between sound type and food taste. A study demonstrated that people relate names of bitter foods (e.g. coffee, beer) and salty ones (e.g. potato chips) with low pitch sounds, while sweet (e.g. sugar, honey) and sour (e.g. lime, lemon) tend to be associated with high pitch sounds.
This study also found that while loud sounds diminish our perception of certain flavors, they can enhance food textures like crunchiness (remember the findings from the study we saw earlier?).
Is this the reason we can eat too many snacks before feeling we’ve overdone ourselves?
It’s like we didn’t even realize what was going on until it was too late.
Restaurants Already Using Sound in Their Menus
Now you’ve seen how sound can change our experience of food, you’ll probably want to go to a restaurant that uses auditory cues for the food preparations.
I know I would.
So, here’s a list of some of these restaurants. If you happen to go to one of them, I’d love to hear your review!
- The Fat Duck (London, UK): Try the dish “The Sound of Sea” which is served with headphones playing the sounds of ocean waves.
- Ultraviolet (Shanghai, China): This restaurant is one of a kind. It offers a multisensory experience of food, with each course having its own taste-tailored atmosphere in the form of lights, sounds, music, scents, and wild projections.
- Sublimotion (Ibiza, Spain): My boss actually designed the musical experience for this one. Each of the 14 courses offered in this restaurant has its unique set of musical pieces and the experience is combined with 360 degrees projections while you eat.
- Auricle Wine & Sound Bar (Christchurch, New Zealand): they specialize in matching wines with specific sound ambiances. A red wine, for instance, could be paired with a low pitch and slow piece of music to enhance the body of the wine with each sip.
The whole act of eating is a multisensory experience. It’s more than just ingesting nutrients!
We feel the texture, we hear every bite — sometimes more than we would like — and we like to eat things that look pretty.
And sometimes we don’t know what these other senses can do to our sense of taste until we combine it with other stimuli. Sound is one of those factors that can have a great impact on how we perceive flavors:
- Loud sounds can enhance food textures (e.g. crispness, freshness, crunchiness) but diminish flavors like salty and sweet.
- High-frequency sounds have been shown to increase our perception of sweet and salty.
- Low-frequency sounds, on the other hand, boost bitter and umami flavors.
There are also other effects of sound on food perception that relate to mood. For instance, soft and melodic music can help set a relaxed and pleasurable tone to a lovely evening and thus aid our enjoyment of food.
In the next article, I’ll discuss how sound and music can change our behavior towards food consumption. We might eat and drink more given certain background music, or even reduce our intake if the music is right.
Let’s leave it at that. For now, you’ll certainly be more aware of sound interfering with your meals. You might even enjoy these new sound ingredients in your life!
Are you curious about the world of sound and music? Learn how music can enhance a plant’s growth, the way sound changes our sense of taste, understand the music industry, and much more! Join my newsletter to embark on this journey of sound awareness.
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