Ever wondered what your favourite beer sounds like? If you have a sweet tooth it might be a soprano’s ballad, if you prefer sour tastes a baritone could be the better match.
Such connections between our experience of flavour and sound have been revealed through a growing area of research in which neuroscientists, businesses and artists are working together.
“Our senses are connected in some surprising ways,” says Charles Spence, professor of experimental psychology at the University of Oxford. Research has shown that we associate higher sounds with sweet tastes and lower sounds with sour tastes, he explains. “No one is sure why it happens. One idea is that when you [study] newborns in any animal species, they all stick their tongues out and upwards to taste something sweet, whereas they stick their tongues downwards and away from a sour taste. Our brain may be picking up on that correspondence [linking high with sweet and low with sour] later in life.”
In May, the Brussels Beer Project, a crowdfunded brewer that conducts regular experiments with beer, met with indie band Editors to concoct a new brew that suited the band’s sound.
Yves Leboeuf, head brewer at the Brussels Beer Project met the musicians for sound-taste pairing sessions. They focused on two songs from the band’s latest album, Ocean of Night and Salvation (after which the beer was named).
Leboeuf decided that, through the flavour of the brew, he’d seek to express two main aspects of the Editors’ sound – their Britishness and the dark emotions that the band associated with the chosen songs. This influenced a number of choices including settling on a UK porter style of beer (porter beers are brewed from dark malts and are usually described as tasting dry and bitter), and also the design of the label.
A team of researchers then explored the influence of background music on taste perception. They recruited 231 participants and split them into three groups. The first acted as a control; they were given an unlabelled beer and drank with no background music. The second tasted a labelled beer also without music. And the third drank a labelled beer while listening to one of the two songs by Editors.
Before sampling the beer, the groups were asked how tasty they expected it to be. Then, after drinking, they were asked how much they liked the beer’s taste. Those that only saw the label enjoyed it far less than those who also listened to the music. The label, which references the two songs used in the experiment, is still used on the beer, named Salvation, as it is sold today. Meanwhile, Felipe Reinoso, a PHD student who put together the experiment with the Brussels Beer Project and Editors (and is supervised by Charles Spence), is working on a longer report on the findings of the experiment.
Spence, although not directly involved in the research, was one of the co-authors of an article that outlines its findings. Multisensory marketing is one of his areas of interest. In 2014, he published an abstract arguing that sound is the forgotten flavour sense. In this he mentions several studies that show the connection, such as one in which crispier bacon was rated tastier by participants and another in which crunchier crisps were seen as fresher.
Spence says that food and drinks businesses could use the connection between sound and taste to their advantage. They could, for example, play high music to bring out sweet tastes and low music to emphasise sour tastes.
Jesse Dunford Wood, owner of Parlour restaurant in Kensal Green, London, created a theatrical dining experience, partly inspired by Spence’s research. At each of Dunford Wood’s Chef’s Table events , which he runs every Tuesday to Sunday evening at Parlour, he serves six guests 10 or more seasonal meals. Then comes the musical finale: for the last course, each guest is fitted with wireless headphones while Dunford Wood constructs an elaborate 20 piece dessert in front of them.
“It’s like a silent disco,” says Dunford Wood. “Music is very carefully considered in order to enhance the taste experience.” Wood begins by squirting sauces on to a long strip of foil that acts as a communal substitute for plates, while guests listen to classical music including Rimsky-Korsakov’s Flight of the Bumblebee and Strauss’s Also Sprach Zarathustra, used in the film 2001: A Space Odyssey.
The playlist then moves on to well-known hits, chosen to fit with the ingredients being used, for example, Dunford Wood times a spoonful of sugar to land in front of the guests while Julie Andrews’s classic hit is played. “It’s a journey of music playing on different emotions to build suspense,” he says. While Gene Wilder sings Pure Imagination smoke rises around the puddings.
Parlour has 30 staff, but Dunford Wood tries to do most of the serving himself at the Chef’s Table. This gives him the chance to get to know who he’s serving. He sometimes tailors the music to suit different groups of customers as he learns more about them.
Once Dunford Wood has finished, the headphone’s are taken away from the guests. By this point the playlist should have built anticipation for what they are about to eat. “It’s a performance,” he explains.
At the Edinburgh Beer Factory, a brewer with a cafe-bar that also offers brewery tours, music is essential to brand identity. The business’s name is a nod to Manchester’s Factory Records, which released albums by bands such as Joy Division and New Order. Music videos from these artists are played in the cafe-bar.
Kirsty Dunsmore, co-founder, says: “We’re trying to get people to rethink lager [the Factory’s main product]; see it as more stylish. We’ve found its visual representation and musical context can help reframe that and make the customer enjoy it more.” One artist whose music Dunsmore thinks goes really well with the beer is David Bowie. “We see ourselves as embracing the best elements from the old and new, big and small brewing. David Bowie is in that mould. He embraced influences and reinvented music,” says Dunsmore.
She adds that the Edinburgh Beer Factory targets consumers who are most likely to buy into its brand. “We target them in three ways: through our social media activity [by selecting favourite bands when posting a tailored Facebook ad, for instance], partnerships and sponsorship and content.” David Bowie, Joy Division and New Order are often mentioned in the business’s social media posts, for example.
“We also plan to host music, poetry and film performances at the brewery next year, when we open a larger visitor centre. Music is a great proxy for our brand philosophy.”
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