Anyone who has ever suffered through a head cold knows that your senses of taste and smell are linked. And Top Chef judges have reminded plenty of contestants eliminated in the earlier rounds of the show that we eat with our eyes before the first bite ever hits our tongue. A sensory link discussed far less often is that of taste and hearing. One man's unusual quest to use the scientific method to answer the question "Does beer taste better when paired with the right music?" is illuminating how little we actually understand about the relationship between our ears and tastebuds.
Felipe Reinoso Cavalho—a former sound engineer and current electronic engineering and experimental psychology researcher at Vrije Universiteit Brussel and KU Leuven University—has conducted a number of studies on sound's effect on taste and alcohol ingestion.
Most Recently, The Brussels Beer Project collaborated with the UK band The Editors to create a new beer designed to embody the band's music, and Cavalho conducted a study in which 231 participants—split into three groups—drank the citrusy, Earl Grey-infused beer. The participants who listened to "Oceans of Light", a cut off the band's new album, reported the beer to taste better than the control group, pointing marketers down a road that seems difficult to capitalize on.
We talked to Cavalho about his research, the link between hearing and taste, and whether the right music might actually make you feel more drunk.
Tell us about your research. I have two paths in my research; One is understanding how sounds can modulate perceived taste attributes like sweetness and bitterness. But the other path is to understand how sound can actually add pleasure, and influence the subjective experience of eating and drinking. I live in Belgium, so I work with beer and chocolates, the national treasures of the country. For the beer studies, we used scientific literature suggesting that certain musical attributes can have an influence on the perceived sweetness, sourness or bitterness of beer.
Then we developed certain types of sounds, and tested and tested them, inviting people to participate in our experiments along the way to see if the sounds modulate behavior. We developed scientific behavioral tests, and with these assessments we are able to see if the sounds we are using have the ability to modulate the perception of people while they experience beer. And we've found that under certain circumstances, we have proven that we are able to modulate the perceived sweetness and bitterness of certain foods and beverages.
Any surprises along the way? What did you learn? Something that we weren't expecting was that the specific soundtrack we produced to manipulate the beer's bitterness actually was perceived as modulating the alcoholic strength of the beer. People were relying on the bitterness of the beer to indicate the alcohol content, and as we enhanced the bitterness through sound, the alcohol strength was perceived as enhanced as well.
Do you think we might be able to use sound to manipulate someone's buzz then? If "bitter" music makes people think they are drinking stronger beer, do people feel the effect of alcohol differently while hearing different sounds and songs? Yes! Apparently that was what was happening. And in that experiment we weren't even focused on this possibility, but now we're going to focus ourselves on modulating the experience of the perceived alcoholic strength.
So can sound enhance the effects of alcohol? Can the right music turn a low-proof cocktail into a shot of Everclear? It might be possible. But the research can have applications for marketing or even healthcare. But our other experiments show that music can add pleasure to food and beverage. The first interaction people have with music is emotional, so we are now exploring the possibilities of adding measurable pleasure to the experience of drinking a beer.
Are we headed toward a future where sommeliers suggest optimal music pairings to go with your meal then? I think that's an interesting application. We're developing a project in Brussels right now called The Sound of Chocolate based on my research collaborating with chocolatiers and local musicians to create chocolate boxes that come with their own soundtrack. It's a collaborative, interdisciplinary, new way of experiencing chocolate in a multi-sensory way, with our scientific research as the baseline.
Did you always suspect a link between hearing and taste, or is this all taking you by surprise? I'm not the first to do this type of research. My colleagues have explored vision, touch, taste, and all of the senses for years. So my work comes with a baseline. At the beginning I felt like I was validating known things, but now we are finding out new things. And sounds modulating the alcohol strength of beer is new, interesting and very exciting!
This interview was edited for length and clarity.