Food by VICE

Why a Cup of Coffee Sounds Like Brian Eno

The idea was simple: A neuroscientist would monitor my brain waves as I sat and drank several cups of strong coffee. These waves would then be translated into sound by a group of live musicians.

by Daniel Tapper
Jan 3 2016, 3:00pm

Ten years ago, a friend of mine went hiking through the Yorkshire Dales National Park. He was 18 and it was his first time on acid.

Alone, buzzing and trudging through a particularly savage bit of windswept moorland, he stopped to eat and drink. It was then that things began to change. Sounds appeared as visuals, blown around him like giant, quivering strands of ectoplasm. Stranger still, he began to hear his flask of tea. With every sip came a low-pitched warbling noise that sounded not unlike a "piano being played at the bottom of a swimming pool."

I had the words of my friend reverberating through my mind as I sat wired up to a brain scanner on a recent mid-week evening. I'd been asked to take part in an experiment to see what coffee sounds like inside the brain. The idea was simple: A neuroscientist would monitor my brain waves as I sat and drank several cups of strong coffee. These waves would then be translated into sound by a group of live musicians. The flavour of food, I was told, is heard as well as tasted. As for what that noise sounds like, I was about to find out.

The idea that sound and flavour are intertwined isn't as far-fetched as it sounds. In early 2014, a team of scientists from Oxford University carried out research that provided the first empirical evidence that flavour can be enhanced or dulled purely by sound. Scientists gave those taking part in the experiment different foods that displayed both bitter and sweet characteristics, such as chocolate and coffee. When low-pitched sounds were played, subjects reported a heightened sense of bitterness. When this was switched to a high frequency noise, subjects reported heightened levels of sweetness. (Not convinced by the idea of 'sonic seasoning? Try it for yourself here.) The phenomenon is now so widely accepted that some food companies, such as Ben & Jerry's, are reportedly developing QR codes that allow customers to unlock complimentary sounds to pair with different products.

Sound has the capability to destroy flavours as well as enhance them. In 2010, researchers at the University of Manchester gave participants sweet and salty foods to eat, first while sitting in a quiet room, and then while listening to white noise. They found that food consumed while hearing the background noise was perceived to be less sweet, less salty, and crunchier. Others studies have show that loud noises can reduce our ability to taste flavours by a massive 30 percent, which might go some way to explaining why airline food tastes so horrendously dull. On a side note, the best drink to order on a flight is reportedly a Bloody Mary. It turns out that tomato juice's umami flavour is unaltered by noise.

Taking things one step further is award-winning drinks writer Pete Brown, who hosts dinners where beers are paired with different songs. Belgian beer—Duvel, for example—nicely complements the Pixies' "Debaser." Chimay Red, meanwhile, is best paired with a medley of Debussy's "Clair de Lune" and Jimmy Hendrix's "All Along the Watchtower." I kid you not. Around 80 percent of Brown's guests say the flavours of each beer are clearly changed by the music.

So music can affect flavour, but can flavour affect music? Enter the Frozen Music Collective, a group of artists and musicians that includes a 36-year-old French neuroscientist called Christophe de Bezenac, from the University of Liverpool. Working in collaboration with Taylors coffee the collective has created "Sound of Coffee," an installation that—for the first time—uses state-of-the-art neuroscience technology to depict how coffee sounds, from the moment we see and smell it to the final gulp.

"I've always been interested in the relationship between art, music and the brain," says de Bezenac. "The aim of this installation is to monitor people's brain signals as they drink and then turn these signals into music with the help of live musicians, playing the saxophone, guitar, and a synthesiser."

Our brains pulse and vibrate like everything in this world, Bezenac explains. "The brain pulse is measured, like sound, in cycles per second or Hertz, using an electroencephalograph (EEG), which detects the brain's main electrical signals: gamma, beta, alpha, theta and delta. These signals can provide insight into an individual's inner states and feelings," he says. "Delta signals, for example, are the slowest of the frequencies and are experienced in very deep, dreamless sleep and in transcendental meditation. Beta signals, on the other hand, are associated with an alert state of mind, concentration, and mental activity. While beta brain waves are important for effective functioning throughout the day, they also can translate into stress, anxiety, and restlessness."

De Bezenac and the collective then take these signals and translate them into visuals and sounds. "For example, if you're feeling excited, the visuals and music are faster and more erratic. Conversely, if you're feeling relaxed the visuals and music tends to be slower and more stable. It is really interesting to observe the similarities and differences between individuals in their brain response to coffee and other foods and how that effects the resulting music"

Does de Bezenac believe that people actually hear music in their heads when they eat? "Not literally, no. But we always, often subconsciously, associate tastes with auditory, visual and tactile experiences. One of the biggest misunderstandings is that our senses are mutually exclusive of one another. Music, for example, has only recently become something we purely listen to. Historically, it was visual and physical, whether we were dancing to it in a music hall or watching a live orchestra. Similarly, art is not just visual. When we look at art we explore it physically, from touching a sculpture to navigating our way round a picture gallery. Food is the same. We don't just taste it—we see it, smell it, and feel it in our mouths. And somewhere, deep inside our minds, we do hear it or least associate it with different sounds."

So, what then does coffee sound like? The experiment I took part in didn't start well. Alarmingly, for a good five minutes the EEG headset failed to pick up any brain function whatsoever. And the Frozen Music Collective sat in silence as I willed my brain to send a signal it was alive. The screen meanwhile remained completely black, detecting not a hint of cranial activity to translate into visuals. It was at this point I smelled a freshly plunged cafetiere of black coffee by my side, triggering wispy plumes of multicoloured beads to form on a large screen, paired with the low, trembling hum of a saxophone. As I took my first sip, the screen ignited with epic, Hubble telescope-like images of stars, planets, and nebulae. The more I drank, the more dazzling these images looked and the louder and more high-pitched the saxophone became. Halfway through the cafetiere, and the sax had been joined by the synth—sounding as though John Coltrane had teamed up with Brian Eno for a night of ambient free jazz.

Is this really what our brains hear each and every time we have a morning brew? If the Frozen Music Collective is right, coffee is out-there stuff.

This post previously appeared on MUNCHIES in December, 2014.