There's a restaurant in my neighborhood that plays smooth jazz covers of top 40 pop songs every time I go in for a meal. It's awful. While I can't fathom a less appetizing musical mashup, it would be crazy to think that music of any kind could actually change the taste of my food. I mean, no measure of mellifluous tones has ever made my parents' bizarre casserole combos taste any better. But it turns out that sound can actually play a big part in how we perceive the taste, texture, and overall experience of food, and a handful of scientists and researchers are eager to explore this new territory, for the benefit of both science and industry.
Charles Spence is a scientist, consultant, and pioneer in the field of emerging science that connects sound with food perception. "Sound is the last thing you think of when you think of taste," says Spence, who started working with commercial manufacturers of food and other products to use sound to improve its marketability; working on everything to what he calls "the crisp of the crunch" in a chip to the loudness of the packaging of potato chip bags. Spence is head of the Crossmodal Research Lab at Oxford, which studies how the five senses interact with one another.
Despite the wealth of research that has been done regarding how the brain processes and experiences specific senses, research that explores how sound and taste impact one another is still a relatively new concept in the field of science. Using auditory environments or even the sound that food makes when you eat it has many implications for scientific research. But it can also be used by restaurants and food manufacturers to manipulate the way the consumer experiences ingredients. According to Spence, "Chefs spend so much time worrying about what's on the plate and not enough time on what their diners are hearing when they eat their finely crafted meals."
This research is of particular interest to major food industry players, who have been a large source of funding for Spence's research. In 2000, the scientist first got the idea to marry sound and taste while simultaneously working on two projects for the multinational company Unilever; while he was researching ways to improve the taste of food products for the company, Spence was also researching ways to make clothing appear softer by changing the sound that it made. "It suddenly clicked that we could look at the sound of food. Out of that came the first experiment connecting sound and food, called the 'sonic chip'," said Spence. By manipulating the loudness of certain frequencies heard when biting into a Pringles chip, Spence's study showed a significant change in the perception of freshness according to how loud the crunch of a chip happened to be.
Researchers in a laboratory scrutinizing the volume of a chip's crunch to 'satisfy' their consumers tastes seems a bit like polishing a turd if you ask me, a turd that fast food chains and junk food manufacturers have long used science to buff out until it shines. But there are other uses for this research that feel less like subliminal advertising that explore new territories of cuisine and how we experience it.
The 'Sound of the Sea' is an experimental seafood dish crafted by chef Heston Blumenthal of Fat Duck in the UK. Blumenthal and Spence collaborated on research showing that listening to recorded ocean sounds appeared to enhance the salty and briny flavors of oysters in the study's participants. Out of that research, Blumenthal created a dish that includes an audio supplement designed to enhance certain flavor components of the meal.
Spence's lab has been able to isolate in limited studies sound frequencies that eaters tend to associate with sweet or bitter foods, that can be used as roadmaps for sound designers and composers to develop music or soundscapes that enhance the experience of a meal.
One such collaboration is called the "sonic cake pop." Not to be confused with cake pops made to look like Sonic the Hedgehog, this dessert can be found at The House of Wolf in London, a restaurant that explores alternative food environments and approaches to dining, and for which Spence's research became the inspiration. The cake pop is a chocolate covered bittersweet toffee that is accompanied by a phone number. When the diner calls the number, they have two options for dialing: one for "sweet" and two for "bitter." A sound recording plays that is designed specifically to shift the diner's perception of the cake pop, according to their selection.
The small scattering of chefs and researchers exploring this new field at present is likely to grow in the years to come. Spence notes that technology will be key in bringing the relationship between food and sound to the general public. "What's interesting to me is the development of this technology" say Spence, "It started out as a chef's technology. You needed to go to the restaurant to experience it and then you went home. But the technology now is in your pocket, and anyone can use it."
If I'm lucky, this technology will somehow reach my musically-impaired local restaurateurs, so I can finally eat my pad Thai in peace, minus Kenny G.