If you’re cracking open a classically bitter ale tonight, science suggests that you should couple it with the sultry sounds of Barry White if you really want to bring out the bitterness. Recent research that beer-drinkers find their brews more bitter if they are consumed while listening to low-pitch notes, and sweeter when coupled with higher pitch tones, like those of a flute or piano. The study forms part of a growing field of research called crossmodal perception or “sonic seasoning” and it could lead to your favorite six-pack being sold with a soundtrack in the future to help enhance the flavor.
The idea that sound can influence our perception of taste has been around for some time. More than 50 years ago, psychologist Kristian Holt-Hansen was serving Carlsberg Lagers to study subjects and asking them to pair the taste with the perfect pitch. Despite some interesting findings, his pioneering research was not robust enough to be taken seriously, and perhaps the world wasn’t quite ready for fine-tuned food. Fast-forward to 2017, and we have an army of digitally refined, smart phone-wielding Millennials eager for multisensory experiences.
Recently there has been a surge of studies that show more than just anecdotal evidence for the power of sound to influence our taste buds. “The approach we see today is much more rigorous scientifically and also very creative,” explains Professor Charles Spence, head of the Crossmodal Research Laboratory at the University of Oxford. ”While Holt-Hansen had nothing more than a tone generator, now we have sound designers and composers creating music for taste.”
Belgian PhD candidate Felipe Reinoso Carvalho is one such sound designer. In one of his studies published last year, Carvalho experimented with asking test subjects to rate a beer’s taste while listening to a specially selected soundtrack. Participants first rated the beer’s flavor without a backing track and then, unbeknownst to them, they rated the exact same beer again, only this time they were listening to beer-flavoring tones.
The results? The subjects consistently rated the beers differently based on the selected sonic flavoring. High-pitch sound resulted in sweeter beer, while low-pitch tracks produced bitter beer that was perceived to be stronger in alcohol.
The findings were backed up in another study from Carvalho in which subjects were given a series of beers to taste and, using an adjustable pitch tone generator, were asked to find the pitch that best matched the brew (kind of like taking a hearing test at the pub). Again, bitterness was associated with lower pitched tones, while sweetness ranked in the higher pitch range.
Researchers like Carvalho are still trying to figure out exactly how this all works. It’s likely that an array of sensory stimuli blend together into an overall package that delivers our perception of taste. If the overall experience is a pleasant one, we may be more inclined to associate it with pleasant flavors like sweetness. This idea pops up in another study from Carvalho which involved a collaboration with English rock band The Editors, and tested people’s perceptions of a kind of hyper-branded, multisensory beer. Carvalho found that if participants were enjoying The Editors soundtrack while sipping their porter, they rated the experience as more positive and this influenced the taste of the beer. It’s called sensation transference and it could explain why subjects listening to a pleasant soundtrack rate a beer as sweeter.
“We need to develop more experiments to keep on unveiling more parameters from the universe of sound that we can use to enhance tasting experiences,” Carvalho stresses. He envisions a future where we redefine our traditional understanding of how we interact with our senses and open ourselves up to multisensory experiences that are driven by modern technology. “I think that this type of knowledge can have tremendous value in the context of virtual reality, where we may be able to rethink the way we interact with our senses.”
Imagine a future where beer is marketed with an entirely immersive sensory experience designed to enhance the flavor and maximize the taste journey. It’s pretty exciting stuff. For now though, I’ll just drink my beer while listening to Led Zeppelin. Everything tastes better with Zeppelin.