There was a time during the early 2000s when Buena Vista Social Club was the exclusive soundtrack to every coffee shop in the town I grew up in; no matter how distantly related their paninis were to a Cuban sandwich. The music playing at a fine dining restaurant I recently dined at was suspiciously of the same era that the restaurant first opened its doors, 17 years prior. There’s no denying music can make or break a dining experience, but how big a role do sonic elements play in how sweet or bitter our food tastes?
Janice Wang is a PhD student at the Crossmodal Research Lab at Oxford University whose background includes training at Le Cordon Bleu’s patisserie program, DJing and dedicated tango dancing. During her time at MIT Media Lab she helped to run their Argentine tango club. These three passions – music, food and science – collide in the current research she is pursuing under the guidance of Professor Charles Spence.
Their research focuses on applied crossmodal correspondences between sound and flavour with an interest in how auditory stimuli can change the way we perceive food and drink. Spence’s interest in neuroscience-inspired multisensory design has led to work with experimental chef Heston Blumenthal, whose seafood dish, ‘Sound of the Sea’, is famously served at The Fat Duck with an iPod playing the sound of crashing waves. The concept is that the sound association heightens the taste of the oysters and clams.
The Crossmodal Research Lab has found that by hearing different sounds while eating, different flavours are highlighted in foods. For example, a melodic, high-pitched sound will amplify sweet flavours, a sharp note intensifies sour, while a deep bass sound, something like a cello, tastes bitter. These associations are extended further to include colour and shape. Rounded shapes in pink or red are strongly associated with sweet tastes in our minds, while sour looks green and angular. These findings have been creatively interpreted in four flavour and sound videos for Casimir representing salty, sour, bitter and sweet.
A Q&A with Janice Wang:
What questions motivate your research and what do you ultimately want to discover?
Ultimately, I am interested in how our senses are interconnected and how that influences the way we perceive the world. Eating is a great activity to focus on because it combines all the senses and has so much emotional and cultural meaning for everyone. I want to discover how the environment can shape our eating experience, and how we can use that knowledge to affect change in all kinds of ways, from modifying eating behaviour for health/environment reasons to communicating expressive meaning in artistic performances.
Was there a personal sensory experience that first sparked your research?
I had a very inspirational dinner at the restaurant Alinea in Chicago about three years ago. The dishes were creative and playful, and I was inspired to think of ways to extend the dishes even further. I had been to a fair share of top restaurants by then but I never had the feeling that fine dining can be anything beyond good execution and service. The Alinea dinner was like “wow, maybe there is some room to play in gastronomy”. After that dinner I switched my research direction from music and emotion to music and food (emotion is still involved!). I even dedicated my masters thesis at the MIT Media Lab to Alinea.
What theoretical possibilities do your findings on flavour perception present?
More and more we are finding that flavour perception happens in the mind, where the act of eating unifies information from different sensory modalities (not just smell and taste, but also sight, hearing, touch). Our findings on flavour perception help us understand how our chemical senses function and how it might be influenced by factors at various stages of sensory processing (such as multisensory integration, emotion, attention, etc).
Your results are based on the majority of people giving the same answers. What does this reveal about the people who perceive things differently?
We are starting to look into individual differences in people’s responses. For example, we are seeing trends that supertasters might respond differently from nontasters when it comes to the influence of music on taste, and those with musical training might make different sound-taste matches than those without musical training.
What is your favourite food and what do you imagine it sounding like?
My favourite food is probably sea urchin roe. It’s sweet and rich but at the same time delicate and saline with a touch of minerality (kind of like a good white Burgundy!). In Mugaritz BSO, one of the instruments they used in the sea urchin dish soundtrack was the hang drum, which I find really appropriate with sea urchin. It has a sweet tone but also this mysterious underwater quality.
Director: Darren Gwynn
DOP: Fabian Vettiger
Food Stylist: Aart Verrips
Editor: Nick Gishen
Colourist: Anel Stolp
Online: Schalk van der Merwe
Sound composition: Louis Enslin
With thanks to Janice Wang
Try it at home with a piece of chocolate or a sip of coffee:
Sweet vs Bitter taste test music courtesy of Professor Charles Spence.