In Peter Smith’s recent column for The Smithsonian Magazine, Smith explores the relationship sound has on the flavor of food. Smith claims we’re all “synesthesiates” when we sit down to dinner.
Richard E. Cytowic, an American neurologist and author, defines synesthesia as a neurological condition in which stimulation of one sensory or cognitive pathway leads to automatic, involuntary experiences in a second sensory or cognitive pathway.
Smith remarks that the sound of food matters and adds: “So does the sound of the packaging and the atmospheric sounds we hear when we’re eating.”
Smith cites the research of Anne-Sylvie Crisinel, a graduate student who works in the Crossmodal Research Laboratory at Oxford University.
“Crisinel had volunteers match wines, milk and other foods with particular musical notes. A sweet-tasting dessert or something like lemon juice tended to be matched with a higher-pitched notes, whereas something savory or something with umami tended to be matched with brassy, low-pitched sound.”
In one study, 20 people sat in a darkened sound booth wearing headphones listening to soundtracks while snacking on exactly the same cinder toffee. The study participants listening to the soundtrack with the higher pitches claimed the toffee they tasted was sweeter than those listening to the (bitter) soundtrack at a lower pitch.
From the study abstract: “As expected, the cinder toffee samples tasted while listening to the presumptively ‘bitter’ soundtrack were rated as tasting significantly more bitter than when exactly the same foodstuff was evaluated while listening to the ‘sweet’ soundtrack instead. These results provide the first convincing empirical demonstration that the crossmodal congruency of a background soundtrack can be used to modify the taste (and presumably also flavor) of a foodstuff.”
Smith wonders whether we prime ourselves for sweetness when we hear the ice cream man’s familiar high tinkling jingles or do we respond to a deeper symbolism associated with the pitch of our voices?
Either way, says Smith, “The association helps explain why ice cream trucks still stick to their sprightly high-pitched tunes. These atmospheric sounds really do play a role, creating an expectation that appears to sweeten the treats themselves.”
One wonders if the nature of these studies may have influenced Madison Avenue to craft very specific music selections to accompany promotional radio and television spots for certain foods and restaurants?