“Sound is the forgotten flavour sense”- Heston Blumenthal
Author: Daniel Say
A blog exploring how sound and environment can affect taste by our Lead Trainer & Technician, Daniel Say. Daniel hosted May’s Cupping Club on this topic and his UKBC competition in 2019.
When someone says the words “Sonic Seasoning” to you, what do you think of?
- Enhancing flavour with sound
- Elevating gastronomic experience with music
- Changing what people taste using different sound waves/frequencies
- All of the above
If you answered 4. All of the above, then congratulations! You are correct! The term “sonic seasoning” refers to the deliberate pairing of sound/music with taste/flavour in order to enhance, or modify, the multi-sensory tasting experience. Adding levels of up to 15% of sweet, salty, sour and spicy notes to your dishes, low frequency sounds are said to add a bitterness to food, with higher frequencies bringing the sweetness.
There are few experts in this field, but I’m going to highlight 3 people who I think are doing some important research into this topic and why their research is important.
Firstly, let’s talk about the artist Mengtian Zhang - In the art piece/experiment ‘Sonic Seasoning she played sounds and asked people to add honey to the yoghurt they were eating. Users reported that higher pitched noises sounded “sweeter” and made them want to use less honey. Whereas lower pitches were calming but less sweet.
Remember that - it’ll be important later.
Mengtian Zhang used a study (As bitter as a trombone: Synesthetic correspondences in non-synesthetes between tastes/flavours and musical notes) as a reference for this art piece.
This is incredibly interesting beyond the realms of art as it opens up conversations around sound and flavour. However - it is an art piece, not science.
Experiments for the piece were not double-blind and were conducted on friends.
Next up is Heston Blumental – He famously created the dish ‘Sounds of the Sea’ - Sashimi served with an iPod in a shell playing sounds of the sea. This was possibly the first instance of Sonic Seasoning in a popular restaurant and it took the industry by storm!
This idea has been taken further by many people - Whisky tastings accompanied by the sounds of a burning fire to elevate peatiness (or drawing attention to something that they may otherwise have missed, through the power of suggestion) to adverts doing away with music and amplifying fizzy drinks, or mastication sounds such as the crunch of a crisp. It has really started to come into its own. Many companies now have food or drink products with an accompanying Spotify playlist.
Finally, let’s talk about Charles Spence – the Author of ‘As bitter as a Trombone’ and ‘Gastronomics’ and The world’s leading Gastrophysicist (he may also be the only one…)
Let's take a look at some of Charles Spences research –
Mind - While it appears to many of us that we taste primarily with our tongue, all the senses are actually involved in the appreciation of the flavour of food and drink (see Spence, 2015d). In a sense, we really taste with our mind, since that is where the various sensory cues are first combined, along with the influence of mood and emotion
Cup – You might not realise it, but the cup that you drink your coffee from has quite an impact. Colour, weight and shape all influence what you taste. In 2018/2019 there was a fad of using pink cups in coffee competitions as it's said that pink enhances sweetness. Using a heavier cup can intensify aromas and also increase perceived quality.
Visual – A study in Holland showed that when 120 coffee drinkers were shown an advertisement with vertical visual cues rather than horizontal, they described the coffee as tasting ‘stronger’ and having a higher quality. They were told it was a new coffee that was being trialled, when in actual fact it was the coffee shops usual house blend. Van Rompay et al., 2019
Noise – It may be unsurprising to some, but background noise can have a dramatic effect on our ability to taste. It can reduce our ability to taste Sweet and Salt flavours whilst enhancing our ability to taste Umami. On the downside, however, loud background noise (defined as sound that is unpleasant) can negatively interfere with all our tasting abilities.
Sound - Background music has also been shown to have a massive effect on our multi-sensory tasting experience. When interviewed, Heston Blumental stated - “I would consider sound as an ingredient available to the chef.”
Try this at Home
Whilst this might be fascinating, do we have anything empirical for you?
Well, why not try it for yourself? Grab yourself a pair of headphones and some chocolate (I recommend 70% dark chocolate for this).
Firstly, taste your chocolate with no sounds playing, make a mental note of the acidity, the sweetness, the body, the after taste.
Click here to try
In studies it has been shown that higher pitched sounds can increase our perception of acidity whilst lower pitched sounds can increase our perception of bitterness.
Where to next?
There’s so much research going on around this - and we’ve only scratched the surface in this blog post.
Are shops going to consider the EQ of their soundtrack in the future?
Or is Sonic Seasoning doomed to be another fun novelty that sometimes pops up on Instagram and Tik Tok?
Is it a taste of things to come?
Coffee is a multi-sensory experience - the smell of freshly ground coffee as you walk into the coffee shop, the reassuringly weighty cup, that song on the speakers that you’ve just decided you love, the screaming children running around your table, the comforting warmth of the shop when it's cold outside, the well thought out decor - it all adds up. It's easy to fall into the trap of thinking that the coffee you’re brewing is the be all and end all of the customer's sensory experience, but that simply isn't true.
Do I think we should be using sound to enhance people's coffee? Absolutely! The question is, do you?