Scientists, you gotta love ‘em. They just won’t leave anything be. Now they are investigating the effect of sound on taste. We know that popcorn and soda are staples for movie watching or maybe pizza if watching at home; but do we need to consider options depending on what we are going to hear, cheese or pepperoni for a particular soundtrack? The phenomena of “sensation transference” as it is termed by the authors of a new study, is now under the microscope. Sound and taste are connected, and they can prove it. Travis Andrews, writing for the Washington Post, reported that the newspaper had obtained an early copy of a research report to be published in the scientific journal, Food Quality and Preference, that links different sounds with the perceived taste of beer. We shouldn’t assume that the results can be believed because we have no data to judge whether the study is valid or not, and most importantly, it is yet to be validated by other scientists, but since it deals with beer I am willing, like most readers, to suspend my skepticism. It seems that higher pitched sounds make Budweiser taste sweeter; if you are drinking Budweiser I’d push the pitch to the limit. On the other hand, heavy-base music makes it taste more bitter and alcoholic than it usually tastes; sounds like an improvement to me. In fairness, other beer styles were also examined. The study's author, F. Reinoso Carvalho, stated that piano sounds tend to increase sweetness whereas metal instruments such as the trumpet increase the sense of bitterness. Dr. Carvalho is now looking at the effect of sound on the taste of chocolate. Again, I am all in. Sweeping statements about the potential effects of music on taste are made, but only sounds, and not music, were tested in the study. The effect of melody is likely to be a little more complex. We are a long way from definitive answers, if ever, but getting there is going to be a lot of fun.
There doesn’t seem to be any data being reported in the other direction, that is, the effect of food on sound. Maybe right now, that beer will be sweeter with sopranos and more bitter with baritones is all we need to know. Of course this all could lead to conflicts – the husband wants a sweeter beer and the wife wants one more bitter. Dinner might have to come with headphones – see below; it’s been done. However, the fact that opera goers tend to be wine drinkers puts us back in the dark ages. Nonetheless, the opera-food connection has not gone unnoticed by restaurateurs. In fact, in St. Paul, Minnesota a few restaurants have gotten together to form something called the St. Paul Food Opera, as reported in twincities.com. Later this year, multi-course lunch and dinners will pair dishes with musical selections; speakers will be placed at the center of each table. Composer Ben Houge, one of the partners in this adventure, has been promoting the concept of “food opera” since 2012. An interesting example of mixing sound and dining he cites is from Heston Blumenthal’s Fat Duck restaurant in Bray, England; for a dish called Sound of the Sea the chef provides diners with an iPod in a conch shell and ear pods so that they can listen to the sound of seagulls and surf as they dine; the dish is also served with sand to make it more authentic, gritty, but authentic. Personally, I look forward to hearing how these different ventures begin to sum up, i.e., whether over time patterns emerge that are reproducible. Perhaps they could even be used to judge the quality of a musical performance or compare singers – the manicotti was scrumptious with Anna Netrebko; let’s try it with Kristine Opolais. Acoustics could replace noise level as a restaurant rating criteria; I’m for that one regardless of the science.
I intend to do some experimenting myself. I occasionally have lunch in front of my big screen tv watching an opera dvd. Maneuvering a fork and knife and subtitles can be a little tricky, but from now on I also intend to take notes on the effect of opera on food, or should it be the effect of food on opera; I will figure it out. I can only report from my experience so far that Rossini definitely goes better with Italian food, but then, so do most of the other composers. If listening to Wagner, don’t eat, just drink, and maybe dig that Viking helmet out and put it on.