Sonic seasoning: how does sound affect what we eat?

Sonic seasoning: how does sound affect what we eat?

by Jozef Youssef 03 August 2015

In our second feature about multi-sensory dining we discover that sound can affect our experience of eating in good ways as well as bad.

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Jozef Youssef founded the collaborative gastronomic project, Kitchen Theory, to explore the multi-sensory elements of eating.

Jozef Youssef founded the collaborative gastronomic project, Kitchen Theory, to explore the multi-sensory elements of eating.

This is a very exciting time for the world of gastronomy where there is an ever-growing number of scientists and chefs working together to de-mystify our understanding of food and, in turn, our relationship with this source of both sustenance and pleasure. At Kitchen Theory we are particularly interested in the sensory aspects of gastronomy and how the neurological associations and connections between taste, smell, touch, hearing and sound all affect our experiences of food and dining.

For this article I want to focus on sound and look at the fascinating ideas and research which have led Professor Charles Spence, head of the Crossmodal Research Laboratory at Oxford University and Kitchen Theory director, to coin the term ‘sonic seasoning’.

Eating with your ears

So what does our sense of hearing tell us about food? Imagine being blindfolded and hearing two sticks of celery snapped by your ear, one giving off a crisp ‘crack’ and the other less so. Which stick of celery would you prefer to eat? In this case, the sound tells us that the celery has the crisp, crunchy texture we desire, that it is fresher and of superior quality and presumably packed with more of the vitamins and nutrients that our bodies instinctively seek out. As with many things, this comes back to primal instincts; the link with freshness is thought to be part of the evolutionary appeal of crisp and crunchy foods.

In experiments conducted by the Crossmodal Research Lab, subjects ate Pringles (because each crisp is identical) while wearing headphones in which the audio fed back the sound of their own mastication. Professor Spence found that by adjusting the volume and frequency he could augment the subject’s perception of freshness; when the noise level was higher the crisps ‘tasted’ fresher and less fresh when the sound levels were lowered.

Can you tell the difference in sound between hot and cold water being poured?

Water music

We are exposed to so much noise on a daily basis that we ignore much of it. Even as you read this right now chances are there are all sorts of sounds around you which you were managing to block out until I mentioned it! But how many of these sounds do we learn and have in our memory without realising. Let’s put it to the test: below are two audio clips. Listen to both and guess which is hot water being poured and which is ice-cold water.

Audio file 1E

Audio file 2E

For the answer, scroll to the bottom of the page. Did you get it right? It turns out that most people do. Similarly, Janice Wang at the Crossmodal Research Lab has done extensive research into our ability to perceive differences between various Champagne brands as they are poured and has found that people are able to differentiate between the sounds of tonic water, prosecco and Champagne.

Background noise

Airlines get a lot of flak when it comes to their culinary offerings and you will meet very few people who praise the food on a flight. Generally it’s pretty poor but we are now more aware of some of the reasons why. There is the impact of the altitude on the sinuses and therefore the ability to smell and taste, then there are a whole host of other contributing factors, one of which is sound levels on board a flight. A library is around 30db (decibels), a normal conversation is around 60db while the interior of an Airbus 747 while in flight is around 86db (somewhere between a lawn mower and a chainsaw!). Research suggests that at this noise level our ability to perceive specific tastes is impaired, particularly salty and sweet. As a consequence, companies like British Airways have experimented with increasing the presence of umami in their dishes as this taste is said to be less impacted by sound.

And back down on the ground? Well there are a growing number of critics and diners alike who are fed up of ever increasing noise levels in some of London’s most fashionable restaurants, with sound levels clocking in at between 90 and 110 decibels (now we are in jackhammer territory!). Not only are their staff likely to suffer from impaired hearing, but they are muting the flavour of their well-crafted food, effectively making it less tasty and reducing the overall enjoyment the diner will derive from the food.

Sonic seasoning

The Crossmodal Research Lab have also shown that particular sounds are associated with particular tastes. Let’s look at a really simplistic example of this: do you think a high-pitched violin screeching would this be sweet or sour? And the melodic tinkle of piano keys, sweet or bitter? Chances are that you feel the violin screech is sour and the piano keys are sweet. To some degree we all have an almost synesthetic ability to link tastes and sounds.

For a previous Kitchen Theory multi-sensory dinner entitled Synaesthesia, we selected several pieces of music and created dishes in response to them, basing our section on what ‘felt right’ as well as research in this area and listening to each piece in order to gain inspiration. We effectively had an audio pairing for each dish. The final dessert was entitled 'Believe Nothing of What you Hear' and was developed with my pastry consultant, Stefano de Costanzo. The audio accompaniment was a track by Brazilian artist Amon Tobin entitled 'A Piece of Paper' – this piece of music is harsh, glitchy and distorted but after it has played for almost three minutes the track changes to a far more melodic, harmonious piece entitled 'At the End of the Day'. When consulted, the guests consistently reported that the glitchy music brought out the more bitter (cocoa), sour (passion fruit) and crunchy (crumble) elements of the dish, whereas the more melodic music brought out the sweeter and creamier (mango chocolate ganache) elements.

At previous Kitchen Theory dinners we have used soundscapes to enhance particular dishes like our ‘Sea Spheres’ (oyster-infused dashi soup, spherified and served in the shell with vegetarian caviar, six types of seaweed and gooseberry) which were served to the sound of crashing waves. There were also our liquid nitrogen-poached grapefruit and vodka meringues, made at the table and served to the sound of rustling wind. Both these dishes inspired strong positive reactions and comments by guests who said they felt ‘transported’ to somewhere else.

Glitchy music was reported by diners to bring out the more sour elements of a dish such as passion fruit.
Music can give you a push, bring people together, inspire creativity and generally set a much nicer tone in the kitchen.

Music to cook by

Finally, I feel I have to mention the impact of music in the kitchen. As Professor Spence mentions in a paper on the topic, ‘Some chefs cannot cook without it, others have banned it entirely from the kitchens they operate. That said, the evidence that has started to emerge now demonstrates that whether you are a chef or a home cook, what we hear, can, at least in certain cases, influence the way in which we season the food’. Personally I think music is very important in the kitchen, not so much during service and there are definitely times when silence is golden, but music can give you a push, bring people together, inspire creativity and generally set a much nicer tone in the kitchen.

Kitchen Theory at home

How is all this useful to you and your next dinner party? Well, knowing how important sound is, at the very least you may give more consideration to what atmosphere you feel is right for and will work well with the menu you have designed.

- If you want to ‘transport’ people with your food, choose music that works with the theme of the dinner. If you are serving an Asian menu, play Asian-inspired music. Definitely no French music if you are serving up an Italian feast (or vice versa).

- How about selecting the music once you have the theme of your dinner and then listening to the selected music as inspiration for a dish?

- If you are feeling particularly adventurous, why not pair one or all your dishes to specific pieces of music? Experiment with unusual soundscapes, ambient noises etc. but remember to choose high-pitched piano notes if you want to boost the perception of sweetness and low-pitched wind instrument notes to augment bitterness

- Remember to keep the volume down as we now know that loud background noise impairs our ability to enjoy certain tastes and anyway, no one wants to have to strain to hear their dining companions!

For more information about our multi-sensory dinners, visit

Answer: audio file 2E is the cold water and 1E is the hot water.