Having the right music playing as you sit down for that first bite of family dinner this holiday season could make the food more palatable, psychologists from Oxford University claim.
In an interview with NPR, Oxford researcher Charles Spence called the phenomenon "multi-sensory food perception." The theory behind it is that taste unifies all of the other senses, and that listening to the right music while dining can enhance the enjoyment of the cuisine.
"Flavor is probably one of the most multi-sensory of our experiences... because it does involve taste and more smell than we realize. But all of the senses come together to give us that one unified experience of flavor," Spence, who works in the Oxford Department of Experimental Psychology Crossmodal Research Laboratory, told NPR's Arun Rath.
Spence and his colleagues, who originally published research on the topic in an April 2012 edition of Food Quality and Preference, said that they had discovered that higher-pitched tunes such as flutes music enhances the flavor of sweet and sour foods, while lower-pitched ones enhance bitter flavors.
One of the ways in which sound impacts taste is when it comes to texture, he said. For example, the flavor of chips is enhanced by the noise of eating them, and the taste of carbonated beverages is better thanks to the fizzing sound it makes. Sound can also affect taste in the environment, he added – for example, eating fish while listening to the sound of water at a seaside restaurant.
According to NPR, Spence's team is currently working on what he refers to as "synesthetic sounds," in which people are asked to match flavors with sounds. Through this work, they have found a link between high-pitched sounds and sweets, and low-pitched sounds and bitter foods.
"You can then start creating experiences where you play particular kinds of music or soundscape to diners or to drinkers while they're tasting. We're able to show that we can change the experience in [the] mouth by about 5 or 10 percent," he said.
Spence and his colleagues are working on a new project known as "sonic seasoning." In these experiments, they combine the results of taste tests involving various flavors to composers and acoustic designers, who then create sound experiences designed to match those culinary experiences so that they can better bring out the flavors of each.
The Oxford University professor also teamed up with wine company Campo Viejo to create a series of the "top five" holiday-themed songs for sweet and sour tastes, according to The Telegraph. Topping the "sweet" list was "The Christmas Song" by Celine Dion, followed by "Santa Baby" by Eartha Kitt, "White Christmas" by Bing Crosby, "Let it Snow! Let it Snow! Let it Snow!" by Rod Stewart & Dave Koz and "Baby, It's Cold Outside" by Dean Martin.
The list of "sour" Christmas songs included "All I Want For Christmas Is You" by Mariah Carey, "Step Into Christmas" by Elton John, "Jingle Bell Rock" by Daryl Hall & John Oates, "Santa Claus is Coming to Town" by the Jackson 5, and "Last Christmas" by the popular '80s duo of George Michael and Andrew Ridgeley, Wham!