Sound Strategies is not the first company to investigate the relationship between sound and eating – that honour probably goes to the Unilever Research Centre at Vlaardingen in the Netherlands, in partnership with the University of Manchester (UK)’s School of Psychological Sciences – but we can legitimately claim to have invented the title of a possible new research discipline: Gastrosonics. There’s little doubt that, once the sonic branding bubble has finally burst, gastrosonics will become the next must-have audio marketing tool.
The links between music and eating extend doubtless to the time of the earliest musical instruments and communal eating. There are countless literary references to music as a form of nourishment (though probably less referring to food as a form of symphony). Anyone with any pretensions to social or tribal importance will inevitably have background music playing during mealtimes. Today, hotels and restaurants are constantly solicited by music supply companies offering their versions of the perfect soundtracks to fine dining and drinking. And countless live musicians have earned a good living judging just the right repertoire to accompany a basil saumon terrine or a crème brulée.
Congruence is the buzz word when it comes to promoting a brand. All the sensory elements should be singing from the same hymnsheet. Fine in theory but very hard to operate in practice simply because there is no infallible lexicon of equivalence between different sensory semiotics. We cannot say for sure that a minor key equals ‘sad’ and a major key equals ‘happy’. And what does a sad smell, smell like?
However, the researchers at Unilever’s strategic research centre in Vlaardingen and Manchester University’s School of Psychological Sciences have possibly made both an imaginative leap in the field and also discovered a concrete physiological connection between sound and taste.
Like all good fundamental research, their premise was simple: how do different sonic environments affect an eater’s perception of taste? Participants in the research blindly tasted an assortment of sweet and savoury foods such as Nice biscuits, flapjacks, cheese crackers and Marmite rice cakes while background noise was played at different volume levels. When the participants liked the background sound, it enhanced their enjoyment of the flavour of the food. When they disliked the background sound, it reduced their enjoyment. Andy Woods, a scientist at Vlaardingen, says: ‘We know taste and smell play critical roles in helping us enjoy our food. But what hasn’t been properly explored until now is how much background sound can influence our sense of taste’.
A second strand of the research focused on taste and ‘crunchiness’. The team found that as the volume of background noise increased, the diners’ perception of the crunchiness increased. But on the other hand, the more noisy the background, the more the sensitivity to sweet and salty flavours decreased. It’s hard to resist the conclusion that by reducing ambient noise levels (or distracting music) in restaurants and fast food outlets, caterers could reduce the salt content of their offerings without anyone noticing.
The research paper is available here.
Or future music suppliers might need to become culinary experts also if they want to keep up with current science.
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