Personally, one of my favorite ways to relax is by listening to music and drinking coffee. Now, I've never actually wondered how music affects my tastebuds, but studies show that music actually may have an impact on the way we taste our food and drinks. Wild, right? Basically, this phenomenon is called "sonic seasoning." Your brain already has an idea about what taste you're going to experience (say, ice cream will be sweet, or steak will be juicy, for example); but when you play music while you eat, your brain tries to make sense of these two dynamics — the food and the music — by essentially "meshing" them together. More somber sounds draws out a bitter taste, for instance, while a more high-pitched tune makes your drink taste sweeter. Whatever is in your mouth doesn't change, of course; it's just how your tastebuds understand it that does.
This data comes largely from Charles Spence, who teaches experimental psychology at Oxford University and has done extensive research on how sound affects our perception of taste. Much of his research was released back in 2004 in a paper entitled "The Role of Auditory Cues in Modulating the Perceived Crispness and Staleness of Potato Chips." The research looked at the effects of heightening the "crispy" sound of chips on how much participants enjoyed the taste.
Flash-forward about a decade, and we are still fascinated with how we understand food and taste. Recently, in an episode of the podcast Sporkful called "Why You Should Listen to Your Food," they conducted a little experiment of their own. You can try it yourself, or just read along with my experience trying it this morning.
First, grab something to eat or drink. I went with plain black coffee, but you could also use a bland beer or some chocolate. Taste it and make sure you analyze it a bit: What tones does it have? Bitter? Sweet? Salty? My coffee was a bit bitter and acidic.
Next, take another mouthful of whatever you've chosen, and listen to the two music clips below.
Take note of your findings for each. Did one taste different than the other? For me, my coffee tasted differently with each song, which leads me to...
So, music totally affected the way I tasted my coffee. This is where the "sonic seasoning" we talked about before comes in. I did literally nothing to my coffee, but the taste changed with each song: It tasted more bitter when I listened to the first song, and sweeter when I listened to the second. Tanya Basu at New York Magazine's Science of Us blog says this makes sense, explaining, "The first clip should have made your bite or sip taste more bitter; the second clip should have made it taste sweeter." Now, I definitely don't consider myself a food connoisseur with a super developed palate, so I was a little worried I'd be oblivious to this experiment. But it even worked on me!
This experiment only takes a few minutes to recreate at home, so I suggest giving it a shot! I think it's also something I'm going to be more cognizant of when I'm having a bad day and need to pull myself out of a negative mood. If putting on higher pitched, happier music while I eat dinner after a bad day can trick my brain into thinking the food tastes better, it just might make me feel better about my day, too.