Musical Tastes
— Maaelstrøm

Picture the scene: you lift your spoon ready to dive into the soft folds of an exquisitely light soufflé. A song comes on over the radio, but which one? What combination of frequencies, rhythms and musical intervals could best enhance, or even transform, the experience of eating this airy treat? Perhaps a thundering baritone bass line would be too cumbersome, but what of a delicate and dreamy aria? Does sound in fact have a taste?

At first glance, the association between music and food doesn’t seem particularly strong. But the pleasure we derive from food is intrinsically liked to all our five senses: taste (obviously), smell (researchers say 80% of what we taste comes from our sense of smell), sight (vision is our first indication of what something may taste like), touch (what of the tactile joy of peeling the leaves off an artichoke and nibbling at them one by one), and hearing (the hollow snap of chocolate breaking, or the crunch of carrot between teeth). So let’s explore this latter sense some more. For if the sound of food per se can affect the experience of eating, what about other sounds, such as music?

Both mediums have the power to elicit a myriad of emotions in us – the giddy delight of a sweet summer Pavlova, laden with ripe berries atop a fluffy layer of the freshest cream, or perhaps the haunting melancholy of the soaring violins in Samuel Barber’s ‘Adagio for Strings.’ The list is seemingly endless.

Apart from fulfilling a basic physiological need, food has the ability to stir up a gamut of feelings, thoughts, and impressions in us, which is exactly the same trick music is able to pull off. Whether it’s a taste from a long forgotten childhood summer brought back to life, or the sound of the song that was playing during your first kiss at the school disco, the effect is usually instantaneous and dramatic – a vivid rekindling of past feelings and sensations.

So if both music and food can cause such a strong range of emotions in us, does it not make sense that both of their psychological impacts could perhaps be harnessed in a complementary and even synergistic way?

In fact, scientific evidence for music’s impact on our perception of taste seems incontrovertible, if a tad sparse. Researchers at Heriot-Watt University concluded that people perceived a change in taste by up to 60% according to the music being played, while a study at University of Manchester found that ambient sounds affect the perception of taste. They discovered we are more likely to rate foods as being less salty, less sweet, yet crunchier as noise levels went up; a characteristic easily observed by anyone who’s eaten food on an airplane.

In addition, Professor Charles Spence, a researcher at Oxford University discovered that flavours could be enhanced by playing associated noises. So, for example, by listening to the sound of sizzling bacon you can enhance its flavour in the classic bacon & egg breakfast combination. Presumably listening to the sound of clucking hens would do the opposite.

More bizarrely, researchers at Antwerp University found that the scent of chocolate in a bookshop encourages people to purchase romance novels, however they noted that this effect didn’t carry over to other genres of books; an indication of how smell (and taste) can affect other behaviour.

Indeed, the use of music while consuming food is something that’s been done for a very long time; from which tracks to select for a dinner party, to the drab, piped muzak of an identikit hotel dining room. But it’s only relatively recently that the effect of music on food in the mainstream has taken a more scientific approach.

For example loud, rapid beats are commonly played in a fast food restaurant, with the aim of making us eat faster, and turning tables more quickly. While the slower tunes of the ubiquitous coffee chains induce us to linger, and presumably order more cups of coffee. The fine-dining end of eating isn’t left untouched by music either.

Perhaps the most famous use of music here is by Britain’s culinary ‘mad scientist’ Heston Blumenthal. At Blumenthal’s legendary three Michelin-starred restaurant, The Fat Duck, is a dish simply titled “Sound of the Sea.” The dish is composed like a miniature scene from the beach, complete with edible tapioca ‘sand,’ seaweed, and edible foam ‘waves’ breaking against the shore. Alongside the dish is a large conch shell that conceals an iPod preloaded with the typical sounds of the coast – crashing waves and the odd cawing seagull. Having tried this dish both with and without the soundtrack I can (anecdotally) report that the dish uncannily seemed to taste stronger and fresher when the headphones were on, as though its flavours had all been turned up a notch or two. It was quite a remarkable effect.

Even the act of consuming music (especially live music) and restaurant food can be similar. Essentially, in both cases, we are paying someone (a musician or chef) to create a certain experience and elicit certain emotions in us. Indeed, both chefs and musicians go through a similar creative process to create their work. Their latent talents use references and experiences from the world around them to transform a palette of components, whether that be sound waves, ingredients, or visual cues into something that has the ability to induce certain feelings in us, balancing certain combinations of flavours and sounds in just the right way.

This August, the Øya Festival, Oslo’s largest outdoor music festival, will be conducting a little experiment on the grounds of Oslo’s historic Middelalderparken, where the effect of music on food, and indeed the opposite – how food can inspire music – will be explored in a unique way.

At the event, Oslo’s groundbreaking two-Michelin star restaurant Maaemo will be joining forces with critically acclaimed Norwegian DJ and electronic music producer Hans-Peter Lindstrøm to create a meal based on Lindstrøm’s food-themed album instrumental album Smalhans.

“The food will reflect the clear structure and clean aesthetics of Lindstrøm’s Smalhans album,” says Esben Holmboe Bang, head chef and co-owner of restaurant Maaemo.

The Maaemo team will be preparing a six-course brunch made from locally sourced organic produce, which will be served with matching beverages. The food will be a broad representation of Lindstrøm’s latest solo studio albumSmalhans, each of whose tracks are the phonetic names of classic Norwegian dishes, and which he will play live during the event. How this eclectic combination will work remains a mystery, but it’s certainly going to be exciting to see what sort of experience this turns out to be and whether we can further our understanding of the enigmatic effects of music and food.

Text:  Nordic Nibbler
Video: Kristian Paulsen