Tasting Notes

Studies show that loud sounds dull our sense of taste, which may explain why airplane food tastes so bland, and why people order more tomato juice on planes, as umami flavors are the most resilient to volume.

Written By

Ben Houge

A group of people sitting around a long table with whisky snifters in front of them in a darkly lit room.

All the folks at this table are about to taste Chivas’s Ultimate Cask Collection, but when they do so they will also be listening, on headphones, to music that was specifically created to bring out certain taste sensations in the whisky. Can what they’re listening to affect their perception of what they are tasting? Chivas thinks so. (All photos courtesy Chivas Regal.)

A few weeks ago, I wrote some music to accompany a whisky. The premiere was the unveiling of the Chivas Regal 18 Ultimate Cask Collection at an event in London, hosted by Chivas Master Blender Colin Scott and chef Jozef Youssef. The music was not there to simply provide background ambiance to a swanky event; my objective was to change the way the whisky tastes.

Jozef Youssef is the founder of Kitchen Theory, a London-based group whose experimental pop-up dinners explore the frontiers of science and gastronomy. I met him at one of their Synaesthesia dinners last April, which drew from the growing field of crossmodal psychology to examine how the senses can overlap even in those who don’t experience classic synaesthesia.

At the whisky launch event, Youssef guided participants through a series of experiments designed to provide new perspectives on the whisky. Chivas Regal 18 is a blended Scotch whisky in which each component has been aged for at least 18 years. The Ultimate Cask Collection is a reimagining of Chivas Regal 18 that has been aged in American oak, resulting in pronounced vanilla, caramel, and orange marmalade notes. Some of these experiments one might expect at a whisky tasting, observing how dilution, temperature, and aroma affect one’s impressions. Less expected might be the texture cube I first experienced at Synaesthesia, with different materials (from velvet to velcro) on each face, allowing imbibers to experience how different tactile sensations affected their experience of taste. And similarly unorthodox was the experiment that involved listening to two musical textures while sipping; one was designed to bring out the sweet notes in the whisky, while the other emphasized its bitter qualities. Composing these textures was my job.

Jozef Youssef standing and holding a carafe of whisky as participants seating at a table look on.

Jozef Youssef guides folks through a whisky tasting featuring sound.

I actually do a lot of this kind of thing. Most of my work these days involves exploring correspondences between music and food in a series of audio-gustatory events that I call “food operas.” I’ve collaborated with a couple of chefs in recent years, and I wrote a detailed article about three events I did with Boston-area chef Jason Bond that was published in NewMusicBox in 2013. Since then, I’ve also branched out into composing music for wine and, as in the aforementioned event, whisky. Over the summer I taught a class to students in Berklee College of Music’s Music Production, Technology, and Innovation master’s program that probed the real-time technology and aesthetics behind these events; students presented their final projects alongside an eight-course tasting menu at Quique Dacosta’s Michelin-starred restaurant El Poblet in Valencia, Spain. My next food opera is a collaboration with St. Paul-based new music ensemble Zeitgeist, which will premiere in the spring.

The original inspiration for my food opera project was the idea of using real-time music deployment techniques borrowed from my work designing audio for video games over the past twenty years to score the indeterminate events of the dining room. I sought to apply recent technical advancements in games as well as ideas from the discipline of sound installation (e.g., a big multichannel speaker array to deliver sound to diners) to achieve an unprecedented level of synchronization between the senses of taste and hearing. It’s been a fascinating challenge to think about what kinds of sounds go with what kinds of foods, in a way that heightens diners’ sensory awareness of the music as well as the meal.

Since I started working on the project, I’ve become aware of a growing body of work in the field of psychology that explores crossmodal links between the senses. At the forefront of this field is a psychologist named Charles Spence, who heads up the Crossmodal Research Laboratory at Oxford University. His recent book The Perfect Meal: The Multisensory Science of Food and Cooking, co-authored with Betina Piqueras-Fiszman, is a wonderful compendium of the occasionally outlandish research being undertaken in this burgeoning field. His work has been prominently featured in the press (in The New Yorker’s current “Food Issue,” for example, and several times on NPR), and he has served as consultant to celebrity chefs including Heston Blumenthal, whose Sound of the Sea dish, introduced in 2007 at his renowned three Michelin star restaurant The Fat Duck in Bray, England, is probably the most famous pairing of sound with food. This seafood dish, plated to resemble foam on a slice of sandy beach, is served with an iPod in a conch shell, its protruding headphones immersing diners in ocean sounds as they eat, a byproduct of some of the sound pairing experiments the two conducted together. Spence has also collaborated with Jozef Youssef, and his research formed the backbone of Kitchen Theory’s Synaesthesia dinners.

Spence is widely cited for asserting that, by playing different sounds, “we’re able to show that we can change the experience in [the] mouth by about 5 or 10 percent,” as he told NPR. He goes so far as to assert that sound can be employed to fight obesity, removing sugar from foods and sonically making up for the lost sweetness.

I had a chance to meet Spence when I visited Oxford last February to present my work to his Crossmodal Research Lab. My friend Janice Wang, who helped out with my Bondir food operas, recently moved from Boston to Oxford to pursue her PhD in Spence’s group. Her own research was recently featured in the Financial Times, in an article entitled, “I Use Music to Change How Food Tastes.” Janice is also president of the Oxford University Blind Wine Tasting Society, which, at the time of my last visit, had recently administered a crushing defeat to rival Cambridge University. While I was in town, Janice and I collaborated on an event at the delightfully cozy 1855 Wine Bar in Oxford, working with sommelier Alistair Cooper to pair six different wines with six different musical textures. She also accompanied me on my visit to Kitchen Theory and introduced me to Jozef Youssef in person.

Janice is part of a group who identify themselves as Crossmodalists, committed to promoting experiences that engage and reinforce the links between all the senses. Perhaps due to the influence of figures like Spence and Blumenthal, there seems to be quite a scene for crossmodal dining in the UK at the moment, and music figures prominently. I attended one of this group’s rehearsals last April, which included a parade of scents, live piano, an edible painting, and choreography that responded to flavor—a fascinating mix.

Dining is a profoundly multi-sensory experience. A lot of times we might describe a good meal strictly in terms of taste, but in fact eating involves all of the senses, and psychologists are quantifying to what extent this is true. Smell is the most obvious supporting sense, but also the feel of the silverware, the color of the plate, the food’s appearance, even the mood of the diner, all of these elements combine to affect our perception of a meal. Even after food enters the mouth, temperature and texture merge with taste in our evaluation of a dish. In Spence and Piqueras-Fiszman’s book, I learned that we actually have two different senses of smell: the orthonasal is what we typically think of as “smell,” applying to external odors in our environment, whereas the retronasal is concerned with what is already in the mouth and is thought to have evolved independently and much earlier. This is one reason (alongside aeration) that sommeliers sometimes slurp wine, to aid in retronasal evaluation.

Sound plays a huge role in eating. Studies show that loud sounds dull our sense of taste, which may explain why airplane food tastes so bland, and why people order more tomato juice on planes, as umami flavors are the most resilient to volume. The sound of mastication also has been shown to affect our perception of an item’s freshness, improving the impression of carrots and potato chips. To me, all of these observations underscore the notion that developing sound to pair with food represents an exciting new arena for aesthetic expression.

Three people at a table wearing headphones and sipping whisky

Applying the role that sound has in affecting taste perception to drinking whisky.

My mandate for the Chivas event was very specific, and so these whisky textures represent my first attempt to write music that explicitly drew on the crossmodal psychology research. As Charles Spence will tell you, high frequency sounds have been shown to make things taste sweeter, while low frequency sounds (low brass, in Spence’s experiments) make them more bitter. My textures are short, simple, and very consistent throughout their short durations, attempting to hew closely to the script, although I still wanted to provide a bit more musical interest than a static sustained tone. They are similar enough that useful comparisons can be made where they diverge.

My sweet texture is built from recordings of a flute, a clarinet, and wind chimes. The two-voice main melodic part is in short diatonic phrases, slow and legato, a type of phrasing I often use to create a sense of peaceful, suspended time. The motion is largely stepwise, the harmonies consonant, predominantly thirds and sixths. There may be a slight evocation of the type of traditional melodies one might expect to hear in the Scottish highlands, albeit in fragments. In the background is a slow moving harmonic pad to provide a bit of context, and wind chimes tinkle throughout. There’s no steady pulse. The overall impression should be of stability and resolution with mellow timbres in a floating, high register.

In my bitter texture, the overall frequency range is much lower, as the cello takes the dominant role, playing much more aggressively and roughly than anything in the sweet texture. The cello part is broken into short, intermittent phrases, similar to the lead part in the sweet texture, and similarly in two voices, as it’s all double stops, but here there is a steady pulse, and phrases tend to emphasize more dissonant intervals. Wood blocks and temple bells further emphasize the pulse, while a low drone underneath provides a harmonic reference point. Rather than emphasize brass, as in Spence’s study, I chose to use sounds relating to wood, as the bitter elements were also linked to the whisky’s having been aged in American oak casks, and I wanted to bring out that quality as well.

There’s a question that could be raised about linking the sound of wood (woody resonance of string instruments, sound of struck wood) to the taste of wood (oak). On one hand, we might say that the taste and sound are not related at the level of sensation, that one does not necessarily evoke the other. On the other, we might observe that most humans have learned to associate these things through a lifetime of interaction with wood. The question of what’s learned or culturally conditioned as opposed to what’s innate comes up all the time in designing these pairings.

As I’ve learned more about the psychological approach to the dining experience, I’ve wondered a lot about the point at which the work of the researcher ends and the work of the artist begins. Whereas in a lab experiment, one might want to isolate certain parameters of a taste experience, a lot of times as a composer, I’m trying to blend and merge and complement. Rather than dealing with pure tastes like sweet or bitter, I’m typically interested in a complete dish that has balanced flavors and textures, thinking how music can join in as another set of ingredients. It’s usually not my objective to simply replicate a dish in sound, but to complement and transform it, guided by my experience writing music to accompany dance or video games. In a way, maybe the rules of psychological association are like the rules of music theory, serving as a reference point for a composer, a framework or a palette that can then be applied, twisted, or inverted to far ranging aesthetic ends.

A group of beakers filled with various types of Chivas whisky.

Ultimately a satisfying aesthetic experience—whether eating a meal, savoring a glass of whisky, listening to a piece of music, or participating in a synaesthetic immersion that involves all of the above—must be more than an experiment.