Tastes like Trombones

“Our results raise important questions about our representation of tastes and flavors and could also lead to applications in the marketing of food products.”

– say a research team who have been investigating possible associations between flavors and various musical instruments. The Crossmodal Research Lab at Oxford University in the UK are presenting their new paper : ‘As bitter as a trombone: Synesthetic correspondences in nonsynesthetes between tastes/flavors and musical notes’ in the latest issue of the journal Attention Perception & Psychophysics.

Previous studies have concluded that even in those who are not synesthestic, higher or lower pitches of musical notes can have effects on various tastes. For example, as far back as 1968, Danish researcher Kristian Holt-Hansen showed that different musical notes had measurable effects on the taste perception of Carlsberg Lager™ and Carlsberg Elephant Beer™ (Taste and pitch. Perceptual & Motor Skills, 27, 59-68.) But this new study is perhaps the first to link the sounds of specific musical instruments with flavours. Experimental subjects listened to a series of notes played on piano, strings, woodwind and brass (provided by the University of Iowa Electronic Music Studios) whilst tasting various flavours, e.g. salt, lemon, peppermint, monosodium glutamate (MSG) and others. Subsequent analysis of the results (using a repeated measures ANOVA, with Greenhouse–Geisser correction) showed significant connections between the flavour perceptions and the instruments.

For example, the piano was felt to be particularly appropriate for the taste of sugar – and quite unsuitable for brass instruments. Similarly, coffee was more woodwindy than brassy, and orange-flower was brassy rather than stringy. These newfound associations between flavours and individual instruments lead on to a new hypothesis – might similar matching effects occur with more complex sounds – and even perhaps with music in general?

“Should this hypothesis be confirmed by subsequent research, there would be some intriguing implications for the design of dining areas and restaurants, so that environmental sounds and/or background music can be better matched to the dishes that are consumed there.”

And at least one company, Starbucks, has already implemented a commercial application based on the idea of comestible/musical harmonisation. Their VIA™ Italian blend coffee has its own specially composed, and quite complex, musical sig. tune. VIA Alle Undici, featuring synthesisers, percussion, flute samples, and piano (recorded both forwards and backwards).

Of Note : One of  the paper’s authors, professor Charles Spence of Oxford University, UK, was the co-recipient of the 2008 Ig Nobel Prize for Nutrition, in recognition of his work on the electronic modification of the sound of a potato chip to make the person chewing the chip believe it to be crisper and fresher than it really is.






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