Sonic seasonings? Flavour DJs? And tell me what that chilli sounds like….

In this post:

The content of Keller’s presentation has been supplemented by information from many other sources.


Sonic seasoning

A fascinating speaker at the recent ‘Hacking Flavour Perception’ workshop at Oxford University was Steve Keller of iV Audio Branding, who talked about how sound can affect taste. Keller has worked in the music industry as a producer, composer, independent label executive, publisher, and manager, and his heart, it became clear as he spoke, was in sonic expression – sonic expression of a concept (he develops sonic logos), or anything else, including, increasingly, a flavour. His presentation was entitled: Sonic Seasoning: designing crossmodally congruent soundscapes that tickle your ears and your taste buds.


Making chilli-flavoured sounds

In this respect Keller, along with Janice Wang and Charles Spence (from Oxford’s Crossmodal Research Laboratory), had carried out a number of interesting experiments, initially aiming to identify equivalent sounds to flavours, and then to blend, test and adapt the sounds in order to enhance taste.

So, for example, he and his colleagues would consider food flavoured with chilli – a dish of some spiciness and heat and then decide various sound factors which would pick up characteristics of that food, such as:

  • pitch – the higher the pitch the better
  • distortion
  • faster tempos
  • cultural cues

He played us a few bars of some ‘hot and spicy’ music (follow this link for a sample, as well as ‘sweet’ noise, and white noise). I noticed that it had a lot of percussion in it, and lots of high pitched ‘stick’ sounds. From the cultural cue point of view, it sounded a bit like salsa. It’s interesting that the word ‘salsa’ is at once a dance….a type of music, but it’s also a sort of hot and spicy sauce….see my post giving examples of both!


‘He played us a few bars of hot and spicy music’


Everyone, Keller reported, who listened to these sounds identified this music as being ‘spicy’ as opposed to salty, sour or sweet.


chilli sounds - high pitch, fast tempo
Chilli sounds – high pitch, fast tempo

Experiments with sweet and with spicy sounds

They began by carrying out an experiment on 176 customers in a helpful restaurant. Some diners had ear plugs, some had ‘white noise’, some were listening to a ‘sweet’ soundtrack. and others listened to their spicy soundtrack. They discovered that listening to the spicy soundtrack increased the level of spiciness that participants expected when looking at the dish.

But somewhat disappointingly, not much difference was reported when the participants actually tasted dish while listening to the spicy sounds. This led the researchers to believe that perhaps an ‘assimilation/contrast’ effect could account for the outcome.

Then they tried an additional experiment with the following results:

salsa eaten with spicy music, resulted in:
mild disappointment
spicy a spicier taste than that experienced by the control groups

So, the conclusion to be drawn is that if you’re serving hot and spicy food, hot and spicy music will enhance the flavour….. but if you’re serving food which is not especially spicy, playing spicy music will just make it taste bland…


 ‘….if you’re serving food which is not especially spicy, playing spicy music will just make it taste bland…’


If you want to read more about these experiments go to this article: Sounds spicy: Enhancing the evaluation of piquancy by means of a customised crossmodally congruent soundtrack

With regard to other flavours, various scientific studies suggest high pitches enhance sweetness, while low tones (brass particularly) emphasise bitterness. And, comments Qian Wang, a researcher at Oxford’s Crossmodal Research Laboratory, in an article in The Financial Times,

“the reliability of our “sweet” soundtrack is very good — about 90 per cent of people think it makes their food sweeter. I think it works so well because people find it easy to think about sweetness as a concept.”


Lessons for the hospitality industry. It’s in the application:

One obvious practical application of the enhancing power of ‘sweet’ music is to help those trying to lose weight – with the right soundtrack you could ‘foodhack’ your taste buds into making do with fewer calories.

It’s also possible to conceive fabulous, sound-enhanced feasts. Keller describes a dinner was with four courses representing each of the four principal flavours: sour, spicy, savoury and bittersweet. A ‘sonic chef’ prepared specially composed music with ‘white noise’ in between as a kind of sonic palate cleanser. Follow this link for the soundtracks to this ‘Sounds Delicious’ dinner.


‘with ‘white noise’ in between as a kind of sonic palate cleanser’


There is one logistical difficulty with all of this. What if you have two people sitting together eating different food, and so requiring different soundtracks? Keller explained how Ben Houge, who came from a gaming background, used real-time generative sountracks to solve that problem. Houge has used the technique to produce a number of sound/taste events he calls ‘food operas’.”


Using music to elevate the bog-standard take-away

Charles Spence has also carried out extensive research into the connection between sound and flavour. One particular work (see The Times, 8 December 2015, Chinese tastes better with Taylor Swift) involved identifying which music made various different take-aways taste better. Taylor Swift’s Blank Space was shown to improve Chinese food.




Perhaps less surprisingly Pavarotti and Vivaldi were shown to improve pasta.

And the Arctic Monkeys – Do I Wanna Know did wonders for Indian.

Result? Just Eat, the delivery company which commissioned the research, is now considering issuing CDs with the food they’re sending out.




The sound of whisky

Sonic flavour enhancement isn’t limited to food. The taste of whisky can also be paired with crossmodally congruent soundscapes. Keller described a joint project which he worked on together with Kitchen Theory chef Jozef Youssef, developing a unique sonic expression of Chivas Regal Ultis, a premium blended malt Scotch whisky comprised of five signature single malts. In a reflection of the brand itself, their Ultis soundtrack drew on five different soundscapes (for each of the five single malts), which were ultimately combined into one, grand auditory experience: the Ultis “Ultimate Opus. The soundtracks were part of a multi-sensorial experience shared at the launch of Ultis in various cities around the world. To date, the experience has been enjoyed by targeted brand influencers in New York, Vietnam, Thailand, Dubai and Turkey. Follow this link for the soundtracks developed for the different whiskies.

Ben Houge has also worked with Kitchen Theory and Chivas, as part of an earlier promotional event in London for the limited edition Chivas Regal 18 Ultimate Cask Collection. Sound ‘textures’ were developed by Ben Houge for each whisky and then they were pulled together into an ‘opus’. As Houge explains in Tasting Notes, an article published on New Music Box:

“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. …..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.”

By contrast, Houge’s bitter music makes use of rough, aggressive cello, and sounds relating to wood (to reflect the oakey taste infused into the whisky by the wooden barrels in which it’s aged).

This corroborates work on wine pairing carried out by Qian Wang and Charles Spence which backs up the instinctive assessment voiced originally by winemaker Clark Smith: “red wines….don’t like happy music…Cabernets like angry music.”


The sound of chocolate

Moving on from whisky to chocolate, Keller outlined the collaboration between neuroscience agency Mindlab, Cadbury’s and the London Contemporary Orchestra. Mindlab’s research showed that: low pitches made nuts taste nuttier while high pitched music enhanced crunchiness; steady rhythms were good for smooth textures (Dairy Milk Caramel for example); ‘mellow’ sounds were complemented soft, spongy textures; and ‘up tempo’ music (the most successful to my mind) went well with surprising ingredients such as Marvellous Creations Jelly Popping Candy.

Eight very different pieces of music were developed to represent sonically the different types of chocolate bars… you can get a flavour (apologies!) for what we’re talking of here:



The sound of a sugar plum

Composers have been inspired by flavours for years. At the end of the nineteenth century Tchaikovsky wrote the music for The Nutcracker, which includes the famous dance of the Sugar Plum Fairy. Deep rich tones of the plucked strings and the bassoons evoke the plum … and the celesta (an instrument mid-way between a tiny piano and a glockenspiel) evokes a soft sprinkling of sparkling white confectioners’ sugar. Technically a sugar plum was more of a dragee (a sort of hard, sugar-coated sweetmeat) in Tchaikovsky’s time, but it was still a delectable combination of fruit and sugar.


Other types of sound – background noise

Loud background noises seem to make it more difficult to taste sweetness and possibly saltiness – hence in a crowded restaurant you may find yourself reaching for the salt. In Professor Spence’s new book Gastrophysics he explains the extraordinary popularity of in-flight Bloody Marys arising because ‘the blaring sound of being on an aeroplane’ lessens the ability to taste sweetness but enhances the intensity of umami flavours (in both the tomato and the Worcestershire sauce).


Other types of sound – speech, what’s in a name?

Chef Jozef Youssef, speaking later at the Foodhacking workshop, outlined the influence of two other types of sound. One was the effect of the sound of words. He outlined two sounds – ‘bouba’ and ‘kiki’. Most people would associate ‘bouba’ with a rounded image which looked a bit like a cloud… and out of a list of food they would choose sweet potato and creamy curd, foods which were sweeter, fattier, and rounder to go with them. The sound ‘kiki’, a sort of clicking, clipped, staccato sound, was associated with a sharp, prickly, star-like shape, and the flavours to go with it would be sharp and acidic – rhubarb, lime, green apple.

In Jan Jurafsky’s The Language of Food we can read an interesting account of how ice cream manufacturers persuade us to buy their wares… ice creams have round, soft, smooth ‘bouba’-like names: ‘bouja-bouja caramel’, ‘Colombian coffee’, ‘Phish food’.

For an in-depth article on how Youssef develops a dish based on these word-sound perceptions, follow this link.


Round, soft 'bouba' on the left; angular, sharp 'kiki' on the right
Round, soft ‘bouba’ on the left; angular, sharp ‘kiki’ on the right


Other types of sound – soundtracks

Heston Blumenthal famously offers a dish called ‘The Sound of the Sea’. Ingredients are plated up to look like a sea shore, and the whole is served with a large conch shell, in which there is a small ipod playing a soundtrack of seagulls and ocean waves. It’s telling that this is one of the dishes which remains on the Fat Duck menu.


No sound at all – the sound of silence

The absence of sound results in another interesting result: with ear plugs in, people eat 30% less…I haven’t been able to find an explanation for this but I conjecture that it’s because the eater is more mindful, less distracted.


When the food itself makes a sound

Jozef Youssef also points out that the food itself can make a sound which is very much a part of the eating experience. It’s less the case in the West (my daughter tells me that eating chickens’ claws in China can be quite a raucous event), but nevertheless, carrots, pork crackling, or crisps for example need to make a racket – the noisier the crunch, the fresher we perceive the food to be. You can ‘hack’ the flavour by amplifying the sound (go here for a full explanation of the term ‘foodhack’).


‘The noisier the crunch, the fresher we perceive the food to be’

Youssef has been experimenting with jellyfish. Contrary to expectations jellyfish are not soft and wobbly as you might expect from the name, but instead they are crunchy, tickling the inner ear with the vibration of grinding teeth. He serves this to a background of watery sea sounds (it sounds a bit like womb music) peppered by crinkly noises. The jellyfish has no taste, so it’s marinated in chilli and garlic. This dish is all about sound-based flavour, rather than taste-based flavour.


A Japanese legend has it that the dragon sea god, Ryūjin, sent his attendant jellyfish to bring him a monkey (he wanted to eat its kidney). The monkey duped the jellyfish who returned empty-handed. Ryūjin was furious and beat the jellyfish until its bones were crushed. This illustration shows Princess Tamatori stealing Ryūjin’s tide-jewels – Ryūjin is accompanied by his jellyfish attendants.

The use of other related music and sounds, not directly expressive of flavour

Another interesting finding which Steve Keller reported in his presentation was the effect music could have on pricing. If customers were given a sample of chocolate as they listened to a piece of music, when they were told that the music they were listening to had been the chocolatier’s source of inspiration for the creation of that chocolate, many were happy to pay significantly more.  If restaurant customers were told that they were listening to music which had inspired the chef when he (or she) first created a particular dish, many might be happy with an increased cost.


‘Customers who were told they were listening to music which had inspired the chef ….were happy to pay significantly more’


So make use of the Saucy Dressings’ music-to-cook-to section, and then play the music back to your guests… they’ll value the experience more highly!

And on that subject, there’s evidence that listening to music will affect the way a chef cooks, how fast they beat, how they season…and, of course, all chefs need to listen to what they’re doing – they can hear if a steak is overcooked, or a stir fry isn’t up to temperature – some chefs and sommeliers can even hear the difference between champagne, cava, and prosecco.


And finally….music as a food timer, the sound of the packaging

Hagan Dazs has developed an app which gets people to wait just the right amount of time before starting to eat their ice cream – the ice cream will then be just the right amount of softness, and not too searingly cold. And of course, the customer will be in the right frame of mind to really appreciate what they’re enjoying.

The sound of the packaging is also important. The sound of the popping cork is so powerfully evocative of something special and wonderful to come, of the end of the day and the beginning of a pleasurable and convivial eating experience, that, in spite of many benefits (cost, elimination of corked wine) many wine producers have rejected the plastic cork.




To conclude – ‘sound advice’

Keller concluded the session with the following sensible words of advice:

  • Learn the basic music theory, flavour matching, technology…
  • Experiment
  • Consider the end user
  • Bear in mind that the use of music is more of a strategy than a tactic…. ‘it’s an extension of the meaning of the meal’

It’s a clear trend – not just because the use of sound and music is so effective when related to dining – but the mighty and influential Blumenthal continues to pioneer the trend. As he promises us in a recent article in The Caterer:

“I want to take the sound element even further…Sound of the Sea made me realise that we’ve got to start personalising…. People will be able to choose their own soundscape.”


This post is dedicated to Steve Keller – with thanks for all his help.

Further reading

  • Jan Jurafsky, The Language of Food
  • Per Samuelsson, Krydda med Musik (brush up your Swedish)
  • Professor Charles Spence, Gastrophysics: The New Science of Eating


  • For more on Ben Houge’s Food Operas, follow this link.



Other links on Saucy Dressings you might find interesting


For Professor Spence on foodhacking follow this link.


For more on Jozef Youssef and synaesthesia follow this link.


For a description of the Soundscapes exhibition at The National Gallery, and the food that it conjured up, follow this link.


For an example of Foodhacking which is a couple of millennia old, follow this link.


For a do-it-yourself multisensory meal, follow this link, to find cowboy films, cowboy music, and cowboy food.



For posts with accompanying music to inspire your cooking follow this link.

0 0 votes
Article Rating
Notify of

Inline Feedbacks
View all comments

Related Posts

To Hack…or Not to Hack: I Think That’s The Question

 “Nowadays, though, chefs, culinary artists, experience designers, and researchers working in technology are increasingly starting to hack our experiences of flavour: everything…
Read More

Sign up to our Saucy Newsletter

subscribe today for monthly highlights of foodie events, new restaurant at home menus, recipe ideas and our latest blog posts