How sound affects our sense of taste

Imagine if recipes included not only a list of ingredients but also a recommendation for the best music to play while eating.

According to Charles Spence, professor of experimental psychology at Oxford University, acoustics, noise, and background music have a significant impact on the way our senses perceive what we eat and drink.

What does scientific research tell us about how noise and acoustics affect taste?

Research from both the laboratory and restaurants shows that factors like acoustics, background music and noise levels affect our perception of what we eat and drink. We simply can’t ignore it. The latest research shows that loud noise suppresses our ability to taste sweetness and saltiness, while other studies show that the background buzz in airplanes actually enhances the taste of umami (one of the five basic tastes).

Of course, when we look at taste, we don't mean just sweet, sour, saltiness, bitterness, and umami. All the fruity, the floral, the herbal, the meaty – all the exciting stuff in the taste – is really coming from our sense of smell, which is also influenced by sound. For example, we know that a loud noise impairs our ability to taste fruit.

Why do our senses respond in this way?

We're not yet certain. One possibility is that noise distracts your attention and concentration, so it is harder to focus on what you are smelling and tasting. But if that was the only factor at play, you would expect it to affect all tastes equally. Another aspect is that scientists have recently uncovered direct connections in the brain between the ear and the nose. We don't know why these connections are there but potentially they provide clear pathways between the two senses.

Our research shows that certain sounds enhance the taste of sweetness while others bring out bitterness - a sort of sonic seasoning of the food if you like. You can't use sound to create a taste that isn't there but you can use it to draw attention to certain characteristics in your tasting experience. A tinkling, high-pitched sound, like a wind chime or piano, accentuates sweetness, while bitterness can be brought out using low-pitched sounds from brassy instruments. On the other hand, for saltiness it’s a bit harder to find the ideal music.

Why are restaurants generally getting louder and how does that affect the dining experience?

One reason is the change in décor trend.. The clean-cut Scandinavian design aesthetic and also the rise in informal dining have led to the removal of tablecloths, cushions curtains and carpets – all the things that would formerly have absorbed sound. We now have more hard surfaces in restaurants, which is why everything seems louder.

Another trend, which originated in New York, is that some chefs have started playing the loud music they listen to while preparing the food for their customers. Added together, you can sometimes find restaurants with over a hundred decibels of noise. Actually, people have been complaining of loud restaurants for half a century, so it is by no means a new trend. However today, there is a growing awareness of how it affects us, both in terms of our ability to taste the food and the more social aspects of dining.

How does it affect the dining experience if a restaurant is too quiet?

Interestingly, if a restaurant is too quiet, people tend to complain that it lacks atmosphere. Now there are fewer of those restaurants with just white tablecloths and a hushed, respectful silence, because they tend to make people feel self-conscious. They also tend to lack the excitement associated with the more multi-sensory experiential dining of today.

Most people prefer something of an atmosphere when they go out to dine. Often that atmosphere is created by people talking and music playing in the background. This helps set the scene and provide a sort of social insulation, where people feel at ease instead of wondering if the other tables are listening in on their conversations.

How do you determine the best balance for restaurant acoustics?

When I advise restaurants and hotel groups, I always encourage them to test different options in their own space. Maybe research from 20 years ago showed that a certain type of music made people stay longer at a particular restaurant - but is that necessarily true today, in your country or in your kind of restaurant?

The main factor is awareness. If your restaurant is full of steel and glass, and you don’t take measures to improve the acoustics, your guests will be eating in a noisy setting. If you care passionately about the food you are preparing, how can you allow it to be spoilt by noise and random music selections?  Once you are aware of that, you are already in a better place and prepared to consider the acoustics more carefully.

About Charles Spence

  • Professor (MA, PhD) of experimental psychology at Oxford University.
  • Head of the Crossmodal Research group which specializes in the research about the integration of information across different senses.
  • Fellow of Somerville College
  • Areas of research: Applied cognitive psychology, Consumer psychology, Sensory marketing, Multisensory perception, Gastrophysics