How sound are your tastebuds?

I am sitting at my kitchen table eating chocolate in the name of science. (I'm pretty good at science.) I'm trying out some "sonic seasoning". If I listen to a low-pitched sound, my taste awareness somehow shrinks to the back of my tongue and focuses on the chocolate's bitter elements. When I switch to a high frequency, the floodgates to sweetness open up and my entire mouth kicks back in a warm, sugary bath.

Try it yourself. It is a curious sensation because it doesn't feel, to me at least, as though the chocolate tastes different. It's that the sounds are twisting my grey matter, changing how it perceives the taste.

The past few years have seen a boom in research in this area. Sound is the final frontier in food presentation. Restaurants agonise over menus, crockery, furniture and lighting, yet often any old CD will be stuck on for background music. Now that we're starting to understand that everyone has synaesthetic tendencies when it comes to taste, though, sound is set to play a bigger part in our eating experience.

Back in 1997, foodie Heston Blumenthal introduced his iPod-enhanced seafood dish, "Sounds of the Sea", but that was a more literal, more Pavlovian association: eat fish, listen to the sea. A number of recent experiments have shown how abstract sounds can turn tastes up or down by remote control, as it were.

The Crossmodal Laboratory at Oxford University fed a group of volunteers some honeycomb toffee while playing them high- and low-frequency sounds, and asked them to rate the taste on a scale running from sweet to bitter. Just as I experienced in my kitchen, high notes enhanced sweetness and low brought out the bitter. But a laboratory setting is far removed from real life, so Charles Spence, who runs the lab, teamed up with food artist Caroline Hobkinson to test whether the results would be replicated out in the field.

For one month, London restaurant House of Wolf served a "sonic cake pop" of chocolate-coated bittersweet toffee, which came, intriguingly, with a telephone number. On the other end of the line was an operator instructing the diner to dial one for sweet and two for bitter, and they were played the high- and low-pitched sounds accordingly. Hobkinson says: "It makes me laugh because it works every time, and people say, 'Oh! That's so weird!'"

She put on a similar event at the Royal Institute in London, for which, instead of playing the synthesised sound clips, the Royal Academy of Music devised some abstract live performances that would do the trick with more feeling. "It works with coffee, too," she adds, and she foresees exciting possibilities such as sound replacing sugar in your morning espresso. Meanwhile, another study by Spence also matched the savoury taste – umami – with low pitches.

Confirming the hunches of so many ravenous aeroplane passengers, a study published in 2011 found that loud background noise suppresses saltiness, sweetness and overall enjoyment of food. (For flyers, this is compounded by the high altitude blocking nasal passages, and therefore access to aromas.) Incidentally, for those among you who curse that you can't hear yourself think, or indeed taste, in some restaurants, it isn't unheard of for the background din to register 90 decibels, a tad louder than commercial flights.

"Have you ever noticed how many people ask for a bloody mary or tomato juice from the drinks trolley on aeroplanes?" asks Spence. "The air stewards have, and when you ask the people who order, they tell you that they rarely order such a drink at any other time." Spence reckons this is because umami may be immune to noise suppression. If he proves his hypothesis, umami-rich ingredients such as tomatoes, parmesan, mushrooms and cured meats in the sky could help obliterate plane-food hell.

Last year, a paper published in the journal Chemosensory Perception looked at matching pitches and instruments with odours (smell being the dominant sense in flavour appreciation). The aromas of candied peel, dried plums and iris flowers were all matched with piano significantly more than woodwind, strings or brass. Musk, on the other hand, was overwhelmingly brass. In terms of pitch, candied orange and irises were significantly higher than musk and roasted coffee.

This is just the start of a long and winding road of research, and the findings will undoubtedly be noted most by multinational companies keen to manipulate us into loving their products. – © Guardian News & Media 2014

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Amy Fleming
Amy Fleming works from London, England. Irish ☘️ storytelling vegetarian feminist a.k.a the fun aunt at parties. Repped by @act_ups_agency Next Up: A Wake in Progress at Edinburgh Fringe Amy Fleming has over 1290 followers on Twitter.

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