Close your eyes and think back to the last time you dined out. Chances are, unless the eating area was overwhelmingly loud or a particular song caught your attention, the sound environment doesn’t really play a big role in your recollection of these experiences – background noise remains firmly entrenched in the background, away from more pertinent details like where you were, who you were with, what you were eating, and how great the service was. But a growing body of research has come to suggest that what we listen to while we eat has a profound effect on our actual sense of taste.

Now before we get ahead of ourselves, rest assured: sound can’t make it so that one food tastes like another, totally unrelated item. Speaking to Food Republic earlier in the year, Dr. Tom McClintock, physiologist at the University of Kentucky, described the relationship as modular, explaining that sound can be used to render tastes “stronger or weaker, but we cannot use it to convince that a protein gloop is caviar.” In a more unfortunate development, McClintock confirmed that, no, “we cannot turn water into wine musically.” Bummer. But even so, the power of sound is not one to underestimate. Consider the following case studies:

  • In a 2004 study, experimental psychologist Charles Spence observed that participants ranked Pringles chips as “crisper and fresher when the crunching sounds were louder.” Additionally, he found that “when the frequencies were lower, the chips were rated as softer and stale.” [Boston Globe]
  • In 2008, “Chef Heston Blumenthal found that playing a recording of breaking waves makes an oyster taste 30% saltier than the same food eaten to the noise of barnyard animals.” [Time]
  • In 2010, an experiment that had participants matching certain flavours and tastes to musical instruments revealed that sweet and sour tastes correlated most strongly with high-pitched notes, while “umami and bitter tastes were preferentially matched to low-pitched notes.” [PubMed]
  • In a 2011 study that asked participants to describe the wine they were tasting while listening to various styles of music (from “powerful and heavy” to “mellow and soft”), their descriptions explicitly correlated with what was playing in the background. And as it’s mentioned, none of the participants actually referenced the music in their descriptions. [Science Friday]
  • In a 2012 experiment that consisted of participants taste testing two pieces of toffee, each accompanied by a specific soundtrack, results showed that “although all of the toffee was the same, volunteers rated toffee consumed during the piano music as sweet while pieces eaten with the lower pitched music were perceived as bitter.” [Scientific American]

In the wake of our improved understanding of sound and taste, and in line with the pervasiveness of streaming services and listening devices – really, the nigh omnipresence of music in our day-to-day lives – the past few years have seen something of a renaissance in brand strategy. In a world of music designers, curated playlists, and customer experience agencies focused solely on sonic branding, restaurants and restaurateurs are now opting to harness noise rather than reduce it.

During an interview with Forbes, Danny Turner, Senior Vice President of Programming & Production at sensory experience agency Mood Media, elaborated on the process: “When we work with restaurants, I spend a lot of time looking at the menu, because I want to ensure the musical selection resonates with the ingredients on the menu. If it’s light and springy and airy, I want the musical experience to have a lot of space and a lot of breath, I don’t want heavy, heavy tones.” In addition to the menu, elements like architecture, time of day, location, and lighting all present their own unique opportunities when determining how to integrate music into one’s brand.

It’s a lot to consider, which is why in many cases operators have simply turned to front-of-house staff for handling music service, taking on the role of in-house DJs or “music sommeliers” by hooking up their own devices to the location’s sound system. It’s a good idea on paper, seeing as they’re likely in a better position to read the mood of the dining room at any given point in time. But be wary of this; individual accounts through streaming services such as Spotify, Apple Music, and Tidal are not (legally) intended for use in commercial spaces, and any business looking to play music in their place of service (either live of recorded) needs to first obtain the proper licensing from copyright collecting societies like SOCAN and Re:Sound.

At the end of the day, it might be a bit of a stretch to suggest that sonic identity is of life-or-death importance for your business. But given today’s consumer climate, in which brick-and-mortar shops are struggling to compete with the convenience of online shopping and delivery services, a robust music strategy could be key for an in-person experience that convinces potential customers to leave their homes and come straight to your doorstep.  Like great food, great music is more than just the sum of its ingredients. Together, they can only be described as magical.

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