How music changes the taste of coffee

Certain kinds of music can make coffee taste better. Is there anything music can’t do?

In a recent article published late last month in New York Magazine, Tanya Basu writes that Charles Spence, a professor of experimental psychology at Oxford, in 2004 published his first paper that established him as “the premiere expert of the way sound and food work with our minds to create illusions of taste.” Spence is credited with, among other revelations, noticing that louder crispy sounds made by potato chips “made otherwise-plain Pringles taste extraordinary,” she says. His paper might’ve been rather academic and not as enticing as the subject matter, but his research changed the way chips are made and marketed while also creating a specialized field of research: “how corporations tease your mind to make food seem more appetizing.”

True to the scientific way of things, someone has taken Spence’s research and expanded on it, this time looking at the relationship between sounds and the way things taste.

In a recent edition of his Sporkful podcast, Dan Pashman worked with Spence to show the influence certain sounds have on flavor.

Their experiment can be replicated at your own kitchen table.

“Grab a dark-chocolate bar or mug of coffee (some plain, no-nonsense beer will also work). Take a bite or sip, and really consider the flavor before you swallow — is it sticky sweet? Slightly bitter? Acidic?

“Once you’ve figured out how your chocolate/coffee/beer tastes in its normal state, take another bite and chew or swish thoughtfully while listening to this sound clip (it’s subtle, so take a real listen/taste):


Take another sample of the same dark chocolate or coffee, then listen to this:

There should have been a “nearly magical 360-degree taste evolution: The first clip should have made you bite or sip taste more bitter; the second clip should have made it taste sweeter,” Basu writes. This is what Spence calls “sonic seasoning,” a phenomenon in which the brain’s attention is drawn away from what your mouth is tasting and, instead, to the sounds in your ears.

Both taste and flavor are illusions, Spence says, and he’s got supporters, including British Airways. The airline “has adopted Spence’s work into a playlist designed to improve the taste of food at high altitudes, and restaurant critics have long included noise levels as measures of their dining experience,” she says.

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