Picture this scenario: you’re at a restaurant with your date. As you sit down, the first thing you notice is the level of noise. All around you, other patrons are talking and laughing, and the sound drills right into your eardrums. In the midst of the mindless echoing chatter, you hear the restaurant playing fast-tempo jazz, at decibels too loud for comfort.
You want to ask your date how his/her day went, but you have to shout over the din. When the food arrives, your ears, mind and body are spent, and you can’t wait to shovel down your meal (the jazz is not helping; you suspect you will suffer from indigestion later) and leave the establishment as quickly as humanly possible.
Sound is a beautiful thing. It can relax you, inspire you, or even evoke certain memories. But unfortunately for the restaurant you barely escaped from (and most definitely will never revisit), it has fallen prey to the negative effects of sound.
In a survey conducted by restaurant review platform Zagat, noise was the number two complaint of restaurant patrons, coming in after poor service. Audiologists say that the ideal ambient volume for a comfortable conversation is 55 to 65 dB. When sound levels pass the 70 dB threshold (equivalent to the sound of a moving truck), it’s difficult to maintain a conversation. And some restaurants actually have noise levels at 95 dB or louder – that’s four times louder than 70 dB, and is as loud as a jet taking off a mere 305 metres away.
Thankfully, there is hope for us. In recent times, more attention is being paid to how the power of sound can influence a diner’s experience in a restaurant. Technology is now used in the front of the house, not to distract, but to enhance. Chefs are becoming more progressive, blending the edible with the audible, taking the experience of dining as we know it a step further.
Crossmodal perception and sonic seasoning
Enter crossmodal perception, which is what happens when two or more of our sensory modalities (five senses) cross paths and interact with each other. In fact, Oxford University has dedicated an entire laboratory to the research of this unique perception, led by experimental psychologist Professor Charles Spence (more on that below). With crossmodal perception, dining took on a whole new definition. Eating progressed beyond tasting with the tongue; but also included seeing, feeling and hearing.
When what you hear changes the way you taste your food, this is the work of crossmodal perception at its finest. Dubbed “sonic seasoning” by Prof. Spence and multisensory gastronomy chef Josef Youssef of Kitchen Theory fame, your brain reacts differently towards particular sounds, associating them with certain tastes. For example, the high-pitched screeching of a violin is more likely to be deemed as sour, while the melodic tinkle of piano keys, sweet.
Not convinced? Then try this experiment at home. Pick up your coffee or tea (or for the best control experiment, water), then plug in your earphones and play this video.
How did your coffee or tea taste? Now, what about this one?
Now try this and give your drink one last sip:
Were you as mind-blown as we were? (We swear, the salty one caught us totally off-guard.)
Notable researchers in the field of crossmodal perception
Charles Spence Experimental psychologist & Head of Crossmodal Research Laboratory, Oxford University
Prof. Spence has dedicated his career to the investigation of multisensory illusions and how this knowledge can be used to improve consumers’ perception of everyday objects. He is best known for his expertise on sonic seasoning (having coined the term), and has worked extensively with celebrity chefs from the likes of Heston Blumenthal (The Fat Duck), Ferran Adria (El Bulli) and more.
Qian Janice Wang Experimental psychologist & Assistant Professor at Aarhus University, Denmark
Wang completed her PhD at the Oxford Crossmodal Research Laboratory, where she specialised in sound-taste interactions. Her research primarily examines multisensory flavour perception and preference, of which a healthy portion involves wine. One of her most notable studies is how people match wine with music, linking certain songs (like “Carmina Burana” by Carl Orff or “Poules et Coqs” from Camille Saint-Saën’s Carnival of the Animals) that they feel will go best with either a red or white wine.
Felipe Reinoso Carvalho Multisensory experiential design researcher & Scholar at Los Andes University, Columbia
Delve into the world of multisensory research as Dr. Carvalho takes you on an insider’s look via his blog. In 2018, he collaborated with Belgian chocolatiers Leonidas, Frederic Blondeel and Passion Chocolat to curate a soundtrack, The Sound of Chocolate, which enhances the experience of different chocolates through the power of music. The sound from a flute heightens creamier taste sensations, while a violin makes the chocolate seem rougher.
Paving the way towards modernist cuisine
Back in 2013, experimental London restaurant House Of Wolf (now closed) introduced a dessert called the Sonic Cake Pop, which was served with a telephone number. Customers were asked to dial the number on their mobiles, then press “1” for sweet and “2” for bitter, for an out-of-this-world way to end the meal on a memorable note.
A year later, British Airways launched their Sound Bite menu, a 13-track playlist which allowed passengers to listen to Coldplay’s “A Sky Full of Stars” while enjoying their main course, or play Madonna’s “Ray of Light” to boost the sweetness of their desserts. Other artists featured in the list included Louis Armstrong, Lily Allen, James Blunt, Debussy and more. Definitely a novel experience, considering at 35,000 feet in the air, your senses are dulled by up to 30%.
Food design studio The Eatelier in The Netherlands takes dining to new nights, often organizing events that aim to showcase the future of food. Synesthetic Dinner (held in 2016) brought together a DJ and a visual artist, where diners enjoyed a 5-course dinner complemented by live music and light projections. Based on the flavours in the dishes, the DJ would freestyle his tunes, stimulating multiple senses at the same time.
Kitchen Theory’s Josef Youssef is also a regular collaborator with Prof. Spence, taking customers through a gastrophysics adventure through his Chef’s Table sessions. They’ve served nitrogen-poached grapefruit and vodka meringues, made at the table and served to the sound of rustling wind, which guests said “transported them to somewhere else”. With an intimate seating of 10 and only open on the last week of the month, it’s not hard to see why this is such an exclusive event.
And of course, one cannot talk about experiential dining and not pay tribute to Heston Blumenthal, probably one of the biggest names in the culinary world. At his three-Michelin star restaurant, The Fat Duck, Blumenthal famously serves the “Sound of the Sea”, and audible-edible course that involved a beautifully presented sashimi dish, complete with edible sand and seafoam, accompanied by an iPod hidden inside a conch shell, which played a series of sounds of the sea, like waves crashing and seagulls calling.
Have you tried multisensory dining? Are you a fan? Let us know in the comments below.
Cover Image: Rawpixel.com
Writer | Michelle Tan
Lover of all things bizarre, Michelle has a soft spot for dinosaurs, raccoons and a strong G&T. Her lifelong dream is to become an urban hermit.