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Food Quality and Preference 24 (2012) 201–204

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Food Quality and Preference

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Short Communication

A bittersweet symphony: Systematically modulating the taste of food

by changing the sonic properties of the soundtrack playing in the background
Anne-Sylvie Crisinel a,⇑, Stefan Cosser b, Scott King c, Russ Jones c, James Petrie b, Charles Spence a
Crossmodal Research Laboratory, Department of Experimental Psychology, Oxford University, Oxford, UK
The Fat Duck Experimental Kitchen, Bray, UK
Condiment Junkie, London, UK

a r t i c l e i n f o a b s t r a c t

Article history: We report an experiment designed to investigate the consequences of manipulating the pitch of the back-
Received 29 June 2011 ground auditory stimulation on the taste of food. The participants in the present study evaluated four
Received in revised form 27 August 2011 pieces of cinder toffee while listening to two auditory soundtracks, presented in a random order. One
Accepted 30 August 2011
soundtrack was designed to be more crossmodally (or ‘‘synaesthetically’’) congruent with a bitter-tasting
Available online 5 September 2011
food whereas the other soundtrack was designed to be more congruent with a sweet-tasting food instead.
The participants rated each sample using three computer based line scales: One scale was anchored with
the words bitter and sweet. The second scale required participants to localize the taste/flavour percept
Crossmodal correspondence
elicited by the food (at the front vs. back of their mouth). The third scale involved participants giving a
Sound hedonic evaluation of the foodstuff. As expected, the cinder toffee samples tasted while listening to
the presumptively ‘bitter’ soundtrack were rated as tasting significantly more bitter than when exactly
the same foodstuff was evaluated while listening to the ‘sweet’ soundtrack instead. These results provide
the first convincing empirical demonstration that the crossmodal congruency of a background sound-
track can be used to modify the taste (and presumably also flavour) of a foodstuff.
Ó 2011 Elsevier Ltd. All rights reserved.

1. Introduction correspondences between the attributes (or features) of stimuli

presented in different sensory modalities. So, for example, most
Holt-Hansen was perhaps the first researcher to highlight the people, no matter where they are born, will tend to match larger
existence of a crossmodal correspondence between taste/flavour objects with lower-pitched sounds, and smaller objects with
and the pitch of a sound (Holt-Hansen, 1968). The participants in higher-pitched sounds. The suggestion from researchers is that
his study were instructed to taste one of two beers – Carlsberg many such crossmodal correspondences result from the brain pick-
Elephant lager or regular Carlsberg lager – and then to turn the ing-up on the statistical regularities present in the environment. In
knob on a signal generator until the pitch of the sound it made the case just mentioned, a larger object will, all other things being
‘matched’ the flavour of the beer. The results revealed that partic- equal, normally make a lower-pitched sound than a smaller object
ipants matched the regular beer with a tone having a significantly (cf. Hooke’s second law). Such crossmodal correspondences may
lower pitch (510–520 Hz) than the Elephant lager (640–670 Hz). also be captured by the metaphorical use of language, as when
At the time, such results were interpreted as providing support we describe certain foods as ‘tasting sharp’ (Williams, 1976). Sharp,
for the claim that we are all synaesthetic when it comes to multi- of course, is actually a tactile descriptor.
sensory interactions between taste/flavour and sound (e.g., see Crisinel and Spence (2010) recently documented the existence
Holt-Hansen, 1976; Rudmin & Capelli, 1983). By contrast, though, of a crossmodal correspondence between sweet tastes and high-
contemporary researchers have stressed that it may be more pitched sounds and bitter tastes and low-pitched sounds (see also
appropriate to think about such effects in terms of crossmodal cor- Simner, Cuskley, & Kirby, 2010; and Spence, in press, for a review).
respondences instead (see Spence & Shankar, 2010, for a recent re- Meanwhile, other researchers have reported the existence of a
view). The idea here is that all of us, no matter whether we are number of other crossmodal correspondences between various
technically (or clinically) synaesthetic or not, experience parameters of musical composition and specific taste/flavor attri-
butes (see Bronner, 2010; Bronner, Bruhn, Hirt, & Piper, 2008;
Mesz, Trevisan, & Sigman, 2011; Spence & Shankar, 2010).
⇑ Corresponding author. Address: Department of Experimental Psychology,
University of Oxford, South Parks Road, Oxford OX1 3UD, UK. Tel.: +44 1865
The existence of such crossmodal correspondences between
271307; fax: +44 1865 310447. audition and the tastes and flavours of various foodstuffs is there-
E-mail address: (A.-S. Crisinel). fore now reasonably well-established (see Spence, 2011). However,

0950-3293/$ - see front matter Ó 2011 Elsevier Ltd. All rights reserved.
202 A.-S. Crisinel et al. / Food Quality and Preference 24 (2012) 201–204

one important question that has not, as yet, received a satisfactory The auditory stimuli were designed based on Crisinel and
answer is whether, by ensuring that the soundtrack (or music) that Spence’s (2010) results demonstrating that low-pitched notes
happens to be playing when a person tastes a particular food or played by brass instruments are associated with the bitter taste
beverage item corresponds crossmodally, one can actually modify of caffeine, and that high-pitched notes played by the piano are
the perceived taste of the food that they happen to be evaluating. associated with the taste of sucrose. They were created using Logic
To date, the only empirical research on this question comes from 9 music production software (industry standard), installed on a
another of Holt-Hansen’s studies (Holt-Hansen, 1976). There, par- Mac G5. All of the sounds were presented in the key of F. The bitter
ticipants were given one of six different beers/ales to taste while soundtrack consisted of a blend of sinewave-based synthesised
a tone that was either expected to match the taste of the beer tones generated by the Sculpture Modeling synth and ES2 synth
(what Holt-Hansen called ‘the pitch of harmony’) or to be incon- plug-ins, pitched at F2 (midi note 41) and C3 (midi note 48). These
gruent with it was pulsed rhythmically. Several of the participants sounds were overlaid with a single trombone note also played at
(three out of nine) reported ‘extraordinary’ experiences when the F2, and a low frequency rumble created by passing a field recording
crossmodally congruent tone was presented. However, in hind- of car traffic in a tunnel through a low pass filter. The main element
sight, it is rather difficult to know what to make of many of them, of the sweet soundtrack was created from the Yamaha Grand piano
such as the following from one participant: ‘My right hand with the plug-in, passed through Space Designer reverb unit set to 100% wet
glass of beer in it trembled so violently that I was suddenly afraid of and 10% dry (so mostly only the reverb is heard). The notes move in
dropping the glass. I felt as if I was floating in the air. The tone was legato through the F scale pitched around C4–C6 (midi notes 60–
intensified to such a degree that it sounded like a symphony orchestra 84). This sound is overlaid with a sinewave-based synthesised tone
and the room was filled with it. My jaws were moving in and out with generated by the Sculpture Modelling synth plug-in in the same
the rhythm of the tone’. pitch, as well as abstractions of the piano sound created by resam-
In the present study, we attempted to conduct a more rigorous pling and reversing the sound several times. These soundscapes are
psychophysical study in order to determine whether playing a available at: A control experiment
crossmodally congruent vs. incongruent soundtrack could actually was conducted to check that people would indeed associate the
modulate the taste of a real foodstuff. We chose a food that con- two soundtracks with bitter and sweet tastes, respectively.
tained both a bitter and a sweet taste (given previous findings sug- Thirty-one new participants (aged 23–36) were asked to rate the
gesting that crossmodal auditory modulations of flavour might be soundtracks on a bitter-sweet 9-point scale. The difference be-
more prominent under conditions where different competing tween the ratings of the two soundtracks was significant,
tastes/flavours are present simultaneously; Spence, Shankar, & Blu- M = 2.97, SD = 1.14, M = 6.68, SD = 1.78, t(30) = 8.47, p < .001.
menthal, 2011). We specifically chose bitter and sweet tastes as
these were the basic tastes that gave rise to the most extreme pitch
2.3. Design and procedure
ratings in our previous crossmodal matching study of crossmodal
correspondences (see Crisinel & Spence, 2010). Condiment Junkie,
The experiment was conducted with participants sitting at a
a sonic branding agency, developed two soundtracks based on Cris-
table in a darkened experimental booth. The participants sat in
inel and Spence’s findings. These soundtracks were rather more
front of a computer monitor and responded by using the mouse.
pleasant to listen to than a simple monotonous pure tone (and
The auditory stimuli were presented over Beyer Dynamic head-
hence potentially usable in the restaurant setting).
phones at a level of approximately 70 dB. The participants were
presented with four small pieces of the cinder toffee (approxi-
mately 0.3 g) to taste. They were not informed that the four sam-
2. Methods ples were identical. Each trial started with one of the
soundtracks being presented at the time a toffee sample was given
2.1. Participants to the participant, i.e., a few seconds before they tasted the sample.
The soundtrack lasted for 40 s, during which the participants were
Twenty participants took part in the experiment (12 females, given three response scales to score. They were asked a question in
aged 17–33 years). The participants gave their informed consent, relation to each scale, namely: Is the food bitter or sweet? How
reported no cold or other impairment of their senses of smell much do you like the taste/flavour? Where in your mouth do you
and taste, and no hearing impairment. The participants were in- experience the flavour? They responded by indicating a point on
formed that they would be asked to taste toffee. The experiment a 9-point computer-based scale. Each scale was anchored with a
lasted for approximately 10 min and the participants were com- pair of terms (bitter (earthy)/sweet, back of the mouth/tip of ton-
pensated for taking part in the study with a £5 (UK Sterling) gift gue, not at all/very much). The term ‘earthy’ was added following
voucher. The participants subsequently took part in another very pilot testing with a few participants. The scales were presented
different experiment (to fill their experimental session). That study in a random order. Each participant tasted four samples in total,
is not discussed here. two with each of the soundscapes. The order of presentation of
the soundscapes was random.

2.2. Apparatus and stimuli

3. Results
The cinder toffee used in the present study was prepared at The
Fat Duck experimental research kitchen, Bray, UK. The recipe uti- The mean ratings on each scale (see Fig. 1) were analysed using
lized the following ingredients: 225 g unrefined caster sugar; a separate paired-samples t-test. There was a significant effect on
37 g unsalted butter; 50 g Tate and Lyle golden syrup; 50 g Tate the bitter-sweet scale, on which participants rated the toffee as
and Lyle treacle; 3 g table salt; and 3 g sodium bicarbonate. The less sweet when presented with the ‘bitter’ soundtrack (M = 4.70,
procedure for making the toffee was as follows: In a pan over med- SD = 1.52) than when it was presented with the ‘sweet’ soundtrack
ium high heat, caramelize the sugar to a deep brown caramel; Add (M = 5.40, SD = 1.29), t(19) = 2.284, p = .034, r = .46. However, no
the butter, golden syrup, treacle and salt and bring to a boil; Whisk such effect was found on either of the other response scales (for
in the sodium bicarbonate and pour on ton a tray lined with position, M = 4.55, SD = 1.79 with the ‘bitter’ soundtrack,
greaseproof paper; Allow to cool before breaking into small pieces. M = 5.00, SD = 1.29 with the ‘sweet’ soundtrack, t(19) = 1.564,
A.-S. Crisinel et al. / Food Quality and Preference 24 (2012) 201–204 203

The results of the present study go beyond several recent stud-

ies demonstrating the existence of crossmodal correspondences
between tastes/flavours/oral-somatosensory experiences and vari-
ous attributes of auditory stimuli (e.g., Bronner, 2010; Bronner
et al., 2008; Crisinel & Spence, 2010; Holt-Hansen, 1968; Mesz
et al., 2010; Rudmin & Capelli, 1983; Spence & Shankar 2010), by
showing that the actual taste of a foodstuff can be altered by play-
ing auditory stimuli that (on the basis of laboratory research;
Crisinel & Spence, 2010) either correspond crossmodally or not.
At this stage, we can do little more than speculate as to the neu-
ral mechanism underlying the crossmodal effect of sound on taste
perception reported here. However, two possibilities immediately
Fig. 1. The results of the experiment highlighting the effect of the auditory spring to mind, one in terms of multisensory integration, the other
soundtrack (‘bitter’ vs. ‘sweet’) on participants’ ratings on the bitter-sweet scale, the
back–front (of mouth) scale, and the hedonic rating scale. The asterisk highlights a
in terms of expectancy effects and ‘sensation transference’
significant difference between the conditions (p < .05). The error bars represent the (Cheskin, 1972). The idea that the soundscape may have influenced
SEM. participants’ perception of the taste of the cinder toffee because of
the multisensory integration of the two component unimodal
stimuli (see Calvert, Spence, & Stein, 2004) is supported by anec-
p = .134, r = .34; and for pleasantness, M = 5.30, SD = 1.72 with the dotal reports from chefs who experienced a change in taste when
‘bitter’ soundtrack, M = 5.75, SD = 1.40 with the ‘sweet’ soundtrack, the soundtracks were changed while tasting the toffee. That said,
t(19) = 1.027, p = .317, r = .23). The correlation between the ratings the fact that the onset of the auditory and gustatory stimuli oc-
of bitterness and position was significant, while the other correla- curred at different times, and were localized to different locations,
tions between ratings were not (see Table 1). should presumably have reduced the likelihood that these two sig-
nals were integrated.
4. Discussion The second hypothesis is that the soundtrack, which was pre-
sented at the same time as the toffee samples, and, importantly,
The results reported here demonstrate that the taste of a food could be heard a few seconds before the participants actually
can be systematically altered by playing a soundscape that shares started to taste the sample, may have induced expectations (possi-
a crossmodal correspondence with the taste in question (cf. Holt- bly subconscious) that, in turn, influenced the perceived taste of
Hansen, 1976). Based on Crisinel and Spence’s (2010) recent psy- the food that was subsequently consumed. This explanation for
chophysical research, two soundscapes were created for use in the data is supported by previous research underlining the power-
the present study. One soundtrack was designed to complement ful effects expectations can have on sensory evaluations (e.g., see
the bitter taste present in the foodstuff (cinder toffee), while the Deliza & MacFie, 1996, for a review). The idea here is that when
other was designed to match the sweet taste instead. The ‘bitter’ a stimulus is presented in one sensory modality it may prime those
soundtrack contained a predominance of low-pitched sounds, sensory attributes that correspond crossmodally with it. So, for
whereas the ‘sweet’ soundtrack was comprised of sounds having example, in the example of the low-pitch and large objects men-
a higher pitch. As predicted, the results demonstrated that partic- tioned earlier, it may well be that whenever we hear a low-pitched
ipants rated the sweet taste of the cinder toffee as being signifi- sound we are primed for large object. Such a crossmodal priming
cantly more intense (that is, their responses were significantly effect may then affect our perception and responses when another
closer to the sweet end of the response scale) when listening to stimulus is then presented (see also Spence, in press). Thus, in the
the ‘sweet’ soundtrack than when listening to the ‘bitter’ sound- case of the present study, the lower-pitched soundscape may have
track instead. These results therefore provide the first robust set up an unconscious expectation that primed bitterness in the
empirical demonstration that the crossmodal congruency of the minds of our participants (see Spence, in press, for a fuller account
background music/soundscapes we listen to really can influence of this view).
the taste of the food we eat and presumably also the beverages Here, it is worth noting that such effects can also be described in
we drink (see also Ferber & Cabanac, 1987; Woods et al., 2011). terms of Cheskin’s (1972) idea of ‘sensation transference’. Cheskin
Although there were numerical trends in the data reported for argued that the sensory features of the atmosphere in which we
the other two response scales they failed to reach statistical signif- evaluate a product (not to mention also the sensory features of
icance. It is at least possible that these trends would have reached the packaging in which the product is presented), be it a food item
statistical significance had a much larger number of participants or something else, can be transferred such that they influence a
been tested. It is perhaps also worth noting, in passing, that in- person’s impression of the sensory qualities/attributes of the thing
creased bitter ratings were correlated with participants localizing being evaluated. Importantly, when questioned directly, Cheskin
the flavour experience further toward the back of their mouth found that most consumers would vociferously deny the influence
(see Table 1). This might have been caused by the popular belief of such product extrinsic factors on their judgments. Nevertheless,
that bitterness is tasted at the back of the tongue, and sweetness indirect tests demonstrated that such product extrinsic (or atmo-
at the front, even though recent research has demonstrated that spheric) factors were influencing people’s perception.
it is not the case (see Chandrashekar, Hoon, Ryba, & Zuker, 2006). While it is certainly true that previous research has repeatedly
demonstrated that the tempo and type of music (e.g., the semantic
associations that certain pieces or styles of music have with partic-
Table 1
Pearson correlation coefficients between the three ratings.
ular countries or regions; see North & Hargreaves, 2008; Spence &
Shankar, 2010) can influence everything from what we choose to
Sweetness Pleasantness Position eat and drink, how much we are willing to pay for it, and even
Sweetness 1.000 .180 .332 what it tastes like, this is the first study to demonstrate such cross-
Pleasantness .180 1.000 .110 modal effects based on the crossmodal correspondence between
Position .332 .110 1.000
the pitch and timbre of a soundtrack and the taste (bitter vs. sweet)
Bold indicates significant correlations (p < 0.05). of a real foodstuff. In future research, it would be interesting to
204 A.-S. Crisinel et al. / Food Quality and Preference 24 (2012) 201–204

extend these results to other tastes, not to mention more complex Holt-Hansen, K. (1968). Taste and pitch. Perceptual and Motor Skills, 27, 59–68.
Holt-Hansen, K. (1976). Extraordinary experiences during cross-modal perception.
and competing flavours.
Perceptual and Motor Skills, 43, 1023–1027.
Mesz, B., Trevisan, M., & Sigman, M. (2011). The taste of music. Perception, 40,
Acknowledgement 209–219.
North, A., & Hargreaves, D. (2008). The social and applied psychology of music. Oxford:
Oxford University Press.
Anne-Sylvie Crisinel would like to thank the Berrow Foundation Rudmin, F., & Cappelli, M. (1983). Tone-taste synesthesia: A replication. Perceptual
for funding her research. & Motor Skills, 56, 118.
Simner, J., Cuskley, C., & Kirby, S. (2010). What sound does that taste? Cross-modal
mapping across gustation and audition. Perception, 39, 553–569.
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