That, in a nutshell, is what was found in a study set to be published in September in the scientific journal Food Quality and Preference and obtained early by The Washington Post.
Drawing from existing research showing that sound is an important part of the sense of taste, Felipe Carvalho of Vrije Universiteit Brussel set out to see just how much various pitches interact with beers.
He put that to the test. Before pursuing his PhD, Carvalho spent many years as a sound designer, so he put together 24 tracks meant to enhance the perceptions of sweetness, bitterness and sourness.
After narrowing these down to three tracks, he gathered 340 participants — random visitors to the Music Instruments Museum in Brussels, with no prior knowledge of the study — and a boatload of three different types of beer.
The brews — a light blonde with 4.5 percent alcohol by volume, a tripel with 8 percent alcohol and a Belgian pale ale with 6 percent alcohol — all had distinctly different tastes.
Carvalho and his team then conducted three experiments. In each one, different participants tasted the same beer twice, only they were not told it was the same. At each tasting, a different soundscape was played, and the participants had to mark down what the beers tasted like and what they thought was the alcohol content of each.
Perhaps most amazingly, most of the participants could not tell they were drinking the same beer two times in a row. While listening to the “sweet” soundscape — comprised of high pitches — the beer indeed tasted sweeter to them. While listening to the “bitter” soundscape — comprised of bass and low pitches — the beer not only tasted bitterer but also more alcoholic.
(Carvalho attributes the perception about the alcohol content to another aspect of how we perceive beer. Many think of beer as bitter and alcoholic, so they naturally consider a bitterer beer to be more alcoholic, even though the alcohol is generally the sweet ingredient. In his words, “What people usually do is they associate the proxy — beer is a bitter drink by default, so people attribute the most salient attribute of the beer’s taste, in this case bitterness, with the alcoholic content”.)
The end result?
“Sound can definitely alter the way we perceive taste,” Carvalho told The Washington Post in a phone interview.
It’s important to note that the soundscapes are not songs the way radio hits are. They are more akin to what you might expect from a white-noise machine as you’re trying to fall asleep. You can give them a listen here or check out the “sweet” and “bitter” soundscapes below.
But Carvalho, who is interested in performing a similar experiment with popular music, said the implications are there to see how certain songs could affect how we taste things.
After all, previous research has taught us a thing or two.
“The sound of piano can enhance the sweetness, as opposed to metal instruments, like trumpets and tubas, which can enhance the bitterness,” Carvalho said.
It logically follows, then, that since the “Frozen” soundtrack tends to include a lot of high pitches, it could make beer sweeter. Listening to Leonard Cohen or the National, on the other hand, might make it seem bitterer.
In a strange way, that seems to make perfect sense.
The sound-taste interaction is not only limited to beer. Carvalho himself is working on a similar study in which he’s swapping the brews for chocolates.
Previous studies have found similar correlations between sound and taste. As the New Yorker magazine noted, pitch has been shown to affect the perceived taste of toffee. An experiment involving oysters found that hearing the sound of the sea while consuming the shellfish heightened consumers’ enjoyment of the meal. French music has even been shown to influence customers to buy French wine, and the same was found with German music and wine. New York magazine reported that consumers were more likely to rate chips as “fresh” if they heard a “crunch” sound, even if it was piped in over headphones. Finally, a study found that people tend to perceive wine to have taste characteristic that “reflect the nature of the concurrent music,” so if a song is mellow, the wine will be perceived as “mellow,” according to Wired.
Carvalho pointed out that this could have health implications. What if we could eat candy with half the sugar and simply not notice the missing sweetness? Not with false sweeteners that leave behind an acidic taste on a tongue and potentially cause cancer — just by using less sugar and adding the right music.
“Perhaps we could diminish the sweetness of food without affecting the pleasure of eating the same food,” he said.
Not to mention the restaurant industry could potentially greatly benefit from such knowledge.
Unfortunately, he said the experiment probably won’t work at home, since knowing what a soundscape should make you perceive before tasting the beer will create an inherent bias — in other words, you’ll be too aware of what you’re supposed to taste to be influenced.
Then again, beer and tunes? Maybe it’s worth a shot.