Markets change, tastes change, so the companies and the individuals who choose to compete in those markets must change. —An Wang
Most mornings I sit here trying to be as quiet as possible so as to not wake everyone else in the house, especially the little ones. Fortunately, everyone sleeps rather soundly, so I’m able to grind beans and make coffee without disturbing anyone other than the dog, who doesn’t mind as long as I feed him first. I enjoy sitting down with that first cup of coffee in the peace and quiet of the morning. I’ve never given any consideration as to whether music might actually change how my coffee tastes. However, I’m certainly thinking that way now.
Beer maker Stella Artois released a couple of YouTube videos this week aimed at changing how we experience their beer. Partnering with The Roots, aka the band from Jimmy Fallon’s Tonight Show on NBC, the brand is throwing some science at its customers by demonstrating how music alters how their beer tastes. No kidding. This is real science. In fact, it’s just part of a larger multi-sensory project called Le Savior. They’ve already thrown multi-sensory events in Montreal and New York where the videos take center place. Unfortunately, the rest of us just have to try and re-create the experience on our own.
Do we really care enough about the subtle tastes of a beer to change our playlists? If you drink Budweiser, you could probably care less. For Stella drinkers, though, that difference can be a huge factor in their drinking experience. Turns out, sound affects our entire culinary experience. Perhaps we should investigate.
Yes, This Is Real Science
While science has taken some hard knocks among those who refuse to believe the earth is hotter than ever, the science of auditory effects on tastes is pretty solid. Yes, we actually looked it up and did some reading. I mean, just because a beer company tells us something doesn’t mean we’re going to believe it, right? Please, tell me you don’t take these campaigns at face value. What we found is that not only is the auditory impact on food tastes a serious area of study, the volume of research on the various aspects is considerable.
At the core of all this research is how sound affects our concept of sweet and salty tastes. A 2011 study, Effect of Background Noise on Food Perception, looked at how perceptions of food differed based upon whether diners ate in silence, quiet background noise, or loud background noise. As it turns out, noise, “diminishes gustatory food properties,” ultimately affecting the tastes we perceive from the food and drink we think we’re enjoying.
In the real world, that means we need to be eating in environments that are actually quieter, not louder, if we want to really enjoy our meals. Televisions need to be shut off. Dining al fresco at a sidewalk cafe bordering a busy street probably isn’t enhancing the tastes of the food as much as we might think. All that loud kitchen noise and clanging and overly loud conversation? That’s great if a restaurant is trying to keep you distracted from how the food actually tastes. Quieter is always better.
But Silence Drives Us Nuts
Additional research, however, shows that some sounds, specifically music, can change how we feel about certain spices and especially regarding alcoholic beverages such as wine. A 2012 study published by The British Psychological Society demonstrated that subtle background music changed how subjects responded to the same wine. Think about that. Without being told they were drinking the same wine each time, subjects rated the wine differently four different times according to changes in background music. Interestingly enough, the subjects were so concentrated on the wine, they didn’t even notice cognitively that the music had changed!
With that knowledge in hand, Stella Artois employed food scientists Bompas & Parr and then worked with The Roots to come up with two different soundtracks to emphasize either the fruity sweetness or the hoppy bitterness, depending on which one might prefer. While I’ve not seen a full menu for the four-course meal severed at the Le Savior events, I assume food choices complimented whichever soundtrack was being played.
What this raises is whether dining and/or drinking experiences can be tailored based on music choices. If a restaurant plays a brass-heavy soundtrack, for example, are the more exotic and perhaps bitter tastes of the food going to come through more than if a lighter sound were chosen? Stop and think about it for a minute. Would knowledge of what music was playing ever impact or possibly even change your choice of where to dine?
Side A Or Side B?
Getting down to the actual videos one might find the difference between the two soundtracks almost insignificant. That theme comes up often in the comments below each video and while that source is far from being authoritative on any level we cannot ignore that we’re talking about more subtle difference that not everyone notices or appreciates. No two people approach tastes in exactly the same way. Our culinary traditions and experiences color every dish and every drink we consume. Some people care about subtle difference in flavor, some don’t. That’s cool.
Below, you’ll find both videos. Unfortunately, there’s nothing visually attractive here. The video is simply a vehicle for the soundtrack. What you’ll find, though, is that side A, which is supposed to bring out the fruitier elements of the beer has an emphasis on steel drums in the midst of the rapid-fire lyrics for which the group is known. There’s less direct melody and more percussion in this track. Side B, however, which is supposed to bring out the bitterness in the beer, is heavy on brass counter-melodies. Personally, the two tracks are obviously and completely different. However, I can see where someone not specifically tuned in on the musical elements might miss the difference. Again, one’s own tastes influence the experience.
The question remains is whether this gimmick is enough to change anyone’s opinion about Stella Artois. For all the noise about craft and premium beers in the market, there are still a lot of people who just want something cold and alcoholic. One also has to wonder how a restaurant might serve music that meets the variety of tastes among the customers. Does every meal come with its own soundtrack? How would that even work?
Still, the test is an interesting one. Listen to the soundtracks during your next snack or drink. Who knows, they might just change your mind.