Is Nigella right – can loud music really affect the taste of your food?

Nigella lawson preparing food
Allergic to noise: sensory specialist Charles Spence says loud volumes really can suppress your ability to taste food

Can loud music really drown out the taste of your food? This week, Nigella Lawson declared that she is “allergic to all noise”, including “music in shops and restaurants,” which she finds “utterly draining. And it drowns out the taste of the food."

She’s not alone in her “allergy”: according to a study published in The Lancet in 2014 into both the auditory and non-auditory effects of noise on health, social noise exposure can lead to annoyance, disturbed sleep and affect cognitive performance.

It also increases the occurrence of hypertension and cardiovascular disease. Noise is tiring, and bad for your health: it stands to reason that it also affects the sensory enjoyment of food.

According to a new study by the Department of Experimental Psychology at the University of Oxford (co-authored by Charles Spence, an expert in sensory science and the author of Gastrophysics: The New Science of Eating), auditory stimuli can impact both our experience and our consumer behaviour more than we realise (more on which later).

And there’s no doubt that the UK’s restaurants are noisy. According to charity Action on Hearing Loss, 79 per cent of people – both with and without hearing loss – have experienced difficulty holding a conversation while eating out, thus sabotaging the social aspect of the occasion.

Eight out of 10 said that they have left an eatery early because of the noise, while 91 per cent said they would not return to noisy venues. “Noise and service are the top two complaints among diners,” Spence points out – and the decibel levels at many dining spots rise above what audiologists consider safe for extended periods of time (70 decibels).

According to Spence, there’s a line for restaurateurs to tread – since sales go up as noise volume increases. This is because it causes excitement, encouraging people to spend, drink and consume more (however, in extremes this can be unconsciously perceived as danger, making us feel anxious or threatened and leading us into fight or flight mode).

High pitched music makes food taste 10 per cent sweeter, while low pitched sounds cause us to perceive a bitter taste, says multi-sensory dining expert Professor Charles Spence Credit: Crossmodal Research Laboratory

Background music aside, it doesn’t help that modern design preferences are for stripped floors, hard surfaces, bare tables and exposed lighting. Aesthetically pleasing they may be, but soft furnishings and a considered layout contributes to a far gentler acoustic environment.

Open kitchens, while offering a window into the preparation of food for curious diners, also exacerbate the problem, adding the clatter of pans to the din.

While shag-pile carpets and curtains are unlikely to be installed anytime soon, many restaurateurs are investing in expensive soundproofing panels.

Your fellow diners are also to blame. No-one wants to be the fuddy-duddy complaining about the raucous table of friends out to have a good time – but thanks to a phenomenon known as the Lombard Effect, we all have an involuntary reflex which causes us to raise our own voices to combat noise in loud environments, in order to enhance our own audibility. It’s a clamorous cycle.

So far, so irritating – but even worse than having to strain your voice and struggling to hear yourself speak is the fact that according to scientific theories on taste, it really does “drown out” – or at least alter – the taste of your food.  “Loud noise suppresses your ability to taste and dulls the senses, masking flavour,” affirms Spence.

But before you reach for the noise-cancelling headphones or cancel your reservation, hear this: while it’s annoying if the noise levels are too high and you’ve forked out for an expensive three-course meal, on the flipside, the synaesthesia-like effects of auditory stimuli can also, in some circumstances, enhance the experience and lead to a more mindful appreciation of your dinner.

According to Spence, listening to tinkling music with high pitched notes can accentuate our perception of sweetness by 10 per cent. Conversely, low-pitched noises can accentuate bitterness by the same amount. The results are surprisingly consistent: he likes to call it “sonic seasoning”.

So, next time that rhubarb needs extra sugar, perhaps you could just ask someone to play a flute, instead.

Of the five tastes (sweet, sour, bitter, salty and umami), umami – the savoury taste – is the most resistant to being affected by sound (pass the Bloody Mary).  

As well as researching the impact of noise and sound on taste perception, Spence’s research also focuses on how vision, colour and shape can affect our olfactory faculties, exploring the unconscious, involuntary connections between the senses.

It’s worth bearing in mind for your next dinner party: for example, a more angular dessert will tend to taste sweeter.

According to Spence, our liking or preference for the music played also has an impact on the hedonistic pleasure we derive from eating.

For celebrity chef Hestom Blumenthal, sound is the forgotten ingredient Credit: GC Images

He notes that how people rate a gastronomic experience can depend on how inkeeping the style of soundtrack is with the food. In one study, Spanish music was shown to enhance the taste of paella.

Listening to Latin beats with Mexican cuisine and Indian music with curries serves to improve the experience of dining out, and according to Spence, it’s a consideration which chefs and restaurateurs too often neglect.

He works with a number of chefs to develop their approach to this, including Heston Blumenthal (he was behind Blumenthal’s decision to play atmospheric sounds of the sea to accompany seafood dishes at his restaurant The Fat Duck a few years ago).

“I’m often surprised by chefs who are so passionate about their food and the sourcing of ingredients, the plating and the presentation, but who let the manager put the iPod on. As Heston has said, sound is the forgotten seasoning – an important ingredient that chefs can play with,” he points out.

He has been exploring this link further by giving people different beers accompanied by different music. The more they liked the music, the more they liked what they were tasting, which he believes could have interesting implications for drinks pairings.

Listening to French music will influence your decision to buy French wine, says sensory specialist Charles Spence Credit: Blend Images

“The growing interest of restaurateurs and wine producers in this area is incredibly exciting, opening up new opportunities for matching sounds to wine. All the evidence shows time and again that it affects our experiences and our choices: so it’s also of interest to marketeers.

"For example, to advertise ice creams, should a jingle be high pitched, to intensify sweetness? If you’re selling a Bavarian beer, should you play German music?”

Anyone for a glass of Bordeaux accompanied by Édith Piaf at 20 decibels?