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Sounds delicious! New study shows link between pitch and flavor

Do you think pinot grigio “smells” like a note from a clarinet? Does the sound of a bass “taste” like a dark red Barolo?

If so, you are using “crossmodal” associations, drawing on analogies from various senses in order to create a picture of the world. And you’re not odd. A new study from Oxford University scientists shows that taste and sound are intimately linked.  

An extreme form of this phenomenon is synesthesia, a condition in which one might see the number 8 as red, for example. But most people make such crossmodal associations all the time without giving it much thought.

Hear something in that wine? A new study shows a "crossmodal" link between taste and pitch.

Imagine yourself on one side of a small hill when suddenly you hear a very loud, deep-toned thump coming from the other side. Your brain instantly assembles a picture of the shape and size of the object that made that sound – Baltimore Ravens tackle Bryant McKinnie (6 feet 8 inches tall,  360 pounds) stamping his feet, say.

This ability is a survival tool, Charles Spence, a professor of experimental psychology at University of Oxford and one of the authors of the new study said. “People learn the statistics of their environment and any statistical regularity between cross-sensory features of that environment,” he explained. Knowing that big objects almost always make low-pitch sounds, “helps you predict the future and hence respond more rapidly.” Even if you can’t see the possible predator around the bend, you “hear” his size.

Until now, a crossmodal link between taste and pitch hadn’t been scientifically validated. So Spence and Ph.D student Anne-Sylvie Crisinel used a commercially available aroma kit designed to train amateurs in the fine art of wine description to prove that aromas evoke musical tones.

Thirty people sniffed various samples (like almond, apple, smoked, hay, cedar, caramel). Then they had to choose from a standard database of notes played by four types of instruments (piano, strings, woodwind, brass) in a range of pitch. A subset of the test participants were blindfolded because darker colors tend to be associated with lower pitch, and since some of the odor samples had a dark color, they didn’t want to screen for visual bias.

Blindfolded or not, significant associations emerged. Few subjects linked brass with blackberry, for example, but many associated it with piano. Hardly anybody connected piano with musk, but many linked it to brass. Fruit odors were consistently associated with high pitched notes. That confirmed an earlier study by Crisinel and Spence showing that sweet and sour flavors were also associated with high pitched notes. 

This effect apparently works the other way, too. Another scientist recently asked different musicians to play pieces of music with adjectives like “bitter,” “salty” and “sweet” in mind. Though the musicians could play whatever they wanted, consistent patterns emerged.

Business has taken notice. According to Spence, “there is a growing field of synesthetic marketing where people try to use such cross-sensory mappings to capture the multisensory attributes of their product or brand, like the fragrance or taste, through the use of appropriate sounds and visuals in TV or radio adverts.” Some restaurants already use music in an attempt to boost the liking and intensity of the flavors of the food they serve, he said.

So the next time you’re shopping for wine, and see a description saying “notes of deep-forest woodiness,” you can decide if you really feel like tasting Beethoven’s Fifth.