'Sonic Seasoning': Bompas & Parr's audio-gustatory feast shows how we eat with our ears

A dish 'can be made up to 10% sweeter accompanied by the right music'

Nick Clark
Wednesday 27 May 2015 12:04 BST

The right music can be an essential ingredient at a good dinner party, but the concept of “sonic seasoning” can extend far beyond the selection of the perfect album played at just the right volume.

A dish can be made up to 10 per cent sweeter or 10 per cent more bitter if it is accompanied by the right music, according to Charles Spence, an experimental psychologist at the University of Oxford. Who better to put Spence’s “crossmodal” theory to the test than self-declared culinary creatives Bompas & Parr, who teamed up with Sony last week to stage a audio-gustatory feast. The duo, known for their elaborate food installations, took over a former pub in London’s trendy Dalston to explore the relationship between taste and sound.

Guests, including The Independent on Sunday, were ushered into the Sony Multi-Room Sonic Wonderland, a series of rooms in which experiments testing the relationship between taste and sound were connected by the company’s Multi-Room Audio technology. They were welcomed by a recorded message that said: “It is easy to forget how important all our senses are when it comes to food. We don’t just eat with our mouths, but with our eyes, our noses and even our ears.”

The evening’s sounds were chosen by a “sonic sommelier”, the composer and sound designer Dom James. The wrong music can easily kill the mood in a dining room, he said. Tonight’s challenge would be to find sounds that not only “fit the mood”, but also “fit the taste”.

The first item on the menu was a “sonic cleanse”, a smorgasbord of sounds from the full range of human hearing – 20Hz to 20kHz. It sounded rather like a grandfather clock falling down a flight of stairs. Then the guests were led into a dining room where the aural alchemy began in earnest.

The starter, breast of quail with confit legs, was accompanied by romantic orchestral music to accentuate the savoury flavours. But it was the arrival of the next course, a goat’s cheese cheesecake, that signalled the beginning of our journey into the relationship between food and sound. Classical music gave way to a low-frequency drone – 150Hz – at which point diners found the cheesecake became tasteless or even bitter. When the frequency was increased to 3kHz the earthy flavours, remarkably, turned noticeably sweeter.

Next up was a deconstructed trifle whose natural sweetness was enhanced by a pop-influenced soundscape made up of high frequencies, a fast tempo and ample use of instruments such as the piano and celeste. Mr James believes Tchaikovsky may have understood the celeste’s association with “light and sweet things” when he wrote the music for The Dance of the Sugar Plum Fairy in The Nutcracker.

Flavours are known to be connected to particular pitches. Put simply, low, brassy sounds are associated with a bitter taste and higher, piano sounds help accentuate sweetness.

“It seems the sound biases you towards concentrating on, and therefore perceiving, certain elements in the food,” Professor Spence told The IoS. “You can’t use music to create tastes that are not there, but you can take something with complex tastes and flavours and draw your attention to one bit. There is a groundswell to turn the science into immersive fun. It will grow and grow.”

Five Bombas & Parr projects

Ziggurat of Flavour, 2010

A cloud of fruit inside a monolithic black-and-white pyramid was inspired by 18th-century Cuccagna monuments.

Mt Rocky, 2012

The world’s first chocolate climbing wall was built at Alton Towers theme park. The 32ft-high wall was a Rocky biscuit bar and a chocolate waterfall.

Gesamtkunstwerk, 2012

Isambard Kingdom Brunel’s steamship SS Great Britain in Bristol was set in jelly – using 55,000 litres of lime green jelly.

Lost London, 2013

A vision of London’s lost and unbuilt architecture created using edible material. Displayed in a window at Selfridges.

Chromatopsia: A Water Symphony, 2013

To close the Open East Festival at Olympic Park, the duo turned the river Lea emerald green using light-reactive dye.

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