Music might sweeten your beer

New research suggests that listening to high-pitched music while sipping a beer might make it seem sweeter than it actually does.
New research suggests that listening to high-pitched music while sipping a beer might make it seem sweeter than it actually does. PHOTO: REUTERS

WASHINGTON• A well-curated jukebox and a frosty beer have long gone hand-in-hand, but they may be more intertwined than you ever imagined.

New research suggests that listening to certain music while drinking a beer can directly affect how you perceive that beer to taste. For example, if you are listening to high-pitched music while sipping a Budweiser, that beer might seem to taste sweeter than it actually does. Conversely, if you are listening to deep, bass-heavy music, you might think the beer is more bitter and more alcoholic than it actually is.

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, Dr 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, he 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 per cent alcohol by volume, a tripel with 8 per cent alcohol and a Belgian pale ale with 6 per cent alcohol - all had distinctly different tastes.

Dr 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 more bitter, but it was also more alcoholic.

The end result? "Sound can definitely alter the way we perceive taste," Dr Carvalho said in a telephone interview.

He is interested in performing a similar experiment with popular music and said the implications are there to see how certain songs could affect how people taste things.

"The sound of piano can enhance the sweetness, as opposed to metal instruments, like trumpets and tubas, which can enhance the bitterness," he 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, on the other hand, might make it seem more bitter.

In a strange way, that seems to make perfect sense.

The sound-taste interaction is not only limited to beer. Dr Carvalho himself is working on a similar study in which he is swopping 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.

Dr Carvalho pointed out that this could have health implications. What if people 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 the tongue and potentially cause cancer - just by using less sugar and adding the right music.

Unfortunately, he said the experiment probably will not 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 will be too aware of what you are supposed to taste to be influenced.

Then again, beer and tunes? Maybe it is worth a shot.


A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Sunday Times on June 26, 2016, with the headline 'Music might sweeten your beer'. Print Edition | Subscribe