High pitch has been proven to bring out acidity and low pitch bitternessby Barry Smith / October 15, 2015 / Leave a comment
Professional wine tasters like to carry out their task in silence. This isn’t unnecessary fussiness; they know that extraneous noise can prevent them from picking up on the subtle features of a wine and, as the French oenologist Émile Peynaud wrote, that “quiet has always been considered necessary for a taster’s concentration.” Peynaud believed this was because “the sense of hearing can interfere with other senses during tasting,” and research has proved him right. Scientific studies reveal that white noise in the ears at the level 85 decibels—the noise you’ll hear in a commercial aircraft cabin in flight—can suppress our ability to perceive tastes like sweetness and saltiness. You can just imagine the negative impact of noisy restaurants.
While it’s clear that noise can have a detrimental effect on wine tasting, can it also sometimes enhance it? This is something Charles Spence, a psychologist at Oxford University, and his colleagues have been exploring. By finding that people regularly associate certain pitches of sounds with certain tastes—for example high-pitched sounds on a violin with sourness—it is possible to see what happens when people sip a wine before and after hearing these sounds. Spence and I have conducted a number of public tastings events where we have tested this on unsuspecting drinkers and the results have been remarkably consistent.
It turns out that when tasters sip a Sauvignon Blanc and assess it for fruit and acidity, their perception is markedly changed in the direction of sourness when they re-taste it while listening to the sound of a high pitched violin. The same shift, this time in the direction of bitterness, can be induced in their assessment of a Cabernet Sauvignon with the addition of low bass notes. All of which raises the tempting question of whether there are some pieces of music that could be just right for a particular wine, and of course several experiments have been conducted to explore precisely that hypothesis. In a 2013 study, Spence and Deroy found that a taster’s appreciation of a wine was significantly enhanced while listening to a matching piece of music compared to silence. The pieces of music for each wine were arrived at on the basis of a preliminary matching study where participants had to rate how well each of four wines matched eight pieces of classical music. You’ll be pleased to learn that a good match for 2004 Chateau Margaux is Tchaikovsky’s String Quartet No. 1 in D major (movement two, Andante cantabile).
So what is going on here? Some principles are easy to discern like the high pitch bringing out the acidity and low pitch the bitterness. Wines may have these features; they are not being added by the sounds like digital seasoning. Directing attention to such features auditorily makes us notice them, and by noticing different levels in the music the palate may seek out different layers in the wine. This is an important clue: matching may be more about the brain’s active attempt to put pieces of information together. After all, this is the brain’s job.
So where will all this knowledge lead? Spence thinks that we will soon have codes on the labels that we can scan to reveal the most appropriate musical choice to enhance the drinking experience. Though it’s worth bearing in mind that just as we have wine and music matchings we also have mismatchings, which will interfere with your perception and appreciation of the liquid. So the next time you order a special bottle in a restaurant you may be at the mercy of whatever the waiting staff choose to play from their iPad, and it may not work at all. The lesson may be if you don’t like the wine, change the music. Barry Smith is Director of the Institute of Philosophy at the Institute of Advanced Studies, University of London