Music plays a huge role in many of our lives. The right song often has the power to change our mood almost instantaneously by arousing particular memories and emotions. So what should be playing in the winery tasting room? Emilie Reynolds reports.
EVERYONE HAS THAT ONE SONG which evokes such strong feelings of nostalgia it can almost transport your mind to a different moment. When people hear music it represents more than just the action of sound waves upon the ear drum. Rather, when this information reaches the cortex, the brain interprets these sounds.
Hearing a particular piece of music can activate, or prime, related pieces of information. For example, when we hear ‘I still call Australia home’, it primes thoughts and memories relating to Australian culture, landmarks, travel, Qantas, even a sense of belonging and pride.
In the wine world, producers have been so focused on creating a memorable taste that they often forget wine has the unique power to be an all-encompassing sensory experience. Wine marketers often press the importance of evoking emotions in consumers by storytelling. Tugging at heart strings and putting a face to the brand have been significant selling tools for wine producers but what if there was another way to prompt an emotion response from consumers? A free, relatively easy way to ensure cellar door tastings left a lasting impression on potential customers?A few years ago, Professor Adrian North published a study in the British Journal of Psychology which proved that mood could have a significant effect on a person’s sense of taste. North, a specialist in music psychology, found that a certain moods evoked by music could drastically change a wine drinker’s perception of what they were tasting. A huge development for winery cellar doors, the findings meant that producers and managers would essentially be able to guide novice wine drinkers into experiencing particular tastes by curating a playlist accordingly. It’s a pretty powerful selling tool, but one which has rarely been employed by wineries.
Could the thoughts primed by music influence what people actually perceive via another of the senses, in this case taste? Specifically could music influence the taste of wine?
That was the question Adrian North set out to answer in his 2011 study entitled The Effect of Background Music on the Taste of Wine.
He gave taste tests of two wines to 250 students (half men, half women) while playing music in the background.
They were given either Alpha 2005 Cabernet Sauvignon or Chilean Chardonnay and played one of four songs on loop for 15 minutes. The songs were picked for their contrasting musical characteristics.
Carmina Burana by Off was considered to be a ‘powerful and heavy’ song, Waltz of the Flowers from Tchaikovsky’s Nutcracker was said to be ’subtle and refined’, Just Can’t Get Enough by Nouvelle Vague was ‘zingy and refreshing’ and Slow Breakdown by Michael Brook was described as ‘mellow and soft’.
A fifth group drank the wine to no music.
After five minutes the volunteers were asked to rank how they felt the wine tasted. Their options matched the musical descriptions: powerful and heavy, subtle and refined, mellow and soft, zingy and refreshing.
The results showed the music the volunteers listened to consistently affected how they perceived each wine to taste.
For example both red and white wines were given the highest ratings for being powerful and heavy by those participants who drank them to the tune of Carmina Burana. Those who listened to Michael Brook tended to rate their wine as tasting mellow and soft and the same findings occurred with the other two songs.
In his conclusion to the study, North said music shifted the perception of the wine in the direction of the mood expressed by the song by an average of 37.25 per cent, with white wine accounting for a 32.25 per cent shift, while red wine was considerably stronger at 42.45 per cent.
North said he wasn’t entirely sure why the effect of music was stronger on red wine than white, but hypothesised it had something to do with the public’s perception of red wine.
“Priming effects of music are more common when people are asked to judge something that they know little about or find difficult to judge,” North said. “Perhaps the effect of music was stronger for red wine because, judging by sales alone, the public are more familiar with white wine than red: this would mean they were more uncertain when judging red wine and would therefore be more prone to influence by music.
“Alternately, many oenologists argue that red wine has a greater complexity of flavour than white, and this greater complexity would again provide greater uncertainty in the mind of consumers and more scope for bias through music.”
PUTTING THE THEORY TO THE TEST
North’s idea that music could influence the taste of wine wasn’t new, but his research has provided some concrete proof of the theory.
Wine critic and sound artist Jo Burzynska put some of these theories into practice when she created a multisensory wine and sound installation to highlight the connection between two senses.
Burzynska said North’s study was an extension of an idea proposed by winemaker and wine technologist Clark Smith, who pursued extensive personal experiments on the subject.
“Smith says we associate different wine types with different moods, just as we do with music,” Burzynska said. “Cabernets are angry, Pinots romantic, Rieslings cheerful. To find the perfect pairing, you need to be as sensitive to the mood of a wine as to that of the music.”
Burzynska said she became involved in the work after becoming increasingly aware of the impact sound was having on her own perceptions of taste.
“While I initially thought these interactions might be specific to myself or those with a similarly strong connections with hearing and taste, my own informal experiments on others, reinforced by the rigorous research being carried out by the likes of psychologist and head of the Crossmodal Research Laboratory in the Department of Experimental Psychology at Oxford University, Professor Charles Spence, confirmed that this is a universal phenomenon.”
According to Burzynska, Spence was at the forefront of current research into the resonances between sound and taste.
“Spence has worked with the likes of celebrity chef Heston Blumenthal, with research leading to the development of audio-gustatory delights such as ‘The Sound of the Sea’ where the diner’s enjoyment of this seafood dish is heightened by the accompaniment of crashing waves from an iPod,” Burzynska explained. “I was particularly interested to learn that Spence’s studies had also linked sweet and sour tastes to high pitch tones and bitter ones to lower sounds.
“It seems our senses are not as separate as was once surmised. It used to be thought that only those with the rare condition of synaesthesia – in which the senses become crossed – combined different sensory cues, but this research suggests that when we start sipping to we’re all synaesthetes to some extent.
“This building body of research, as well as evidence from my own trials, gave me confidence that there’s plenty of common ground within people’s perceptions that’s ripe for exploring through dishes like Blumenthal’s or musical works.”
Burzynska began working on a project called Oenosthesia, which she described as a soundscape experience created from recordings of winemaking in Italy’s Campania region together with its local wines.
The resulting soundtrack was not only specially designed to accompany a sequence of wines, but was also made from field-recordings from the vineyards and wineries in which the grapes were originally grown and fermented, in Italy.
“I began to incorporate taste into my own art, creating multisensory sound and taste installations,” Burzynska said. “When I was involved in starting up The Auricle Sonic Art Gallery and we decided there would be a bar, it made sense that this was part of the overall art project and served wines matched to the sounds in the space. It became the world’s first ‘oenosthetic’ sound and wine bar.”
Based in Christchurch, The Auricle Sonic Art Gallery has been home to Oenosthesia for three years.
“Every month when the Auricle has a new exhibition, I firstly select a wine which I think works well with the exhibition itself, taking into account things like the pitch, timbre and tempo of the sound work, which correspond to characters within the wine,” Burzynska said. “For example higher frequencies work with higher acidity. I then curate a wine list selecting more wines that share similar taste and sound mappings, which work with the bar’s playlist that takes its cues from the current exhibition.”
Burzynska said wine could be matched with music across a wide range of genres which meant the music on her playlists were really varied.
“It’s more about matching the sound components and mood of the wine,” she said. “For example, our last exhibition was Phil Dadson’s Fate of Things to Come, a high to mid frequency work made from the sound and rhythms of stones that inspired a minerally high acid wine list.
“The bar playlist for this was music in a similarly higher pitched range and faster tempo to echo the faster flow of these wines across the palate. The tracks ranged from retro pop like Stereolab to orchestral pieces by Arvo Part!”
THE BEST TASTING MUSIC
North’s study proved that background music influences the taste of wine. The specific taste of the wine was effected in a manner consistent with the mood evoked by the music.
Burzynska said given the powerful ways that music could change perceptions of taste she preferred to conduct her own professional wine tastings in silence, but believed there was definitely a place for music in other circumstances.
“I’m very glad that I instinctively followed this approach,” she said. “Just as I wouldn’t want to taste in an environment with competing smells, I personally think sounds should be minimised if you’re looking to create a neutral environment in which to make objective assessments.”
She said social wine drinking should be accompanied by music, especially in a casual tasting environment, like at a cellar door.
“When it comes to enjoying wine socially, there’s nothing like a well-matched piece of music to enhance the appreciation of what we’re drinking!”
A few people across Australia have jumped on the bandwagon, promoting music and wine as a powerful combination.
Australian touring act Fidel & Sarah Anne have pitched themselves as a connecting thread between consumers and the wine they taste. The band read about North’s study and decided to take the popularity of live bands in wineries to a new level.
“We took North’s findings a step further and started offering an enhanced ‘music & wine’ experience completely tailored to each winery we play at,” Fidel & Sarah Anne explained. “We work by highlighting the unique properties that make each wine stand out by carefully selecting songs with musical characteristics which enhance each varietal.”
Fidel & Sarah Anne said they based their song selection on tasting notes, recommendations from published papers on wine and music pairing as well as their own musical expertise.
Many wineries across Australia and New Zealand do spend time thinking about the playlists in the tasting room, but they mainly focus on producing a ‘vibe’ for the surroundings.
Mario Dussurget, Cloudy Bay Vineyards cellar door supervisor, said when selecting music for the cellar door his main focus was ambiance.
“We are always playing music in the cellar door and have several playlists,” he said. “It’s mainly jazz and soul genres that we update recent releases all the time.”
“We try to create a warm atmosphere, but the music needs to be a bit discrete.”
Burzynska said she’s helped wine producers in the past by advising how best to curate the perfect playlist for their tastings.
“After experiencing for themselves how sounds in the environment can change the perception of what’s being tasted, some wine producers who have taken part in my workshop have completely changed the music they play at their cellar door,” she said. “It’s something anyone in control of an environment definitely needs to consider, or they may be in danger of detracting from the wines being tasted rather than enhancing their appreciation.”
This article was first published in the February 2016 edition of the Grapegrower & Winemaker magazine.
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