How Sound Affects Taste—and How to Design Around It

New research is causing restaurant and bar owners to rethink noise control in their venues

Photo illustration by Jeff Quinn.

When Jim Meehan met with partners Matt Eisler and Kevin Heisner of Heisler Hospitality to plan their Chicago bar, Prairie School, which opened in September, he told them he wanted a place where he could hear. The mixologist was sick of the din that so often garnishes drinking culture. Though he wasn’t aiming for the enforced silence of a bar like Manhattan’s Burp Castle, where bartenders hush talkers, he wanted the ambient noise level to be comfortable.

“Music and conversation should create a veil of privacy around you and your group,” Meehan says, “but they should never overwhelm.” Prairie School draws its inspiration from Frank Lloyd Wright. Heisner, the designer, had to mimic the fabled architect’s aesthetics of stone, glass, and wood while avoiding the ricocheting of noise from those hard surfaces. He added carpets, curtains, and leather upholstery—soft elements that absorb sound. He also tapped Scott McNiece.

The founder of the Chicago-based company Uncanned Music, McNiece designs acoustics for restaurants. He brought state-of-the-art technology to Prairie School, covering the ceiling and walls in fiberglass panels clad in canvas. The fabric gave Heisner the look he wanted, while the panels soak up high-frequency white noise—the chatter and clatter of drinking and dining, as well as the cymbals and other reverberant tones in the music on the sound system.

The muted sound helps patrons relax and focus, not only on their companions but on Meehan’s cocktails. “If you don’t have to scream at each other,” says Meehan,  “you can actually talk about the drinks and have more head space to think about the drinks, because you’re not dealing with the anxiety of, ‘Oh my gosh, I didn’t hear. I have to stop everything to be able to keep up the conversation.’”

Heisner goes further. Noise, he says, dings not just moods but palates. “When you’re grumpy,” he says, “it becomes apparent that things don’t taste good,” he says. “When you’re in a really good environment and you feel good, things taste better.”

Science, it turns out, supports—and complicates—both men’s arguments. On the one hand, research has shown what the owners of the Hard Rock Cafe figured out long ago: Loud, fast music causes patrons to drink more quickly and therefore to drink more overall. But that’s just the beginning of the research insights. Professor Charles Spence, an experimental psychologist at Oxford University in Britain, specializes in the study of cross-modal correspondences—the way one of our senses affects another. The author of The Perfect Meal: The Multisensory Science of Food and Dining and the recently published Gastrophysics: The New Science of Eating, Spence cites his own studies and others that connect different types of sound to our behaviors and perceptions when we’re eating and drinking.

Noise might make us chugalug, Spence says, but researchers like Katherine S. Yan and Robin Dando of Cornell in New York have shown that it also distorts our sense of taste, suppressing perceptions of sweetness and saltiness and enhancing umami flavors. According to Spence, that’s why a good 27 percent of drinks ordered on airplanes are tomato juice: Given cabin noise and the roar of the engines, which can hit an eardrum-damaging 105 decibels, the umami-packed juice is one of the only things we can really taste.

Yan and Dando cite a possible reason for their findings. They note that the chorda tympani, a part of our nervous system that stimulates some taste buds, crosses the eardrum, which vibrates with sounds. It could be that certain taste buds are activated in the process. Additional research has indicated that sweet and umami taste buds have distinct patterns of stimulation.

Spence floats a psychological theory to account for both the guzzling and the accentuation of umami in response to a racket: Each might be a stress response. The drinking helps distract us from environmental stress, while the heightened umami gives us a hankering for the proteins that can help us survive. “Loud noise can arouse you to something potentially dangerous,” Spence says, “and maybe you’re drawn more toward the energy-dense foods that will help you escape [the situation].” So the brain might just be at work atavistically in a loud sports bar as patrons pound beers and put away burgers. After all, studies have shown that even animals stress-eat in response to higher volumes.

Researchers at the U.K.’s University of Portsmouth found further that a combination of background chatter and loud music both diminished people’s ability to discern alcohol levels in drinks and made them grouchy. The crankiness, says Spence, can indeed put a dent in our relationship to taste. “Noise and music can be pleasant or unpleasant and can affect our mood,” he says, “so loud noise is irritating, and leads to a bad mood, and the [mood] change can [negatively] affect the taste of food. Uplifting music puts us in a good mood and might do the opposite for taste.” That musical preference is subjective makes the effects of irritating tunes versus pleasing ones no less relevant to our taste buds.

Testy, hard-drinking patrons who can’t fathom the nuances of flavor in his cocktails? That’s not the type of crowd that Jim Meehan seeks to cultivate. But as Meehan points out, noise control doesn’t equal silence; it enhances ambience. Once the acoustic paneling was in place in Prairie School, McNiece was able to program a broader selection of music for the bar. “If they hadn’t wanted all that acoustic material, it would have been a different playlist,” he says. “If the space is really reverberant, you don’t want too much cymbal and hiss because it creates an insane wash of noise. But the softer space is more receptive to percussive sounds and high washes.”

Someone like Jo Burzynska could use that broader palette of pitches and timbres in fascinating ways. Burzynska, a sound artist and wine writer based in New Zealand, is conducting doctoral research in the interactions of sound, taste, and texture at the University of New South Wales in Sydney, Australia. Her studies are an extension of a project she conducted at the Auricle Sonic Arts Gallery in Christchurch, New Zealand. There, Burzynska launched the Wine and Sound Bar, an exercise in what she calls oenosthesia, a term she devised by combining “oenology” with “synaesthesia”—the production of one sense impression, such as a taste, through stimulation of a different sense, like hearing.

Burzynska matched wines with the sound-based installations in the gallery, pairing high-acidity wines with high-pitched music, lighter wines with faster tempos, and full-bodied reds with lower-pitched sounds. She was playing off research by Charles Spence that showed that higher pitches enhance sweet tastes and lower pitches bring on bitterness, while other types of music accentuate perceptions of creamy, spicy, and sour flavors. Now Burzynska is taking the anecdotal evidence she gathered at the bar and applying it in controlled studies to demonstrate that the perception of the weight of a wine increases with lower pitches, and that wines’ astringent and tannic mouthfeel is accentuated by music with a harsher timbre.

Given her work, it’s easy to imagine the possibilities of dedicated playlists to enhance wine tastings. In fact, with Spence’s help, British Airways launched a mealtime playlist for what the psychologist calls sonic seasoning, or musical enhancement of certain tastes. One of Spence’s studies showed that music could augment sweet and salty tastes by 10 percent. Amid the din of an airplane, or in a crowded bar, that could mean a noticeable boost in flavor.

And it’s a lesson for beverage professionals who care about their customers’ experiences. Says Burzynska about sipping wine at restaurants where noise levels have not been controlled, “I feel my whole experience of the flavor becoming muted, and I get a sketch of what the wine is like. You’re not tasting as much as you should. Because some of these elements might be suppressed, you’re not getting a true impression of the wine.”

That’s exactly why Master Sommelier Pascaline Lepeltier cranks up the stereo when she’s preparing for blind-tasting competitions. “I taste with super-loud music on just to see if I can concentrate,” she says, “because it’s way tougher. Also, when there are very high pitched notes, it’s way more difficult to concentrate on the nuances of wine, so I use it as a training process to get better at picking out the stuff. I’m not sure it’s scientific, but I know it’s had an impact on my blind tasting.”

In fact, as Spence and Burzynska have shown, it is indeed scientific. And if a finely tuned palate like Lepeltier’s can be distracted, imagine how much the average drinker’s experience is diminished by blaring music and the sheen of white noise. No wonder owners like Meehan are thinking hard about the sonics. Though cheaper tools, like foam fixed to the undersides of tables, help reduce noise, the most effective strategy is to cover the first, and largest, point of contact for sound. That means wall and ceiling panels made of foam, fiberglass, or organic polyboard.

With labor and custom work, Class A fire-rated fabric included, Michael Binns of Acoustical Solutions in Richmond, Virginia, estimates the cost of a sound-muffling overhaul at anywhere from $10 to $25 per square foot. But that’s nothing, he says, compared with business lost when patrons fail to return because of noise. That’s when his company gets called for triage. By then, “designers are typically gone,” Binns says, “and it’s up to the restaurant manager or owner to figure out which way they want to go,” while Binns’s team must fit acoustic materials around lighting, sprinklers, and other equipment that’s already up and running.

McNiece concurs, saying, “Adding is always a lot more difficult.” So noise reduction should be dealt with, he says, “while an establishment is under construction, or before it’s even started, when they’re still picking out materials and I can talk to the designer as they’re making decisions.”

That’s a sound financial move, so to speak. Meehan was convinced when Ben Dougherty of Seattle’s Zig Zag Café told him that food sales went up 20 percent after he installed acoustic paneling. “These treatments are expensive,” says Meehan, “but they drive the bottom line. They’re not something to be considered an amenity.”

Nowadays, such noise control is not just for high-end restaurants and fancy cocktail dens. The Dallas architect Rick Carrell, whose firm has designed spaces for chains as big as Starbucks and Panera Bread, including outposts in airports and food courts, says, “Clients are very concerned with noise now. They don’t see it as a motivator like they did 10 years ago.” Whereas establishments previously “squeezed noise areas into the plan on purpose,” now they plan for its control, building rooms off square so that sound doesn’t ricochet between parallel walls; moving loud equipment behind barriers in open kitchens; designing bar areas like church naves, with higher ceilings that capture bar sounds so dining areas stay quieter; making banquettes with higher backs to cushion sounds; and tucking soft seating areas into café corners for quiet. They’re also working with sound engineers to fine-tune sound.

Heisler Hospitality runs a range of venues, from the suave Prairie School to Revel Room, a raucous tavern with a crowded dance floor that also has acoustic material built in. “It’s not just for quiet but quality,” says Heisner. “You can keep noise higher, but you get a cleaner sound”—the kind that patrons can enjoy but still chat over. As drinking culture goes, that need is “timeless and has nothing to do with trends,” says McNiece. “Everyone wants to be able to talk to the people next to them.”


Sign up for our award-winning newsletter

Don’t miss the latest drinks industry news and insights—delivered to your inbox every week.

Betsy Andrews is an award-winning journalist and poet. Her latest book is Crowded. Her writing can be found at betsyandrews.contently.com.

Most Recent