Merlot’s Muse: How Music Influences the Taste of Wine

by Dwight Furrow

Wine-and-musicWhen I first encountered the claim that our perception of wine was influenced by the music we listen to while imbibing, I was skeptical. It would seem to have all the hallmarks of a magic trick–barriers to accurate perception due to the vagueness of wines' properties and subject to the power of suggestion. However, the considerable empirical evidence amassed to support the idea has made the thesis impossible to ignore, and I'm persuaded not only by the science but by my own experience that there is something to the idea, although discovering the explanation of how this works remains a challenge.

Winemaker and wine consultant Clark smith started the ball rolling in the mid-1990's testing the relationship between wine and music and carrying out seminars on the subject that continue today. More recently, experimental psychologist Charles Spence and his associates have performed reasonably rigorous empirical tests of the idea (summaries here, here, and here), and there now seems little doubt that there is something going on beyond mere personal association.

The earliest experiments in psychology were testing cross-modal correspondences—the associations we make between features of one sense modality, taste, and the apparently unrelated features of another sense modality, sound. In simple, matching tests, where subjects are encouraged to choose which of two wines, a white and a red, best matches music chosen specifically to "go with" each wine, there has been, consistently over many tests, statistically significant agreement about the best matches. In some cases the agreement was up to 90% of the test subjects. Such evidence, of course, does not tell us what the basis of the matching is. Is there some perceptual similarity between the wines and the music or is the music perceived to be complementing the wine independently of any similarity just as olive oil goes with tomatoes?

There is now a large body of research showing that sweetness and fruit aromas are matched with musical sounds that are high in pitch, notes that are connected smoothly together (legato), as well as consonant harmonies, and instruments such as piano and woodwinds. Sourness tends to match very high-pitched sounds, fast tempos and dissonant harmonies. Aromas of musk, wood, chocolate, and smoke along with bitter tastes match brassy or low pitched sounds. Loud music also seems to be associated with taste intensity.

What explains these perceptual correspondences between sounds and tastes?

Perhaps there is some unknown factor in our environment that explains the correspondence; perhaps we just happen to use similar language in describing wine and music—we use the word "sweet" to describe both. But neither hypothesis seems powerful enough to explain the correspondences. Perhaps the brain happens to code sensory data from both taste and sound in a similar fashion. We will have to wait for further neurophysiological research to test that hypothesis.

More intriguingly there is evidence that these cross modal correspondences are mediated by affective states. The claim is that there are similar feelings associated with both music and wine that mediate the associations mentioned above. As Spence points out, "a number of studies have already highlighted the role of emotion in mediating crossmodal correspondences between colour and music, colour and aroma, shape and taste, and also between basic taste and sound. Therefore, why not think that emotion also mediates the mapping between music and wine." Or perhaps there are similarities between music and wine that account for the results of the data. One could imagine the weight and viscosity of wine, the aggressiveness and grain of the tannins, the prominence of acidity, and the length of the finish might also correspond to the texture, development and amplitude of the music, although these have received less treatment in this research thus far. (I discuss this in more detail below)

As interesting as these correspondences are, more recent research is showing an even tighter relationship between wine and music. The fact that we tend to experience a match between wine and music does not entail anything about the significance or quality of that experience. However, further research is showing that what we taste and how much we enjoy it are also influenced by what we hear. It has been widely reported that the enjoyment we get from wine is influenced by contextual features of our environment—the price of the wine, the company we keep, the charm or squalor of our surroundings, etc. It would, therefore, not be surprising that music influenced the general level of enjoyment we get from a wine. But, in addition to these general effects, the research is showing that the right music can influence specific aspects of the tasting experience including the perception of sweetness, the level of fruit or other flavor notes, perceived acidity, and level of astingency. In other words, in addition to cross-modal correspondences between taste and sound, there appears to be cross-modal influence. The right music can bring out specific qualities in a wine.

In one study, by British music psychologist Adrian North (discussed by Spence), university students were offered a glass of wine, either a white wine (Chardonnay) or a red wine (Cabernet Sauvignon), and were asked to rate their wines along four dimensions—powerful and heavy, subtle and refined, zingy and refreshing, and mellow and soft. They were then asked to taste their wines while listening to four pieces of music chosen because each exhibited one of these dimensions. Both wines scored significantly higher on the powerful/heavy metric by those who listened to the powerful/heavy music (Orff's Carmina Burana) and the same effect was found with the other dimensions tested. The music had the same effect on both red and white wines and was independent of whether the subjects liked the wine or not.

Other experiments (Spence, et al) suggest that consumers rate wines as tasting better when listening to music that matches the wine, and that a Rachmaninoff piece enhanced the perception of fruit more so than a piece by Debussy (Mean=59.1 vs 51.5) while the Debussy piece seemed to bring out perceived acidity ( Mean=65.3 vs 45.9). Music's effect on other features of wine such as the astringency of tannins and the influence of tempo on the perceived persistence and length of wine have also received some support in the increasingly vast literature on this topic.

Clark Smith summarizes conclusions from his own research:

What goes with what? You can make pretty good guesses about what will work by learning to be as sensitive to the mood of a wine as to the mood of a piece. Anybody can tell happy music from sad from angry from romantic from lustful. Wines are the same. Cabernets are angry, Pinots romantic, Rieslings cheerful. After that, it's trial and error. Pay particular attention to astringency: the smoothness or harshness a wine displays when tasted in a specific musical environment. You don't need more than a few seconds to sense the effect.

Despite this research there are several questions left unanswered. There are some methodological worries, especially about the possibility of response bias. Are subjects responding to the wine/music matching because they are influenced by the experimenter's expectations? It is unlikely given that the subjects, many initially skeptical, seem genuinely surprised by the results. (Spence discusses these worries here.) But obviously more research testing for this possibility would be helpful.

The big question concerns how these effects happen. What are the causal mechanisms? There is much speculation and several plausible hypotheses but no empirical confirmation. Spence speculates that people find wine more pleasant when the wine/music match is a good one because the match enhances "processing fluency". When music and wine are congruent it's easier to evaluate sensory properties; they become more accessible and the whole experience is perceived as more pleasant.

With regard to how music influences specific properties of the wine, Spence rightly rejects the idea that these phenomena are a form of synaethesia. Subjects are not experiencing the wine as musical but are experiencing the effects of music on their perception of the wine as wine. There are several other hypotheses discussed in the literature, three of which strike me as plausible.

  1. Attentional focus—music may direct our attention to specific properties of the wine thus making those properties of the wine stand out. Since wine is complex and its properties often vague and difficult to discern, music might direct our attention to these vague properties giving them more salience. Certain kinds of music might make us pay more attention to tannins, acidity or fruit. However, it is not known whether music playing in the background would have such effects.

  2. Emotional mediation—we know that listening to music affects our moods and feeling states. It's plausible that such moods influence our perceptions. Spence cites several studies that demonstrate the effect of moods on our sensitivity to olfactory stimulation and taste sensitivities.

  3. Conceptual matching—it may be that particular musical pieces and particular wines may share some common descriptor or metaphorical attribute and the music primes us to perceive that attribute in the wine. Adrian North, one of the experimenters contributing to this literature, endorses this view mentioning especially emotional attributes and connotations such as mellow or heavy.

Of course, these hypotheses are not mutually exclusive and it may be that all three are operating in this relationship between music and wine.

Given that the evidence for this relationship seems secure, what does it mean for our wine tasting practices? For me, wine/music pairing provides a more refined tool for describing a wine. When writing reviews on Edible Arts, I begin by describing the wine as objectively as possible using commonly accepted tasting procedures and wine descriptors as taught by the various wine certification agencies, and under conditions that minimize distractions or environmental influence. But after settling on the basic account of the wine, the music/wine pairing becomes a crucial part of the review. This is because, beyond the aroma descriptors and judgments about intensity, complexity, texture and style, each wine has a temporal development as it evolves on the palate with moments of tension and release, a manner and pace of deploying its energy that plays a crucial role in whether we enjoy a wine or not. But this is precisely how music develops as well with moments of tension and release, amplifications and moments of quiet, and a tempo that establishes the feel of a piece of music. Poets may have the sensibility to describe such things in words. I am no poet. For me, it's much easier to find music with similar resonances to help describe what I'm tasting.

The aforementioned Adrian North, with support from Clark Smith, speculates that wine and music often share metaphorical descriptions that allow us to conceptually fix our impression of a wine, metaphors that often have to do with emotions. As I discussed last month on 3QD, wines, like music, can be light-hearted, tense, or angry. Music makes the often faint emotional intimations of a wine more salient by focusing our attention on them. But even the more technical vocabulary of music theory provides a rich source of metaphor for describing a wine. The way music unfolds is in part dependent on its envelope—the attack, delay, and sustain of a sound. The structural aspects of wine, the impression of fruit, acidity, and tannin, also have attack, delay, and sustain characteristics. Musical concepts such as phrase length, melodic contour (degree of movement up or down), range, consonance and dissonance, number of voices (as in polyphony), and tone quality all have their analogues in the way a wine is structured and develops on the palate.

Consider tone quality for example. The following descriptors common to discussions of musical timbre also apply to wine: brassy, clear, focused or unfocussed, rounded, piercing, strident, harsh, warm, mellow, resonant, dark or bright, heavy or light, and flat just to name a few. Wine of course does not literally possess harmonic differentials that create the distinctive timbre of musical instruments, but music seems particularly amenable to providing metaphorical mappings between its technical vocabulary and wine.

When we step back from analytical tasting and take a broad, synthetic overview of the wine, only metaphor will provide the vocabulary to adequately characterize it. Matching wine and music is a matter of taking all of this complexity into account and finding a piece of music that seems to correspond to as much of it as possible. Of course it is important that this top-down conceptual priming does not disrupt the basic sensory experience of the wine; that is why, for me, the analytical tasting comes first to establish a basic evaluation before turning to the description. In other words, I don't allow the musical correspondence by itself to influence my assessment of the wine, only the full appreciation of it.

Thus, for my purposes both cross-modal correspondence and cross-modal influence are important. All three explanations of the phenomena are at work in creating a match between wine and music. And perceptual similarity seems to play a crucial role in enabling the metaphorical mapping.

What is the purpose of wine/music pairing? Despite the evidence for the correlations between wine and music, one might not care much about whether their tasting experience is enhanced by music. For some tasting purposes, surely enjoyment of the wine is sufficient. But it's important to realize that the wrong music can have detrimental effects on your tasting experience. Play a light-hearted, silly song in the background with your expensive Napa Cab and the experience could be ruined. Given the price of Napa Cabernet that seems like something one would care about. But by the same token, that bottom-shelf bottle of plonk that most of us have to buy to feed our wine habit might taste quite a bit better when enhanced by the right music.

Beyond the enhanced descriptive vocabulary that music lends to wine, the reason to be concerned with wine and music matching is aesthetic. Our experience of a wine is richer when music is allowed to bring out dimensions of the wine that are inconspicuous and less palpable, especially the emotional resonance that wines express. In aesthetics, richness of experience needs no further justification.

For more on the aesthetics of food and wine visit Edible Arts or consult American Foodie: Taste, Art, and the Cultural Revolution