Wine and Music Pairing: A Next-Level Aesthetic Experience

by Dwight Furrow

The evidence that pairing music with wine can enhance one’s tasting experience continues to mount since I last visited this topic in 2017. A research team headed by Q.J. Wang showed that, in a winery tasting room, wines tasted with a soundtrack chosen to enhance oak-derived flavors were rated as significantly fruitier and smoother than the same wines tasted in silence. Master of Wine, Susan Lin wrote her thesis on the effects of music on the taste and mouthfeel of Brut Non-Vintage Champagne. And Jo Burzynska’s published research includes a paper entitled “Tasting the Bass,” which investigates the effects of lower frequency sound on the perceived weight and body of a New Zealand Pinot Noir and a Spanish Garnacha. The study also measured the influence of pitch on aromatic intensity and the perception of acidity.

This recent research is on top of the earlier studies in which test subjects show statistically significant agreement about which wine goes best with music samples presented to them (cross-modal correspondence); and that the right music can influence specific aspects of the tasting experience, such as perception of sweetness, flavor notes, perceived acidity, and level of astringency (cross-modal influence).

For instance, in one study by British music psychologist Adrian North, subjects were offered a Cabernet Sauvignon or a Chardonnay. After rating the wines along four dimensions—powerful and heavy, subtle and refined, zingy and refreshing, and mellow and soft—they tasted the wines while listening to music chosen to highlight each dimension. Both wines were 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 similar effects on both red and white wines and was independent of whether the subjects liked the wine. There is now almost 30 years of research leading to the same conclusion. Music can enhance our appreciation of wine. This is not surprising given the evidence that all variety of environmental and contextual factors from weather to the sound of popping a cork influence the taste of a wine.

The debates about why wine and music pairing works are ongoing. Perhaps music directs our attention to specific properties of the wine. Perhaps music influences our mood making us more sensitive to olfactory and flavor stimulation. Perhaps specific musical pieces and particular wines share a common metaphorical attribute that the music primes us to perceive in the wine. Perhaps the congruence between a wine and a musical piece helps us more efficiently process the faint and complex sensory signals we get from a wine. My sense is that all of these factors are at work.

But I want to focus on why pairing wine and music is worth doing. We routinely pair wine with food, a practice that some people find fraught with worries about doing it right. Why add music pairing to the tasting experience? The importance of providing the right background music in restaurants and tasting rooms is clear. But why should individual consumers think about the music that accompanies their enjoyment of a wine?

Sonic Seasoning

One reason is obvious. If music can influence positively or negatively how we experience a wine, it is important to avoid music that will damage one’s tasting experience. The quickest route to disappointment in that elegant, well-aged Chateau Margaux 2000 that sells in the neighborhood of $1000 per bottle is to pair it with music from early Nine Inch Nails, even if you really like Nine Inch Nails. Pairing it with a sonata for piccolo would be even more damaging. The wrong music can make a wine taste thin, harsh, or clunky.

But there are positive reasons for pairing wine with music. The empirical research makes clear that music can influence how we perceive a wine’s balance—the relationship between fruit or sweetness, acidity, tannins, and alcohol. A Cabernet Sauvignon that is rough and astringent can appear more elegant and supple when paired with music that matches the wine’s intensity and power. A too-tart Sauvignon Blanc might acquire a hint of sweetness when paired with the right Prélude from Debussy. Most of us cannot afford to drink wines that are exquisitely harmonious except on special occasions. Most everyday wines are less than perfectly balanced and applying the “sonic seasoning” of an appropriately paired piece of music improves the experience. Music cannot add something to a wine that is not there—it won’t make a simple wine more complex or extend the finish of a fruity Beaujolais Nouveau. It won’t dramatically boost the aromatic intensity of a mute wine or turn sandpaper into silk. But it will shift the balance point of a wine toward better integration by shifting our attention to a wine’s strengths while suppressing its flaws.

But music and wine pairing is not limited to improving budget wines. Even wines that are well balanced benefit from congruent music that shares textural features and emotional resonance with the wine.

Harmony and Integration

In order to understand how music pairing can enhance quality wine, we need to make a distinction between balance and harmony. Although there are exceptions, most premium wines (priced above about $20) produced for immediate consumption are balanced. They have an appropriate relationship between the structural components of the wine, so nothing stands out as too much. This is not to say every individual will find every wine balanced. We all have our individual preferences and winemakers will have their own aesthetic aims they seek to achieve. But most premium wines today fall within an acceptable range, regarding their balance, given what is typical for the varietal, region, style, and vintage.

But a balanced wine is not necessarily a harmonious wine.

Many wines are balanced but don’t leave an impression of cohesive activity. The structural elements of the wine stay out of the way of each other and nothing stands out as “too much,” but there is little impression of interaction among the elements. By contrast some wines will seem alive because their components are interacting, accentuating each other but in a way that seems notably consonant. That is harmony. When the acidity is freshening the fruit and the fruit is softening the angularity of the acidity and the dryness of the tannins; and when the tannins provide a foundation that lengthens the taste experience, the wine evolving through many stages with no jarring sensations in the transitions, that is the beginning of harmony. But just the beginning.

Harmony is intimately related to complexity. When wines are simple there is not much there to harmonize. But when complexity is added to the picture the possibility of a unified story, a larger whole that the elements contribute to, emerges. Great wines have tension and paradox. They display nervous energy yet feel fluent and supple. They exhibit power and delicacy, profundity, and charm. Yet, despite the contrasts, it all feels well put together in a unified whole effortlessly achieved.

Pairing wine with the right music can make a balanced wine seem harmonious and make a harmonious wine really sing. The structure of the wine seems to have more activity and integration. The music helps draw the structural components together, so they seem like they are communicating with each other. Even excellent wines benefit from being paired with music.

Affective Engagement

We know that music is affectively absorbing. Our internal states resonate with music. Unlike vision’s sense of touching things out there, at a distance from one’s lived center, sonorous experience is of events that seem to happen within consciousness. Although we are aware that the sound might be coming from an object, we experience the sound as taking place within us because, in a sense, it is taking place inside us. And because sound is fleeting and always changing, the experience of sound requires a relationship of openness and empathy in order to follow it. Listening to music is a form of participation. If the music is pleasant it can generate a feeling of merging with the music rather than separation from it. Thus, it is common when listening to music to feel that one’s internal states are in some sort of sympathetic motion with the music. Calm music can make us feel calm. Energetic music makes us want to move, etc. These are often unconscious effects. Music seems to directly influence the motor cortex of the brain and the parts of our nervous system that regulate mood. Sometimes we may experience particular emotions or moods when listening to music but often it’s just a feeling of our internal affective states being attuned to the music, of being caught up in and participating in the music’s motion.

As I argued in more detail in Beauty and the Yeast, we can have similar experiences with wine although they are less accessible than with music. Wine does not affect the motor cortex in the way music does. But, nevertheless, we can gain a sense of intimacy with the evolution of a wine and the changes in its textural properties because, of course, the wine is literally inside us as well. Because wine shares with music this capacity to create a sense of intimacy, congruence between a wine and specific musical works enhance that sense of intimacy. This is not about making the wine better. The wine is perfectly fine on its own. It is about making our experience of it more vibrant, intimate, and less distant. The focus and quality of our attention to a wine is enhanced by music, and the more levels of correspondence there are between the wine and the music the more engrossing the experience is.

Enhanced Understanding of Wine

One by-product of this affective engagement and sense of integration is that music can help us better understand the structure of a wine. Pairing music with wine is not a mechanical process and subtle differences in wines can require different pairing strategies. I have never found a foolproof way of predicting what will work ahead of time and there is a good deal of trial and error in finding a good match. By trying out various possibilities for which piece of music is most congruent with a wine, we often discover something we hadn’t noticed about the wine’s structure. We learn which structural element of the wine is in danger of being out of balance and discover hidden dimensions of a wine that the right piece of music can make more available. Complex wines have more going on in them than we can take in with one sniff or taste and will show different dimensions over the course of an evening or with the right food. Adding music to the mix increases the factors that can expose these various dimensions.

A More Holistic Experience

Finally, in traditional aesthetics we tend to focus on a single sensory object as the locus of aesthetic attention. But the confluence of many sensory objects that create an atmosphere also has aesthetic properties. Adding the appropriate music to a gathering where people are interacting, enjoying food and wine, situated at a time of day, within a seasonal weather pattern, in an appealing visual context, all of which have meaning for the assembled creates a multisensory, holistic experience that ought to receive more attention as an aesthetic object. The wine and the music together are an integral part of that experience.

Wine and music have parallels and similarities that make them natural partners in creating aesthetic experiences. Next month I will explain how to begin pairing wine with music.

For more on the aesthetics of wine, visit Edible Arts or consult Beauty and the Yeast: A Philosophy of Wine, Life, and Love.