We're all familiar with drinking songs. From rugby songs to Italian opera, nothing gives us a greater urge to burst into song than wine, whisky and beer. Whether it's a 12th century taverna or a 21st century 'Spoons, there's bound to be a hearty singalong before closing time on a Saturday night. New research now indicates, however, that music and drinking has a much more complex relationship than previously thought.
Award-winning drinks writer Pete Brown has been demonstrating how sound influences flavour with his beer and music pairing events. He picks a variety of different brews and lets the audience test them out (all in the name of science, of course) whilst listening to different genres of music. His aim is to prove how our senses overlap with each other and how what you're listening to can affect your perception of what you're eating and drinking. "Some of the beers are secret - I mask them because I don't want people to be influenced by prior knowledge of the beer. Just to give you an example, I'm using things like Duvel, the hoppy Belgian beer, which just goes incredibly well with the song Debaser by alternative rock group The Pixies. They just fit together, they're like two sides of the same coin. I don't know exactly why but it just works".
What started out as a bit of fun a few years ago has now turned into something firmly grounded in science "I was just matching records I liked with beers I liked and trying to justify it. But since then I've learned a lot of neuroscience that actually backs it up. I've learned by looking at the results of a lot of recent experiments and have adapted them. I'm still playing tunes that I like and drinking beers that I like, but I'm putting them together based on scientific principles now, rather than making it up".
The aforementioned experiments are the work of Oxford University's Experimental Psychology department where Professor Charles Spence is carrying out pioneering research in crossmodal perception i.e how the senses match up. Advances in brain imaging technology have been able to show scientists precisely which parts of the brain are activated by different stimuli. This is particularly interesting with food and drink since we often consider taste, smell and texture to be of primary importance, relegating sound to merely a tool for creating the required ambience. However, Professor Spence is making us rethink the accepted definitions of flavour by showing that sound does indeed play an integral role, and not just for synesthetes. For example, he has proved how listening to different audio frequencies alters how we rate the sweetness of food and has worked with Heston Blumenthal on his 'Sounds of the Sea' dish at The Fat Duck.
But how does this actually work? Do you just set your ipodic device to shuffle and stop when the beer tastes best? "Different styles of music and sounds match or map onto the basic tastes of sweet, sour, bitter, and salty. You can play four bits of music and say there's one for each basic taste and most people will agree which ones match up, but without really knowing why. So from that, I take a particular style of beer and say that this will go better with a certain style of music because this one's more bitter or acidic or this one's sour, so this is music that goes with those flavours. It's a kind of neurogastronomy".
So there's is a logic to the pairings which involves matching rhythm and pitch with corresponding tastes. But it doesn't stop there, Pete talks about cognitive priming which is the idea that your whole environment and other stimuli affect your experience "When I'm in a brewery tasting something, I can distinguish every nuance in the beer. If I then take that bottle of beer home, even if I really concentrate, I can't get the same flavours because you're not in the same room, drinking from the right glassware, talking to the brewer".
Even if you're not totally convinced by the results of Pete or Professor Spence's experiments with sound and taste, there's still an advantage to be had by approaching beer or indeed any kind of food and drink tasting with music, as Pete explains "Even when people sit there with a confused expression on their face and say they're not getting it, they really enjoy themselves because whether it's working for you or not, it's making you think more deeply about pleasure and about taste and about enjoyment. It makes you more mindful about how your senses are working". Curious beer enthusiasts and budding neuroscientists alike can catch Pete's experimental beer and music workshop this weekend at the Stoke Newington Literary Festival.