How music affects the way you perceive the wine you love

It’s no secret – there are many variables at play when we drink wine that has a direct effect on how we enjoy it.

As a sommelier, I have had diners express to me their absolute and undying love for a particular wine, only to be disappointed in the same bottle on a return visit. While I could never pinpoint exactly what made the wine different for them (and it was clearly them, as the wine had not changed a bit), but at the time, I suspected it could have had to do with one of several variables:

  1. The food they were enjoying at the time
  2. The company they were keeping and the mood they were in at the time
  3. What they had had to drink or eat prior to the wine

At the time, I didn’t even consider that it could have been the background music, but in retrospect, it could well have been a factor.

Tasting with all five senses

The pleasure of enjoying a lovely wine while listening to your favourite music doesn’t have to be explained to be understood. We do it simply because we enjoy it, and there doesn’t need to be a lot of debate about the thought process behind the selections in either case.

It could be said, also, that if you were enjoying a lovely glass of wine, say a silky Sonoma pinot noir, and your partner decided it would be a good idea to listen to Ministry at full volume, that might well change the mood, and hence your perception of the wine. (Ministry, after all, surely goes much better with Hermitage).

Music and wine are both very sensory experiences. Though we do not consume music in the same way we consume wine, our enjoyment of either can be enhanced or robbed of complete satisfaction through the subtle manipulation of our senses.

But what would these changes actually be? Fortunately, there’s been some research on the subject.

The science behind music and wine

In 2008, a professor Adrian North of Heriot-Watt University in Edinburgh conducted a study to put a precise measure on how what we listen to affects the way we perceive wine.

The study was conducted under the umbrella of the department of applied psychology and was largely based on the cognitive priming theory, which refers to the idea that the introduction of some type of media (in this case, music) affects the way our brains process information and therefore the way we behave or react. It is a similar principle upon which advertising is based, and also has applications in the various spin and propaganda tactics our governments use to manipulate public opinion – heady stuff.

Dr. North teamed up with Montes Winery in Chile to discover just how different styles of music might affect the way a group of wine tasters perceived a group of very specific wines.

He broke the tasters into five groups and had each one taste through a flight of wines while listening to a piece of music that he chose especially for its characteristics. They were asked to rate specific characteristics on a scale of 1-10. These characteristics were:

  1. Powerful and heavy
  2. Subtle and nuanced
  3. Light and fresh
  4. soft and mellow

The fifth group listened to no music at all.

As for the results, each of the groups tended to pull characteristics from the wines tasted that were similar to the music, regardless of whether the wine was red or white. The “no music” group, not surprisingly, had a completely different set of observations entirely.

Music as a virtual decanter?

According to Dr. Tim McClintock, a professor in the physiology department at the University of Kentucky, taste is a product of the brain as much as any of the other senses.

Sound, as much as smell and flavour, has a profound effect on how we enjoy our food, so it follows that it should be the same for wine.

Several studies, in fact, point to the ability of music to change our perception of flavour. Some even found that the addition of music made the wine being tasted more pleasurable.

One such study found that the volume of music could change the way we perceive sweet, salty, and umami flavours. Conducted aboard a commercial aircraft, the findings were such that the perception of sweetness and saltiness were much reduced when consumed on a plane, accompanied by the 85dB noise we normally experience while in flight. While sugar and salt were diminished, umami was enhanced in this environment, a fun fact that was then leveraged by British Airways, one hopes in favour of better in-flight food.

Other research shows that this principle holds true for both food and wine, indicating that both the music itself and the ambient volume of it can mask certain flavours and sensations, even as much as it can enhance others.

So, perhaps there is yet a market for very specific music to be composed in order to balance a wine’s characteristics, to enhance certain aspects and downplay others. But don’t throw your Riedel Duck away just yet.

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