Does your favourite beer have a musical pitch? Crossmodal correspondences of music with taste of food and drink

Music can influence and enhance our perception of many things. A previous post, written by shannoneilyce, describes how music can evoke vivid sensations of colour in synaesthetes. This blog post focuses on the association between perception of music and perception of food. Examples and explanations of crossmodal correspondences are presented, followed by musical examples and associations with perception of taste, flavour and texture of food and drink.

The Oxford Dictionary of Psychology defines crossmodal matching as the perception of ‘stimuli across two sensory modalities’ and there has been much research into the relationship of perceptions of stimuli that involves more than one human sense. According to Spence (2011), relationships can occur in any pairs of senses from vision and touch, colour and odour, pitch and smell to shapes and tastes. One popular example of this is the kiki and bauba effect (Ramachandran & Hubbard, 2001 based on original work of Köhler, 1929). This phenomenon is the almost innate ability to match names to shapes, despite never seeing them before. When asked to name two different shapes (in the image below) as either kiki or bauba, nearly all participants chose the more rounded shape (right) to be named bauba and the shape with sharper edges (left) kiki. This phenomenon is due to a cross-activation in the brain where two places in the brain take part in processing information thus leading to a ‘natural bias towards mapping certain sound contours onto certain vocalizations’ (Ramachandran & Hubbard, 2001: 19).


Levels and explanations of crossmodal correspondences

According to Spence (2011), cross modal correspondences can occur on three levels. At a low level tangible objects and events are perceived in association. On a higher level, there may be crossmodal links with objects that are unrelated but seemingly match, such as numbers and colours (Ramachandran & Hubbard, 2001).  Finally crossmodal correspondences also occur with associations of abstract concepts of emotion or cognitive meaning.

In his review Spence (2011) also explains three main reasons for such links as they may occur in human perception. Firstly, structural correspondences are a result of similar neural reactions in the brain, for example in response to loudness and brightness as they evoke similar reactions. Secondly, statistical correspondences occur through correlations between stimuli and naturally occurring instances. A third explanation relates to crossmodal correspondences that are semantically mediated. Here a common linguistic term links two components of perception, for example ‘high’ can be used to describe elevations of space as well as pitch. However, this list is not exhaustive and neither explanation is more dominant than the other, and may depend on the contexts.


Influence of music on other human perception

The idea that music may influence other perceptions can be explained by the theories presented above. In structural correspondence, many types of perception are linked, for example perception of loudness and perception of size: larger instruments make louder noise. In terms of statistical correspondence, a stimulus correlates with natural occurrences: in a performance situation. For example, this can be seen perception of smoothness. Davidson (1991) found that a pianist made continuous swaying movements when playing a smooth passage of music, whereas in more fragmented music, jerky movements were elicited. This is also linked to semantically mediation, where we can describe music as being ‘smooth’ which links it to the idea that the movements used to perform the music are also smooth. These principles of crossmodal correspondences of music can translate to many other perceptions including … the taste of food and drink!


Influence of music on human perception of taste

Sounds act as important auditory cues and play a role in the perception of food and drink. Examples of this include the sound that food packaging makes when first opened, or the sound that certain foods make when we bite into them (Zampini & Spence, 2010). This is supported by the idea of sounds of kiki and bauba as explained above: CRUNCHINESS in food is found to be linked with the kiki and bauba effect, where crunchy foods such as crisps are rated a being more ‘kiki’ and soft food such as brie cheese is more ‘bauba’ (Gallace et al., 2010). It is also possible to influence the way we taste food using music. Music with certain features may create an expectation of the taste bearing associated features, which consequently may mediate the actual perception of taste.

SPICINESS has been found to be mediated by music. A study by Wang, Keller & Spence (2017) found that ‘spicy music’- containing acoustic features such as distortion, high pitch and a fast tempo – can significantly increase expected spiciness of food compared to silence, white noise and ‘sweet music’ (music that has acoustic features opposite to ‘spicy music’). This ‘spicy’ music can significantly change actual perception of food that is already at a certain level of spiciness. Gypsy violins and samba drums where also found to be associated with spicier food.


Wang, Keller & Spence (2017) explain that this influence is due to a mediating factor i.e. that the acoustic features in the ‘spicy music’ are linked to higher states of arousal, which could also correspond to higher level of taste perception. In this case the structural correspondence explanation can be used here. Semantic mediation can also explain the following association: we may say that the food is ‘hotter’ in terms of spiciness in a similar way a faster tempo or more groove can be described as ‘putting more heat in the music’ (watch scene from ‘Some Like it Hot’,, quote taken from 0.56).


A further possibility is the application of the statistical correspondence explanation, where we become conditioned to expect a certain taste after being exposed to a stimulus and natural environment. In traditional restaurants, say a Mexican restaurant may play traditional music. This can be a certain conditioning, where the type of music can give rise to expectation of spicier food. This can be supported by the fact that Wang, Keller and Spence (2017) found older participants more likely to rate their food as spicier. The researchers give uncertain explanations to this observation:  spiciness sensitivity may increase with age or the older generation is not as used to spicy food as younger generations. I would argue, however, that perhaps older people have been more exposed to conditioning (i.e. more experience of stimulus of spicy food in association with ‘spicy’ music) and therefore would have higher expectation of spiciness in food when listening to ‘spicy music.’

CREAMINESS in CHOCOLATE was found to be enhanced when participants listened to a ‘creamy soundtrack’ compared to a ‘rough soundtrack’, despite the fact they were actually tasting the same chocolate twice (Reinoso Carvalho, Wang, van Ee, Persoone, & Spence, 2016). Both soundtracks had the same pitch range, but the creamy sound track was composed of soft, long, consonant and legato notes, whereas the ‘rough soundtrack’ comprised rough, staccato (short) and dissonant notes. This can be explain by semantically mediated correspondences, where in describing chocolate, ‘smoothness’ is a synonym for creaminess and in describing music, ’smoothness’ is a synonym for legato in music, and therefore these terms are linked. This study supports the idea that when listening to ‘smooth’ music, it stimulates an expectation of smoothness in other perceptions which involve taste. It may also be linked to the idea of sound the food produces when bit into, thus leading to an association. A smoother (creamier) music may lead to the expectation of the chocolate producing softer noises and the chocolate seeming creamier.



A preference test for the music was also conducted. It was found that those who had a preference for the creamier music also rated the chocolate as creamier. This phenomenon becomes trickier to explain, though similarly to the explanation related to spiciness in food there may be a mediating factor. Here the mediating factor would be the abstract component of pleasure. If an individual enjoys music more, they would expect a more pleasant taste too: a chocolate with a more pleasant taste may be thought of as creamier. Here we see more of an interaction between levels of crossmodal correspondences where lower levels become associated with more abstract concepts.


Apparently, FLAVOUR in BEER can have a pitch! In an experiment, Carvalho, Wang, de Causmaecker, et al. (2016) found that when participants were presented with four types of beer and asked to assign a pitch to each one of them, the beers had significant differences in pitch. Lower pitches were given to beers with a more bitter taste, whilst higher pitches were assigned to beers with a sweeter and fruitier flavour.  Furthermore, participants associated intensity of flavour intensity (bitterness being perceived as a strong flavour) with alcoholic strength.


This is interesting as this association is on the crossmodal level of two tangible features that are seemingly unrelated, and yet here they are somehow are related (second level described by Spence, 2011). This effect may be due to structural correspondences, where low pitch has a similar neural reaction as bitter taste.

In addition, there could have been more than one ‘taste’ that influenced the designation of a pitch. Beer C had mostly lower pitches, though was also regarded as having a high pitch. An explanation may lie in the fact that two ‘tastes’ actually contradict the pitch height. Beer C was rather bitter thus associated with a lower pitch. However, it was the strongest beer in terms of alcoholic strength and stronger alcoholic content seem to be associated with higher pitch ranges. This would explain why some ratings for Beer C gained higher pitches. This evidence shows that music may not mediate the flavour of a certain taste alone, but relies also on individual differences to which taste is linked with another sensory perception.



It seems that flavour and taste of food and drink can be mediated through music, based on the idea that our sense may be somehow linked by similar neural reactions (structural correspondences), conditioning from correlation of stimuli and natural environments (statistical correspondences) as well as associations with similar terms to describe different domains of sense perception, such as high/low in terms of space or pitch (semantically mediations). These can explain why certain flavours, textures and tastes of food are associated with music with regards to the sound made when biting into them, opening their packaging, as well as sounds in the environment heard regularly when eating specific food. Additionally, in certain cases there may be a mediating factor affecting associations, rather than there being just one sense-to one sense relationship. Furthermore, as many types of food and drink are a fusion of a range of flavours and texture, sometimes individual differences may influence what associations with food and music one is likely to create.

Are you hungry yet from reading this? Maybe try one of these experiments yourself or with a few friends to see if these effects can happen in naturalistic settings rather than in an experimental one and comment with your thoughts!



(2008-01-01). Cross-modal matching. In The Oxford dictionary of psychology. : . Retrieved 25 Mar. 2017, from

Davidson, J. (1991). The perception of expressive movement in music performance. Unpublished Ph.D. thesis, City University, London.

Gallace, A., Boschin, E., Spence, C., Gallace, A., Boschin, E., & Spence, C. (2010). On the taste of “ Bouba ” and “ Kiki ”: an exploration of word – food associations in neurologically normal participants. Cognitive Neuroscience, 2(1), 34–46.

Quote from ‘Some like it hot’ motion picture (1959).

Ramachandran, V. S., & Hubbard, E. M. (2001). Synaesthesia–a window into perception, thought and language. Journal of consciousness studies8(12), 3-34.

Reinoso Carvalho, F., Wang, Q. (Janice), van Ee, R., Persoone, D., & Spence, C. (2016). “Smooth operator”: music modulates the perceived creaminess, sweetness, and bitterness of chocolate. Appetite, 108, 383–390.

Reinoso Carvalho, F., Wang, Q., de Causmaecker, B., Steenhaut, K., van Ee, R., & Spence, C. (2016). Tune That Beer! Listening for the Pitch of Beer. Beverages, 2(31), 31.

Spence, C. (2011). Crossmodal correspondences : a tutorial review. Attention Perception & Psychophysics, (73), 971–995.

Wang, Q. J., Keller, S., & Spence, C. (2017). Sounds spicy: enhancing the evaluation of piquancy by means of a customised crossmodally congruent soundtrack. Food Quality and Preference, 58, 1-9

Zampini, M., & Spence, C. (2010). Assessing the Role of Sound in the Perception of Food and Drink, 57–67.




1 Comment

  1. Very interesting post! I find it fascinating to learn about the intricacies and complexities of our perception system. I was wondering if you found any connection of the music and food relationships in terms of restaurants or food joints using this cross-modal connection (unintentionally, I imagine) to help their food taste more creamier, more spicy, more crunchy or just overall better. I am think of here a connection of classical music and high class–maybe restaurants that want people to expect high class food play classical music as a means to initiate that reaction? I found a study relating wine and music, where the type of music influenced the perception of the wine’s characteristic (1), but I haven’t found one regarding perception wine taste quality ( and thus, price) and type of music. The only one I found was the classic Areni and Kim (2) study on the influence of background music in a wine shop.

    On a different note, I found an interesting article about taste and connection to a particular instrument–such as brass instruments and bitter flavour (3), I was wondering if you looked into this at all as well? It seems to go along with the pitch to taste relationship, and one would expect.

    (1) North, A.C. (2012). The effect of background music on the taste of wine. British Journal of Psychology, 103, 293-301.
    (2) Areni, C.S., & Kim, D. (1993). The influence of background music on shopping behavior: classical versus top-forty music in a wine store. In Leigh McAlister and Michael L. Rothschild, (Eds.), NA – Advances in Consumer Research Volume 20, (336-340). Provo, UT : Association for Consumer Research.
    (3) Crisinel, A-S., & Spence, C. (2010). As bitter as a trombone: Synesthetic correspondences in synesthetes between tastes/flavours and music notes. Attention, Perception and Psychophysics, 72(7), 1994-2002.


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