Vibrant. Rich. Exciting. Layered. Powerful. Complex.
These words describe the third movement of Johannes Brahms’ Violin Concerto in D Major.
They also describe a vintage Champagne of excellent quality.
In the simplest terms, music is auditory; wine is gustatory. How intriguing that we associate characteristics of such similarity to what appear to be completely disparate inputs.
We possess a lexicon applicable to diverse experiences. You have likely read or heard someone describe a wine or the tasting experience in terms of music – a wine that ‘sings’ or is ‘harmonious’, for example. Someone may offer their ideal music for a particular wine – one such intriguing pairing is Clark Smith’s choice of Celtic Jazz for Beaujolais.
Might one person’s perfect music and wine pairing be nonsensical, even anathema, to another? We are, after all, individuals with sometimes wildly differing tastes. Surprisingly, research provides compelling evidence that people’s associations of musical elements to gustatory perceptions tend to converge. More powerfully, these associations have been shown to transcend individuals, groups, and divergent musical cultures.
Such associations appear to be intuitive. Instead of incurring physiological responses, we perceive without analytical reasoning. We hear a high pitched tone and whatever we are tasting can feel more tart. That is, our taste perception can be influenced by whatever music we happen to be listening to at the time. We make an intuitive leap, taking our immediate impressions of one sensory modality – music – to that of another, very different modality – wine.
How can we attempt to measure the likelihood that a piece of music will inspire certain sensory perceptions in a wine?
We break down the music into its major constituents, or parameters: pitch (high-low), tempo (fast-slow), timbre (sharp-round), articulation (dynamic-smooth), harmony (pleasant sounding-dissonant/jarring).* Studies tested parameters in isolation to discern taste association trends, and others built upon these to compare the effects of different musical pieces on taste perception.
Similarly, to discern any influence of musical parameters on the sensory perception of a wine we isolate sensory characteristics in wine that we wish to measure: acidity/freshness, fruitiness, richness, complexity, and for sparkling wines, effervescence.
These constituent parts, plus volume (loud-quiet), combine to create something greater: character.
Consider the waves of emotion that sweep over you when listening to a certain piece of music. The ineffable sensation is not merely the result of, say, loud volume or an insistent bass line. It is the amalgamation of all the musical elements comprising a piece that evoke feelings of happiness, sadness, frustration, ecstasy, and everything in between. Similarly, a wine’s characteristics come together to create an overall impression: vibrant and fresh, or powerful and rich, with myriad possibilities. Adrian North conducted a key study in which participants tasted wines while listening to music falling into character categories: calm / exciting; powerful / gentle. People’s perception of the wines hewed suspiciously close to the character of the music being played.
Are we so easily swayed? The psychological concept of priming is key to illuminating what is behind this effect. When we are exposed to one stimulus, our experience can influence how we respond to a subsequent, related stimulus. Consider softly flickering candlelight at a restaurant positioning itself as a romantic dinner destination, or our tendency to consider a highly priced wine as better quality compared to another, more affordable example.
By selecting a piece with specific musical parameters that in turn create an overall feel, our sensory experience of a wine can be primed to perceive certain qualities. When we listen to music, we generally are not isolating and analysing the specific musical elements employed. This possibly makes their influence more powerful, because we are not wholly aware of their effect on our mood and how we subsequently perceive what we eat and drink.
My own research (access the paper, under ‘2021 Papers’), based on a growing body of work including those of Charles Spence, Qian Janice Wang, Jo Burzynska and others, showed that the vast majority of 71 participants perceived specific elevated or lowered sensory characteristics in one wine when music with certain combinations of elements was played. Multiple glasses of the same Champagne were blind tasted, each with a different piece of music and one in silence.** Almost all participants were confident that each glass contained a different wine. If different music can evoke markedly diverging moods and sensory perceptions in the exact same wine, the possibilities are endless.
Strikingly, the wine was least impressive when tasted without music: flat and acidic. This was the same wine that had been perceived as exciting, vivacious, fresh and effervescent when tasted with Saint-Saëns’ sprightly Finale – Carnival of the Animals. Even music that participants claimed to dislike made for a comparatively preferable wine than when tasted without music. This makes a powerful argument for the importance of music in wine presentation and enjoyment.
For those who remain sceptical, this is understandable. We like to think that we are individuals with our own tastes and idiosyncrasies, regardless of data. And even as researchers attempt to isolate different elements of our gustatory experience, in reality we experience various stimuli all together. As more than one of my study participants admitted, “I could not separate one experience from the other”.
Despite rigorous training in both music analysis and wine tasting, I, too, cannot wholly separate my experiences. I find myself falling under the same influences, despite full awareness of the likely underlying causes.
There is something exceedingly gratifying in the recognition of fallibility. We are not meant to separate our experiences; they are taken together in an impromptu, sensorial symphony. In this stymied truth, I revel in the infinite mystery of the sensory.
So whether my Brahms is your Metallica, why not see for yourself what the effects are of music, that which gives us so much pleasure and pain and everything in between? If music makes us feel so deeply, it might just make our experience of wine that much more intense.
*Interestingly, studies have not shown rhythm to have significant gustatory effects.
**Playing order of the different music pieces and silence was randomised across all eight experimental tasting-listening sessions using a Williams design Latin square structure, to mitigate confounding results by order of trial effects.
Photo by Marius Masalar on Unsplash
Knöferle, K.M., Woods, A., Kappler, F., Spence, C. (2015). That sounds sweet: using crossmodal correspondences to communicate gustatory attributes. Psychol. Market. 2015, 32:107–120.
Lin, S. (2021). Influences of Classical Music on the Perception of a Brut Non-Vintage Champagne. Institute of Masters of Wine. 2021.
Mercer, C. “Higher wine price can enhance taste, says study.” Decanter, March 11, 2021.
North, A.C. (2012). The effect of background music on the taste of wine. Br. J. Psychol. 2012, 103:293–301.
Psychology Today. “Priming.” 2021. https://www.psychologytoday.com/us/basics/priming.
Smith, C. (2011). The Relationship Between Wine and Music. Postmodern Winemaking. http://www.postmodernwinemaking.com/wine-and-music.
Spence, C. and Wang, Q.J. (2015a). Wine and music (I): on the crossmodal matching of wine and music. Flavour. 2015, 4:34:1–13.