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  • Writer's pictureLyle Burns

Sensory Appeal Creates One of a Kind Experiences

Updated: May 11, 2020

Sensory appeal can be a key element in creating an influential brand and having an influential experience. Food and music often tend to be at the core of many experiences, and people of all ages are prioritizing their monetary spending on experience. According to a study conducted by Expedia, 74% of Americans are prioritizing experiences over spending on products and material things. With that being the case, companies are doubling down in creating experiences for consumers. This presents an opportunity that artists should look to capitalize on by partnering with brands in new ways.

A Complex Relationship

The relationship between music, food and drink is an interesting one that has recently started being deeply studied. In the simplest terms, if paired properly, music can influence the taste of food and drink, and it can enhance the overall experience. There’s much more to it than that, however. First, people naturally pair food, drink and music in their minds because there is a perceived commonality or affinity between the three when thinking “oh this song represents this dish well or this drink well.” For example, according to research done by Charles Spence and Qian Jang of Oxford University, empirical evidence shows sweetness matches with higher pitched piano notes that are legato in articulation and have consonant harmonies. By contrast, sourness tends to be matched with very high pitch sounds, fast tempo, and dissonant harmonies, instead. Bitterness is matched with sounds that are lower in pitch and more likely to be brassy. Umami ends up matching with bass notes, because while bass notes provide depth and presence, Umami provides balance and harmony. This matching can go even deeper with high pitched piano and woodwind notes matching fruity notes, and lower pitched brass notes can represent more bitter flavors like dark chocolate. Pairings, though, are not limited to individual notes, but instead can go to full songs, as well. But this connection between music, food and drink extends beyond just a conceptual preference. Research now shows that by playing the “right” music, one can also impact specific sensory-discriminative aspects of tasting, as well. Music has been shown to influence the perceived acidity, sweetness, fruitiness, astringency, and length of wine, which in effect, impacts the entire experience. For example, playing music that aligns with the ethnicity of the dish enhances the overall experience and draws out the ethnicity of the food. Furthermore, as the music changes, people may notice new flavors come into focus that already existed in the food and drink. But be careful, because the wrong music and food combination, or the music being too loud and overpowering, can actually detract from the experience. Why is this the case? According to Spencer and Jang’s study, it is the result of ‘processing fluency.’ That is, when the music and wine or food are congruent, people may find it easier to evaluate/process the sensory properties of both that is, with the processing fluency higher.

Another interesting relationship between food, drink, music, and how they call connect to create a deeper sensory experience may come from a concept of sonic seasoning. Sonic seasoning comes from the combination of the psychological matching we discussed, in addition to a biological process. This process neuroscientists have found is that “interaction between audition and gustation that is rooted in neuroscience. Neuroimaging has shown that the processing of aesthetic stimuli — be they paintings, music, or food — overlaps within the primary gustatory cortex.” Simply put, the area of our brain that process music and food are the same. This could explain why studies have found that changes in people’s ratings of the sensory properties of a wine of up to 20% are not uncommon. And it is reasonable to think this change can expand past wine to other food and drink, as well. Spence and Jang note that it is feasible that music can then be used to augment how food or drink is perceived, where normally the taste may not be able to be altered. For example, in alcohol it could be used to dull bitter flavors and enhance sweetness, or with food an example would be using music to enhance the sweetness in dark chocolate.

Going even further than just changing perceived taste or adjusting overall experience, there are documented cases where the right sonic and taste combination have come together to create an emotional occurrence for those experiencing it. This makes sense because eating and drinking is an experience that already impacts taste, scent, sight, and touch with the texture of the food or drink, so adding the proper music would make it a completely immersive experience that activates all five senses. With alcohol, a study was conducted in the late 1960s by Kristan Holt-Hansen, where participants drank beer while listening to pulsed tones. “When the frequency of the pulsed tone was changed, the taste of the beers also changed, with some of the participants saying that they tasted watery, strong, bitter, etc. However, the most interesting thing here is the fact that three of the nine participants also reported having extraordinary experiences at the pitch of harmony” Beyond drink, the experience has been replicated with food. Spencer and Jang highlight, “diners at Heston Blumenthal’s The Fat Duck restaurant in Bray have also been known to experience an extreme emotional reaction. In this case, diners have broken into tears on being presented with the signature dish at the restaurant, ‘The sound of the sea.’ This particular dish comes to the table looking like the sea, with what appears to be sand, foam, seaweed, and seafood. At the same time as the dish is placed before the diner, the waiter offers the diner a conch shell, out of which emerges a pair of earbuds. The waiter instructs the diner to insert the earbuds before they start the dish. In so doing, the diner hears the sound of the waves crashing on the beach and seagulls squawking overhead. The multi-sensory experience that ensues has brought some diners to tears. Once again, this is not something that normally happens when people hear the sounds of the seaside, nor when they eat seafood, no matter how beautifully it has been prepared. In other words, it would seem to be something about the combination of matching taste and auditory sensations that is so powerful (at least for some).” The phenomenon was documented again at the 2015 Campo Viejo Streets of Spain event in London where some attendees participated in a wine tasting paired with matching soundscapes. The result was that some attendees were moved to tears, while others described a feeling of being transported to a different place.

What it Means for Artists and Their Brands?

So, what’s all this mean for artists, brands, and creating influential experiences? Brands and artists should be looking to take their partnerships to the next level. Instead of relying on each other to grow their awareness with different audiences, they should be collaborating, creating paired products that lead to greater experiences for consumers. Imagine a situation where while an artist is creating an album or song, they partner with a snack brand or drink brand to create items that pair with their music. Those items could them be sold as exclusive merchandise. Artists can partner with liquor brands to create a branded drink that pairs with a song or playlist of music uniquely made to go with it. People like Charles Spence expect to see a day where music suggestions will be put on wine labels. In fact, Krug Champagne has developed an app that allows customers to scan their bottle of champagne and the app suggests music that musicians have paired with that drink. Jo Burzynska, an artist and wine writer, has been curating a monthly wine list to match or complement the sound exhibition in the gallery and the music playing in the sonic wine bar she founded.

Following that trend, artists don’t need to go as far as starting bars, but they could partner with local breweries, wineries, and restaurants to create music sonic experiences and soundscapes that go with menu offerings. Collaborations with major brands or even local brands to build curated playlists for their range of offerings allow consumers to take the experience home, as well. That music experience can start before the tasting process, too. As mentioned in the sensory branding article, companies activate the senses to affect consumer behavior as it relates to purchasing. Music is another way to do that. When German music plays, retailers have seen more food and beverages of German original purchased. The same pattern occurs for when French music plays. The tempo music also can affect how long a person stays in a store or restaurant: fast music gets people through shopping or eating more quickly than slow music, which is why during lunch restaurants often play up-tempo music and slower songs during dinner. So, if an artist’s music is made to be paired with a certain item, what if that music is encountered during the shopping experience? It may paint a picture and encourage shoppers to buy an item they may not have otherwise purchased. Retailers are adding additional dining and music experiences in their stores to enhance the experience and to influence the perception of their brand as a lifestyle brand, rather than a normal retailer.

Another experiential event that could take place is an exclusive and intimate live show centered around the eating experience. An artist could partner with a chef or restaurant to create a custom menu inspired by the set list. The partnership, collaboration, and overall experience creation possibilities can become endless. Recently, artists have been starting festivals. It’d be interesting to see a music festival that is organized in a way that in sections where certain music is playing a food truck is assigned to that section to serve fans food that matches the type of music the artist is performing.

A Deeper Level of Engagement

Creating experiences engages fans at a deeper level. Artists have a chance to expand their creativity in new directions that may not have been considered before. Brands and artists are at a point where they can be different and work together in ways that are unexpected but drive fan and customer loyalty by elevating even private experiences to new levels. Experiences help solidify artists and brands within people’s memory, whether it’s an orchestrated experience like a concert or a private experience someone has with their friends and family. Artists that can activate the scenes, especially ones revolving around food, drink, and music, have an opportunity to grow their brand’s influence and interact with fans as a lifestyle brand core to their lives.

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