Feast for the senses: food scientists taste-test how music changes our chocolate perception

Lab member Rachel Potter prepares chocolates for a taste panel exploring music and eating experience, Feb. 6 at WSU’s Sensory Science Center.

Careful with that Valentine’s Day playlist! Food scientists are learning how music can influence our perceptions of foods like chocolate, noticing that some sounds are in harmony with sweetness while others bring out our sense of the bitter.

Washington State University food scientist Carolyn Ross works with volunteer tasters and listeners to understand for how music affects our perceptions. In February, she led a taste panel at WSU’s Sensory Evaluation Lab, pairing bites of chocolate with short tracks of classical music in an experiment that feasted the senses.

“I’m always interested in cross-modal perception: how taste, smell, texture, and sound affect not just whether you like a food, but how you perceive it,” Ross said.

From the crisp snap of that first bite, to the meltability in your mouth, to the mix of sweet and bitter flavors, chocolate is a sensory experience. Containing theobromine, phenylethylamine, and tryptophan — stimulants or building blocks of feel-good hormones like serotonin — chocolate is one of the most popular foods in the world. Annually, Americans consume nearly 3 billion pounds of the confection.

Chocolate panel participant
A taste panel participant readies a bite of chocolate while listening to a musical track at WSU’s Sensory Evaluation Lab.

Ross’ chocolate panel is built on the work of European researchers who found that music influences how we perceive creaminess, bitterness, and sweetness. In 2020, a WSU panel examined how chocolate eaters responded to abstract “smooth” and “rough” sounds. For 2024, Ross turned to classical music, combining tracks of Vivaldi and Pachelbel with a variety of rich chocolate truffles.

“Sounds in the background can affect your sense of a food,” Ross said. “The music could change, and now you’re perceiving a dessert as sweeter, a chocolate as milkier. You’re changing what the eater is perceiving.”

While the nature of the experiment was not given away beforehand, panel participants noticed the juxtaposition of sound and chocolate enjoyment.

“The classic wedding song” — Pachelbel’s “Canon in D” — “involved happy thoughts,” said taster Joelle Edward. “I do think it influenced me.”

Carolyn Ross
Carolyn Ross, professor in the School of Food Science.

The experience also opened further possibilities of pairing music and foods.

“I’ve never taken the time to ‘set the mood,’ as it were,” said taster Susan Williams. “It made me stop and appreciate things, and really reflect on the flavors. There are ways you can do that in your daily life.”

Information from the panel will help Ross get a better understanding of the sensory experience of enjoying foods. Someday, such data could assist candy makers with marketing or let party planners present the perfect chocolate tasting, complete with soundtrack.

Ross also ponders the potential influence of more contemporary music.

“What about music you would hear in a restaurant or on a date?” she asked. “Which Taylor Swift album would go best with chocolate?”