Food science panel looks at how music affects our perception of chocolate

Woman with headphones in tasting lab holds chocolate.
WSU researchers are using the Sensory Science Lab to look at how our perceptions of different kinds of chocolate change based on music (WSU Photo-Seth Truscott).

Does milk chocolate taste creamier when you’re listening to Beethoven? How might the crunch of nuts in a chocolate bar play off against rhythm and blues?

Food scientists at Washington State University are exploring the marriage of different types of music and chocolate in an experiment happening just before Valentine’s Day at the Sensory Science Lab. Findings could help food scientists understand whether certain types of tunes and chocolate treats are in harmony, or are better off apart.

WSU’s Sensory Science Lab helps scientists and food companies fine-tune our understanding of the variables that influence our perception and enjoyment of foods and beverages.

“Our experiments help us discover how people experience the foods we eat,” said Carolyn Ross, professor and director of the Sensory Science Lab. “It’s all about understanding what we prefer or dislike, and why.”

At the Sensory Science Lab, volunteer panelists taste selections ranging from soda and apples to baby food, helping rate and measure qualities that affect our eating experience.

The chocolate panel builds on work by researchers in Europe, who found that music influences how we perceive creaminess, bitterness, and sweetness. Ross discusses this work in her undergraduate- and graduate-level course, Sensory Evaluation of Food and Wine.

“This kind of project helps my students think about other things that influence our sensory perceptions, beyond what is in our food and beverages,” she said. “We want to explore new variables that come up, things we hadn’t thought about.”

A previous sonic experiment at the lab asked listeners to rate freshness based on the sound of carrots being eaten. One carrot was raw, the other blanched. Consumers, perhaps naturally, favored the raw carrot.

This experiment is different. Ross is interested in seeing how volunteers react to the chocolate pairings—pure milk chocolate and a sample with raisins and nuts, combined with a “smooth” sampling of classical music as well as a dissonant, jangly and “rough” tune.

Together, music and chocolate offers endless combinations.

“There are so many variables that you can introduce,” Ross said. “And so many ways you can go, musically—heavy metal music vs. Kenny G?”