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wine and musicI must confess to being a bit puzzled about why wine and music pairing has not become a more popular phenomenon. The empirical evidence that music can influence our enjoyment of wine continues to mount. The idea has been around now for several years and has received a fair amount of exposure in the press. In a culture always hungry for pleasure one would think this piling of hedons upon hedons (units of pleasure in philosophical jargon) would be snapped up like nachos in a beer bar. But I haven’t detected an upsurge in interest. And I still run into people who are skeptical of the whole idea.

Perhaps the problem is complexity. Wine is already complicated. Wine and food pairing is an additional complication and hard enough to get right. Are we going to add an additional burden to our quest for peak experience? Well, why should peak anything be easy? It will by definition be outside the ordinary. I suspect this is part of the problem.

At any rate, we shall soldier on. Here is a recent article in National Geographic relying on new iterations of some of the same evidence I’ve been reporting on.

A study by Professor Charles Spence from Oxford University has been trialling matching tastes such as sourness and sweetness with different sound properties….carefully chosen music or sounds can be used to “sonically season” your drink.  Essentially there is music we associate with sweetness and some music that we associate with bitterness and sourness, and even, as professor Spence explains music that has notes of spice and cream.

Clarinet and flute pair with white wine. String quartets, because of the cello and viola foundation, work nicely with tannic Bordeaux.

The article claims that “music doesn’t have the ability to totally change what you are tasting.” I am not sure what the author means by “totally”. But I’ve found choosing the wrong music, so there is a perceived conflict between the music and the wine, will substantially diminish your enjoyment of the wine. You can of course tune the music out and the effect will go away.

The researcher Spence also notes that “… what you can do is use the music to draw people’s attention to something in their tasting experience.”

This suggests that the pairing works because the music draws your attention to the congruent feature of the wine.The high pitched, lighter sounds of clarinets and flutes will draw your attention to the floral, fruity notes in a white wine.

I think this is part of the picture of how the pairing works. But a wine’s movement on the palate is another feature that can be matched with music. Drawing on the work of Daniel Stern, a psychologist who discovered the vitality forms that enable us to grasp the motion of anything that moves, through music we can experience a congruence between the rhythm and pace of the music and the movement of the wine on the palate, enhancing the wine’s mouth feel and sense of harmony. (Here is more complete account of how vitality forms work.)

Spence continues to do great work on this issue transforming what would be a speculative relationship into one with solid empirical support.

For more on the philosophy of wine visit my Monday Column archives on Three Quarks Daily

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