‘Soundscaping’ is fast becoming standard in places where buyers converge. The goal is to use sounds to encourage consumer spending. Acoustics, too, are well-utilized in dining establishments to create the kind of ambience that makes eating out special. There is a new frontier in soundscaping, however, that might just make the dining experience even more extraordinary. Avant-garde chefs call it ‘sonic seasoning.’

In 1997, celebrity chef and Michelin-starred restaurant proprietor Heston Blumenthal experimented with sounds and how they can be used to manipulate perceptions of taste. The result of that experiment was a dish called Sound of the Sea, wherein seafood was consumed while the sounds of the ocean streamed from speakers. Blumenthal discovered that diners perceived seafood to be fresh and better-tasting as they were served this ‘sonic seasoning.’

Building on that seemingly far-fetched idea, Charles Spence, an experimental psychologist at the University of Oxford, conducted an experiment as to whether a restaurant’s soundscape, or lack of it, will affect diners’ perception of taste. The result of his study may well be opening up restaurant owners to the avant-garde concept that a diner’s gastronomic experience can be tweaked by introducing or removing certain sounds. 

According to Spence’s review published in the Flavor Journal, noise can actually affect the taste, aroma or flavor, and textural properties of food and drink. While not necessarily a groundbreaking discovery given our personal experience with noisy dining environments, the conclusion that noise hampers a diner’s ability to detect sweet and sour tastes has major implications and applications not only in the restaurant industry but in the business of aroma and taste as a whole. Other tests also showed that food tasted best when diners eat as they listen to quiet classical music and a bit of background chatter. Specifically, the music has to be set in the range of 62-67 decibels for food to be perceived nicest. (In contrast, the average noise in a restaurant reaches up to 90 decibels, the kind of acoustic assault that frequent fliers are often exposed to.)

This is not to say that restaurant operators should remove the noise of conversation altogether. For most, a music-less environment without a hint of casual conversation over dinner is perceived to be noisier than one in which there is ambient sound, whether coming from acoustic speakers or from diners themselves.