Every bartender knows the way to clear the room at the end of a long night is to turn up the volume on a less-inviting track. “My go-tos are Ween’s 'Mourning Glory' and Slayer’s 'Angel of Death,'” says Prashant Patel, a veteran bartender at the Eighth Street Taproom, a popular watering hole in the college town of Lawrence, Kansas. “Those high-pitched guitar solos jar people out of their seats and out the door.”
Science backs this up. Sound alters both our physical and mental state—from our breathing and heart rate to perceptions of smell and taste. What we hear while chewing, slurping or even twisting open a bottle builds our expectations about what we consume. Sound “influences everything,” wrote University of Oxford researchers Charles Spence and Maya Shankar in the Journal of Sensory Studies in 2010, “from what we choose to eat to the total amount and the rate at which we eat it.” Sounds can make chocolate and coffee seem sweeter, airplane food more savory and stale chips fresher. But when it comes to alcohol, the impacts of sound aren't always so innocuous.
New research on how soundscapes affect our perception of beer taste and alcohol content shows that sounds can change our perceptions of the alcoholic strength of beers—and influence the rate at which we consume them. For researchers, the finding was a surprise: a study recently published in the journal Food Quality and Preference was originally designed to explore the ways in which specific soundtracks changed perceptions of sweetness, bitterness and sourness in beers (you can listen to them and do your own experimenting here). But the researchers found out that sound affects more than just taste.
“When we developed the study, we weren’t aiming to explore the influence on alcohol strength,” explains lead researcher Felipe Carvalho of Vrije Universiteit Brussel. “We considered these findings quite curious.” To test their hypothesis, researchers served identical beers to 340 participants while playing two different taste-inducing soundtracks. Not only did the soundtracks change perceptions of taste, they found, but they also by extension influenced perceptions of alcoholic strength.
The team used Belgian beers because of their “higher perceived quality and range of flavor experiences.” The perceived alcohol content of the tripel and two Belgian pale ales were positively correlated with both sour and bitter tastes, and negatively correlated with sweet tastes. In other words, the beers that were perceived to be sour and/or bitter were also perceived to be more alcoholic than their sweet counterparts—even if they didn’t actually contain more alcohol.
“What we learned is that people rely on dominant attributes to rate the strength of beer,” Carvalho said. “One possible explanation is that people are generally poor at estimating alcohol content of beers by means of taste cues. Therefore, high-impact flavor (such as hoppiness/bitterness in the case of beer) might have been used as proxies for alcohol content,” he and his coauthors write in the study.
These findings build upon a 2011 study led by Lorenzo Stafford and social scientists at the University of Portsmouth in the U.K. on the effects of noise and distraction on alcohol perception. “We knew that loud music in bars lead to faster and greater alcohol consumption," says Stafford, citing a 2004 study, “but we wanted to find out the impacts of sound interference.”
That research team mixed vodka with cranberry juice, orange juice and tonic water and served it to 80 university students under four sets of conditions: in silence, with music, with a news segment they were asked to explain (known as a “shadow task”), and while they listened to both music and the news story. They found that perceptions of sweetness in alcohol were significantly higher when participants listened to music compared to the other conditions, and hypothesized that these heightened perceptions of sweetness led to higher consumption because of humans’ “innate preference for sweet foods.”
This might explain that crazy night of cocktail-fueled clubbing:. “There can be a potential for overconsumption when drinks are too sweet or the music is quite fast,” Stafford explains, “because the human brain is wired to seek pleasure.”
Sound is an experience that happens in the brain. It starts as movements in the world around us—fluctuations in the density of air molecules known as sound waves. These waves travel from the outer world toward our ear where they pass into the ear canal, funnel through the middle ear and pool in the cochlea. In the inner chamber, rows of microscopic hair cells are bathed in a potassium-rich fluid that helps transform vibrations into the nerve impulses that shoot up the auditory nerve to the brain. There, they finally become what we interpret as sound.
But “we” should be singular, because hearing—like smell and taste—manifests through responses that are specific to each and every one of us. This specificity makes some people more vulnerable to alcohol than others, and can change how sound affects their drinking habits. “Alcoholism and other addictions are chronic diseases of the brain, not an issue of willpower,” says Marvin Ventrell, executive director of the National Association of Addiction Treatment Providers. “The choice mechanisms that enable a healthy brain are not operational for someone who suffers from addiction.”
In light of growing research on how music and other sounds impact alcohol consumption, Ventrell adds: “It doesn’t come as a surprise to me that we can correlate, and even see causation, between sound and alcohol consumption. Environments such as bars and clubs are created to induce those addictive behaviors, and music is a piece of that—those bass, throbbing tones that are the soundtrack of nightclubs.”
Ventrell isn’t saying music shouldn’t be enjoyed and appreciated. “It’s not a bad thing,” he stresses. “The last thing I would want to do is discourage people from listening. But I would suggest that people steer clear of any music that might trigger addictive behaviors.”
Because sounds can influence a wide range of behaviors, researchers are looking into other ways they can be used to affect decision-making processes. “Now that we have these results, we want to customize sounds based on this information,” says Carvalho. “Imagine that sound could eventually allow you to enjoy a beer with low levels of alcohol, without losing the pleasure of perceiving such beer as a strong-flavored one. Belgians, for example, are used to drinking beers with lots of body and alcoholic strength. Perhaps sounds would allow them to drink less strong beers, without losing the quality of their experience.”
The potential, Carvalho adds, is “not just with music but all kinds of soundscapes, such as the sound of nature. We want to see how they can also trigger decision-making processes. Imagine if they could help you choose healthier types of food.” Or, different ways to drink.