A bitter-sweet symphony

Cross-modal associations are intriguing. Why should we prefer to associate certain shapes to certain words? I still remember my brother, although not a psychologist, asking everyone at a family dinner to match the words ‘kiki’ and ‘bouba’ with either a round or spiky shape. If you’re an adept of that kind of entertainment, you might want to try this one: ask your guests to match tastes to high- or low-pitched notes. Chances are sour- and sweet-tasting items will be matched to high-pitched notes, while bitter-tasting items such as unsweetened coffee will be matched to low-pitched sounds.

Photo by André Karwath

This effect has been shown using implicit association tests. In these tests, participants use the same response key for two categories of items, for example names of sour-tasting items and high-pitched notes. Their performance is then compared with another condition where a different pairing is used (names of sour-tasting items and low-pitched notes). A better performance implies that the two target concepts are more easily associated.

These results still hold when using real solutions of tastants instead of names, and explicitly asking the participants to choose a note matching a taste: low-pitched notes are preferred for bitter tastes, while high-pitched notes are associated to sour or sweet tastes.

Finding an explanation for these associations might help us understand how we process tastes, as the classical model of basic tastes is a much debated issue. If these findings could be extended to entire pieces of music, it would lead to new opportunities to help people with taste deficits, which are common in the elderly. They could get an enriched experience of their food through auditory stimuli, an idea somewhat similar to using auditory or tactile stimuli to provide visual information to blind people. These associations could also be used in the marketing of food products, a possibility that did not escape people at Starbucks, who decided to have a piece of music composed to match their new brand of coffee.

About Anne-Sylvie Crisinel

Anne-Sylvie is a Lord Florey Scholar at the University of Oxford. I looked it up and realized that such folk are not just smarty-pants – here are the selection criteria: “..scholastic achievement, also qualities of truth, courage, devotion to duty, sympathy for the weak, kindliness, unselfishness and fellowship….moral force of character and the instincts to lead and take an interest in one’s contemporaries.”  So, no pressure there!  Anne-Sylvie is doing here DPhil (what the rest of us would call a PhD) on taste and flavour perception in Charles Spence’s Cross Modal Lab. She’s especially interested in associations people make between tastes and sounds.  Anne-Sylvie gained her Masters in Life Sciences and Technology at the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology in Lausanne, Switzerland.

Crisinel, A., & Spence, C. (2009). Implicit association between basic tastes and pitch Neuroscience Letters, 464 (1), 39-42 DOI: 10.1016/j.neulet.2009.08.016

Crisinel AS, & Spence C (2010). A sweet sound? Food names reveal implicit associations between taste and pitch. Perception, 39 (3), 417-25 PMID: 20465176

Crisinel, A.-S., & Spence, C. (submitted). As bitter as a trombone: Synaesthetic correspondences in non-synaesthetes between tastes and flavours and musical instruments and notes. Attention, Perception, & Psychophysics.

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  1. adorablesin says:

    Fascinating stuff. Ramachandran mentioned this phenomenon in one of the Reith lectures broadcast on BBC radio back in 2003.
    Lecture 4 is entitled “Purple Numbers and Sharp Cheese”. He’s got some interesting postulates for why it still ‘exists’ (i.e. why it’s still there genetically). And he mentions booba and kiki too!
    Click or C&P this link http://www.bbc.co.uk/radio4/reith2003/lecture4.shtml where you can get a transcript / audio.
    The other lectures are worth a listen / read too…

  2. Anne-Sylvie says:

    Thanks for this. A very interesting lecture indeed.