On Aroma and Emotion

I’ve been digging into microbiologist Malfeito-Ferreira’s literature survey on holistic wine tasting.  One of the more interesting dimensions of his discussion is his inclusion of emotions in the construction of olfactory conceptual spaces. This is of particular interest to us because wine and music pairing depends on the emotional resonance between wine and music.

His treatment of this topic is cursory but highly suggestive and the studies he links to show a robust role for emotions in our responses to food, and by implication wine. (There is not much science yet on the role of emotion in wine tasting.)

There has, of course, been a good deal of research on how emotions influence eating behavior, but studies of the influence of food on mood and emotions is of a more recent vintage.

Malfeito-Ferrera takes the position that emotion relating to liking or not liking is an integral part of the perception of smell in part because olfactory stimuli are directly routed to the part of the brain that processes emotion:

The unique properties of the sense of smell led Yeshurun and Sobel (2010) to define it as an emotional sense, where the emotion is not a result from the sensory stimuli but an integral part of the perception (Table 1). For these authors, the odour object is the integration of its pleasantness, induced by its external state (volatile molecules), with the subjective internal state when it is sensed. In fact, the first spontaneous reaction to odourants is a verbal description related to pleasantness (e.g. “it is good” or “I like it”) in accordance with the processing of emotional information in the olfactory bulb (Kermen et al., 2021) or in the human piriform cortex even before odour perception (Schulze et al., 2017).

But many researchers have concluded our emotional responses to food go beyond mere liking or not liking. For instance, Chrea et al. (2009) in “Mapping the Semantic Space for the Subjective Experience of Emotional Responses to Odors” developed a multi-dimension scale for measuring emotions elicited by odors.  They summarize their findings as follows:

“…the subjective affective experiences or feelings induced by odours are structured around a small group of dimensions that reflect the role of olfaction in well-being, social interaction, danger prevention, arousal or relaxation sensations, and conscious recollection of emotional memories”.

Their scale included 73 emotion-terms divided among 9 dimensions: happiness-wellbeing, awe-sensuality, disgust-irritation, soothing-peacefulness, energizing-refreshing, cooling, delicacy, heaviness, healthiness, and sweetness. Among the 73 emotion terms they included were carnal, delicate, harmonious, stinky, dirty, persistent, sensual, angry, sickening, etc.

The odors tested run the gamut from savory aromas to household/cosmetic aromas, to fruity, floral, or animal odors.

In a follow-up study using a more restricted list of emotional dimensions and summarized in the same paper, Chrea et al showed that, for pairs of odors that did not significantly differ in liking among test subjects, there were substantial differences in emotions that were also not connected to liking.

Group 1: Energetic–invigorated–clean; nostalgic– amusement–mouth-watering; and romantic–desire–in love showed more robust differences than Group 2: happiness–well-being–pleasantly surprised; disgusted–irritated unpleasantly surprised; and relaxed, serene, reassured. The latter group was hypothesized to be less related to liking/not liking than the former, suggesting that emotional responses are not simply expressing preferences.

This is important. It isn’t particularly surprising that test subjects might respond to food with emotions related to liking or not liking. That food can elicit a wider range of emotions indicates the degree to which food (and wine) can be an expressive medium.

There is some question in the literature regarding whether people respond to food names or the actual food. As Köster and Mojet report in their literature survey, “From mood to food and from food to mood: A psychological perspective on the measurement of food-related emotions in consumer research”:

Cardello et al. suppose that food names reflect stable and broader cognitive images and associations, whereas tasted foods vary over time due to perceptual variability, changing expectations and preceding appetitive contexts. Thus, they make implicit statements on the roles of memory and perception in the emotional effects. The question then arises what is meant by stable and broader images and what types of associations (situational experiences during the first or later emotional encounters with the product, remembrances of special eating events and habits or relationships with other people) are evoked by the food name. As mentioned above, it is clear that we do not remember the products we have eaten before by the recollection of something like a detailed internal representation (see Morin-Audebrand et al., 2012 for an overview), but that our food memory is directed at novelty and change detection. Furthermore, food names and tasted foods both evoke associated memories of previous eating occasions and are thus linked to emotions experienced on these occasions.

Does remembering chocolate evoke a stronger memory than eating it? Emotional responses to food memories are likely to be deeply influenced by the situation in which it is consumed or the people we consume it with. Thus emotions such as satisfied, good, happy, pleased, energetic, active, enthusiastic, merry, adventurous, loving, affectionate, eager, guilty, good-natured, friendly, calm, nostalgic might be responding to situational memory rather than the food itself.

Most of this research is of interest to the food industry in trying to understand consumer responses to their products. But it provides empirical support for the view that taste and aroma also evoke emotions inviting comparisons to art and music.

Music and Wine Pairing Research in the Master of Wine Program

One indicator of an important emerging topic within the wine world is when Masters of Wine candidates choose that topic for their research paper.

Recently minted Master of Wine Susan R. Lin chose to write her thesis on the “Influences of Classical Music on the Perception of a Non-Vintage Brut Champagne.” So perhaps we can conclude from this that music and wine pairing is reaching a threshold of interest and attention. At any rate, I found her paper both inspiring and informative while I was finishing my contribution to A Practical Guide to Pairing Wine and Music.

Susan’s paper contains an excellent survey of the literature on wine and music pairing. But the heart of her research are the experimental tastings she designed using 71 volunteers and several bottles of Veuve Clicquot Ponsardin Yellow Label Brut Non-Vintage and four classical music pieces: Claude Debussy, Danses Sacrée et Profane, Danse Profane; Johannes Brahms, Violin Concerto, Movement 3, Allegro giocoso, ma non troppo; Modest Mussorgsky, Pictures at an Exhibition: Promenade; and Camille Saint-Saëns, Carnival of the Animals: XIV – Finale.

These musical pieces were chosen specifically to test two hypotheses:

These pieces were chosen in part as well-suited to testing whether parameters of high pitch, fast tempo, bright/sharp timbre, and accentuated/dynamic articulation heighten effervescence and acidity/crispness perception, and whether lower pitch, slow tempo, full timbre, and smooth articulation might elicit greater richness and fruitiness perception in the champagne.

The details of the study are worth looking at but here I will just briefly summarize some of her most interesting conclusions:

  • The Champagne was considered more exciting when tasted with the two musical pieces rated highest in music arousal compared to tasting in silence.
  • The Champagne was enjoyed more while listening to the music with “high pitch, fast tempo, sharp timbre, dynamic articulation and high excitement compared to silence.”
  • “The lighthearted Saint-Saëns was rated best-matched and most-liked, which corroborates other studies that found light, fast-paced pieces were preferred for bright, high acid white wines.”
  • “The champagne was rated highest in effervescence when tasted with the two pieces sharing high pitch, fast tempo, sharp timbre, dynamic articulation, and high excitement. Contrastingly, the champagne was rated highest in fruitiness and richness when tasted with the piece featuring low pitch, slower tempo, round timbre, smooth articulation, and high power.”

As the holiday season nears and we stock up on Champagne, don’t forget to download some Saint-Saëns and Debussy. Your guests will be suitably aroused.

Charles Spence on Wine and Music Pairing

The idea that a certain wine will taste better while listening to Mozart rather than Beethoven or Radiohead rather than Lady Gaga strikes many people as implausible when they first hear about it. Yet the influence of music on perceptions of wine has been thoroughly tested and demonstrated by sensory scientists seeking to understand how our senses interact.

The most prominent researcher investigating wine and music pairing is probably Charles Spence, Professor of Experimental Psychology and Head of the Crossmodal Research Laboratory, Department of Experimental Psychology at the University of Oxford.

Happily, he makes his research accessible online for anyone who wants to read it. In this post ,I will link to the three papers that confirmed for me that there was something important here to explore.

The first paper, “Wine and Music (I): On the cross-modal matching of wine and music”, distinguishes cross-modal correspondence from the related condition called synesthesia and then describes a variety of experiments in which test subjects found certain pairings of wine and music to be superior to others.

As the research that has been reviewed here has hopefully made clear, the majority of people appreciate a natural affinity between certain pieces of music (or musical parameters, such as pitch and timbre) and particular wines (or the tastes, aroma, bouquet, flavour or mouthfeel characteristics thereof ).

The second paper in this series, “Wine and music: Can you taste the music. Modulating the experience of wine through music and sound” shows that music can modify the perception of particular dimensions of wine.

It has long been known that what we hear can influence the hedonic aspects of tasting. However, what the latest research now shows is that by playing the “right” music one can also impact specific sensory-discriminative aspects of tasting as well. Music has been shown to influence the perceived acidity, sweetness, fruitiness, astringency, and length of wine.

Finally, Spence and his associate Qian Janice Wang address the question of why this matters. In “Wine and music (III): so what if music influences the taste of the wine?” they outline “…a number of the uses that such research findings have been put to in the marketplace, in experiential events, in artistic performances, and in terms of furthering our theoretical understanding of those factors that influence the tasting experience.”

This is only a small portion of the empirical work being done in this field, but it gives you a good overview of the science behind our book and this blog.


Welcome to the inaugural blog post at pairingwineandmusic.com

Over the past 30 years, wine and music pairing has progressed from a curiosity studied by a few wine geeks and sensory scientists to a richly rewarding aesthetic experience practiced by diverse people in the wine world. It is now common to find winery tasting rooms carefully choosing music to complement their offerings. Sommeliers host wine tastings in which music plays an integral role in appreciating wines. And individual consumers are beginning to pay attention to how their music selections influence their enjoyment of that special bottle they open on the weekend.

This blog will highlight developments in this new and exciting dimension of wine and music appreciation. We will link to and summarize research, discover websites and articles devoted to the topic, and provide playlists and insight into how to use music to enhance your experience of wine.

We have written an ebook on the topic. Head to a bookseller for a copy and return here for updates on the fascinating connections between liquid poetry and the language of rhythm, melody, and harmony.