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THE MENU: Researcher explores how music impacts perception of flavor in Santa Barbara


SANTA BARBARA, Calif. - A Santa Barbara researcher is embarking on an unusual project to prove how music can impact our perception of flavor.

In a world where sound makes waves, it also ignites the human senses.

All five of them. 

"Musical parameters can impact the constructs of flavor, taste, and smell, which all go into how we perceive flavor. But there are also aspects around sound and touch that we don’t think about as much," said composer and researcher Alexis Story Crawshaw of Santa Barbara.

Crawshaw has spent more than a decade exploring the cross-sensory effects of music on flavor.

For example, do some sounds and vibrations enhance our cravings for salty food over something sweet?

"Part of my research is on haptics, and the waves that sound impact the body beyond hearing, and how that can be harnessed in a musical way," said Crawshaw.

When Chef Preston Knox of Barbareño in Santa Barbara heard about her work, he reached out to her.

"We are putting on a cross sensory dinner with four musical suites and four courses that’s aimed to change your perception of taste through sound and vibration," said Preston.

This is the most ambitious collaboration they have yet attempted, creating an original dinner-long musical work and menu together, joined by guitarist Samuel Shalhoub.

"Vibrations through your spine can change the way you perceive, the core flavors, saltiness bitterness, sweetness, sour umami, and so on different frequencies can attenuate those flavors," said Shalhoub.

Crashaw said her development of this cross sensory experience is just the beginning of a new form of art. 

"I think people don’t probably understand fully what it is until they’ve experienced it," said Crawshaw.

The musical score features live voice, guitar, electronics, and whole-body vibrations. 

Crawshaw’s team installed haptic platforms under each chair.

"As people sit in the chairs and are going through the courses there’s going to be vibrational patterns introduced into the seating people will feel in their body that are commensurate with the food they’ll be tasting," said biomedical engineer Alan Macy of Biopac Systems Inc.

"This is an enormous amount of effort and dedication and passion to try and create something … that’s quite revolutionary," said Shalhoub.

"The goals are to provoke an appreciation for the strangeness of our sensory experience in the multi sensory cross sensory nature of our perception," said Crawshaw.

Crawshaw said this experience is just an appetizer to a new way of dining. 

"I think what we’re proving here is that restaurants may need to think a little more closely about the music that’s playing in the restaurants while the diners are enjoying these delicious meals. And what’s the affect on the sound of the room that they’re in  on the diners experience," said Shalhoub.

This story received a Golden Mike Award and is nominated for an Emmy Award.

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Patricia Martellotti

Patricia Martellotti is a reporter for News Channel 3-12. To learn more about Patricia, click here.


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