Creating soundtracks to transform the taste of wine

Dom Aversano

When I was asked to interview Soundpear I questioned if I was the right person for the job. The company specialises in composing music to enhance the flavour of wine at their tasting events in Greece, stating that they ‘meticulously design bespoke music to match the sensory profile of a paired product.’ I on the other hand am almost proudly philistine about wine, only drinking it at events and parties when it is put into my hand. I find the rituals and mystification of this ancient grape juice generally more off-putting than alluring, especially given how studies show doing as little as changing a cheap-looking label on a bottle for an expensive one or putting red dye into white wine is sufficient to change the opinions of even seasoned wine drinkers and sommeliers.

Yet, perhaps who better to do the interview than someone whose preferred notes are not the subtle hints of caramel, oak, or cherry, but the opening riff of John Coltrane’s Giant Steps.

Despite my scepticism, I was interested in talking to the company as the connection between music and taste is one that is rarely explored.

The three of us met on Zoom, each calling from a different European country. Asteris Zacharakis lives in Greece and is a researcher at the School of Music Studies at the Aristotle University of Thessaloniki, as well as an amateur winemaker, whereas Vasilis Paras is a music producer and multi-instrumentalist living outside of London. While the pair originally met playing in a band twenty years ago, their collaboration now involves Asteris hosting wine-tasting events in Greece, while Vasilis composes bespoke music for each variety of wine sampled.

Our conversation turns quickly to the science supporting the idea that the taste of wine can be enhanced by sound. Asteris has a passion for multimodal perception — a science that studies how our senses process in combination rather than in isolation. A famous example is the McGurk Effect, which shows that when a person sees a video of someone uttering a syllable (e.g., ga ga) but hears an overdub of a different-sounding syllable (e.g., ba ba) this sensory incongruence results in the perception of a third non-existing syllable (da da).

‘There is evidence that if you sit around a round table with no corners, it’s easier to come into agreement with your colleagues than if there are angles.’

Regarding how this could allow us to experience things differently, Asteris describes: ‘It’s been shown through research that by manipulating inputs from various senses we can obtain more complex and interesting experiences. This does not just work in the laboratory, it’s how our brains work.’

Soundpear treats the drinking of wine and listening to music as a unified experience, similar to how films unify moving images and music. I am curious how the science translates directly into Soundpear’s work since musicians and winemakers must have worked in this way for centuries — if only guided by intuition. Surely a person drinking wine on a beautiful hilltop village in the South of France while listening to a musician playing the violin is having a multimodal experience? Asteris is quick to clarify that far from being exclusive, multimodal perception occurs all the time, and is not dependent on some specialist scientific understanding.

‘Musicians become famous because they do something cognitively meaningful and potentially novel, but I doubt that in all but a few cases they’re informed by the science, and they don’t need to be. Take a painter and their art. If a neuroscientist goes and analyses what the painter is doing, they could come up with some rules of visual perception they believe the artist is taking advantage of. However, successful artists have an inherent understanding of the rules without having the scientific insight of a neuroscientist.’

Multimodal perception offers insights into how sound affects taste. For example, high notes can enhance the taste of sourness, while low notes enhance our sense of bitterness. Vasilis recounts how initially the duo had experimented with more complex recorded music but decided to strip things down and use simple electronic sounds.

‘We thought, why don’t we take this to the absolute basic level, like subtractive synthesis?”

“Let’s start with sine waves, and tweak them to see how people respond. What do they associate with sweetness? What do they associate with sourness, and how do these translate in the raw tone? Then people can generally agree certain sounds are sour. From that, we try to combine these techniques to create more complicated timbres that represent more complicated aromas, until we work our way up to a bottle of wine.’

Asteris joins in on this theme ‘For example, the literature suggests that we tend to associate a sweet taste or aroma with consonant timbres, whereas saltiness corresponds to more staccato music, and bitterness is associated with lower frequencies and rough textures. Based on this, we knew if we wanted to make the sonic representation of a cherry aroma it needed to be both sweet and sour. So we decided we should combine a dissonant component to add some sourness and at the same time a concordant component to account for the sweetness’.

They tested these sounds on each other but also experimented with participants. Asteris describes their process ‘From our library of sounds we pick some and perform experiments in an academic lab environment, to either confirm or disprove our hypotheses. Our sound-aroma correspondence assumptions are proven right in some cases, but in other cases where participants don’t agree with our assumed association, we discard it and say

“Okay, we thought that sound would be a good representative for this scent but apparently it’s not.”’

I ask if anyone can try out pairing their music with wine. Vasilis is hesitant about this, pointing out that while they have a publicly available playlist on YouTube, using it as intended would require listeners to seek out specific bottles of wine. When I ask if these could be interchangeable with other bottles he draws a comparison with film music, stating that while you could theoretically change one film score for another, it likely would clash.

At this point, I feel my initial resistance giving way. Suddenly the thought of basking in the Greek sun listening to music and drinking wine feels much more appealing — maybe being a wine philistine is overrated. What I find refreshing about the duo is they are not overplaying the science, but appear to actually be having fun combining their talents to explore a new field between taste and music. It is not the cynical banalisation of music that Spotify often promotes, using playlists with names like ‘Music for your morning coffee’. Rather than treating the experience as an afterthought Soundpear is designing its music specifically for it.

However, one question still lingers — I ask how much they believe their work can carry across cultures. Asteris accepts that neither the effect of the music nor the taste of the wine can be considered universal experiences and their appeal is largely an audience drawn from cultures considered Western. It is an honest answer, and not surprising given that rarely does either music or drink genuinely appeal to global audiences anyway, especially given that alcohol is illegal or taboo throughout much of the world.

So, what of the music?

Vasilis composes with a certain mellifluous euphoria reminiscent at times of Boards of Canada and the film composer Michael Giacchino’s soundtrack for Inside Out, though with a more minimalist timbral palette than either. The tone and mood seem appropriate for accompanying a feeling of tipsiness and disinhibition. I even detect a subtle narrative structure that I assume accompanies the opening of the bottle, the initial taste, and the aftertaste. It is not hard to imagine the music working in the context of a tasting session, and people enjoying themselves.

Soundpear appears to be attempting to broaden how we combine our senses with the goal of opening people up to new experiences, which regardless of whether you are interested in wine or not is undoubtedly interesting. It is an invitation to multidisciplinary collaboration since the principles applied to wine could just as easily be applied to coffee, architecture, or natural landscapes. The attention they bring to multimodal perception makes one question whether music could be used in new ways, and that can only be a good thing.

Music Hackspace will host a workshop with Soundpear on Friday 22nd September 6pm UK

The sound of wine: transform your wine-tasting experiences through music-wine pairing

Soundpear are planning a music-wine pairing event at the Winemakers of Northern Greece Association headquarters in Thessaloniki this October – so stay tuned for more details!