Jane Anson meets Charles Spence, professor of experimental psychology at Oxford University and the great grandson of a Victorian illusionist, to find out why both Krug and Heston Blumenthal have employed his ideas on using music to make wine and food taste better.

Randall Williams, with his elegant top hat and carefully waxed moustache, was affectionately known as the King of Showmen in Victorian England.

He was wildly popular in the 1880s and 1890s, said to be able to control entire crowds with his voice alone, ‘moving them on masse towards the pay-box’ as one contemporary newspaper commented.

His travelling shows rotated around British fairgrounds with their blend of high drama and optical illusions, most famously his Ghost Show that popularised techniques still used for haunted houses in fairs today. If you saw Michael Jackson make an appearance at the 2014 Billboard Music Awards, or watched Sherlock in The Abominable Bride on New Year’s Day, you’ve experienced one of these ghost shows.

Today Williams’ great grandson, Charles Spence, has his own line in creating illusions. His, however, are of the sensory kind. And they just might change the way we all experience wine over the next few decades.

Spence’s stock-in-trade is to take everyday objects and to break down what we perceive about them. He has been known to make his audience believe the beer they are drinking changes taste from unspeakably bitter to cloyingly sweet simply by changing the type of background music in the room, that the crisps they are crunching on are either past their sell-by or fresh out of the packet just by raising or lowering the sound of the ‘crunch’, or that the wine in their glass is either higher or lower in alcohol, or more or less expensive, simply by changing the colour of the room, or the weight and shape of the bottle.

One of his experiments showed that playing Carl Orff’s Carmina Burana led to a 60% increase in how ‘powerful and heavy’ red and white wines were thought to be.

Sensory illusions. Playing with external stimuli. Gastrophysics. Call it what you like, but the idea of manipulating our food and drink experience is fast gaining traction.

Spence is professor of experimental psychology at Oxford University. Invited in 1997 at age 28 to set up his own research lab, and winner of the IG Nobel prize just over ten years later (‘make ‘em laugh, then make ‘em think’ is its motto; surely a phrase of which Randall Williams would be proud), he would be the first to describe his work as crowd-pleasing.

Spence talks fast, and is happy to skip from subject to subject and back again. It doesn’t take long speaking with him before you realise how he has managed to author or co-author over 500 academic papers over the past 15 years, not to mention organise the many hundreds of practical experiments that he carries out annually alongside consulting for multinational companies and giving lectures and tutorials at Somerville College. Theories usually start out being tested by researchers in his laboratory then extend outwards to bars, restaurants, festivals or organised events (the largest of which to date has been a wine tasting with 3,000 participants). Increasingly, industry is lining up to fête his work.

‘I have always chosen low hanging fruit in terms of finding topics with wide appeal,’ he says disarmingly, ‘and have always focused on the practical rather than intellectual uses for my work. This has led to criticism at times but I’ve been lucky enough to find isolated figures along the way with enough belief to support me’.

Among the believers are Heston Blumenthal (his Sound of the Sea meal is based in part on Spence’s research into sound magnifying our taste experiences and the two have a research project running at the moment with London’s Science Musuem), Heineken, Courvoisier, Campo Viejo, and Krug.

‘I began working with teas, margarines, then soft drinks, beer companies, whiskey but time and again I kept being led back to wine. There is more existing research out there in wine than in any other type of drink, perhaps because its tastes are so complex. Certainly wine aisles are the most visually complicated spaces in the supermarket, and simply trying to understand labels is an entire psychology course in itself’.

Krug ID Music Pairing App

The work that Spence has done with Krug gives a fascinating clue to what might be the future of wine drinking. You have probably seen their Krug ID Music Pairing app, where you can scan the wine label, or type a number that is written on the bottle. This then leads you to music that has been chosen to match each of their cuvées by singers and songwriters such as singer Gregory Porter, who chose his No Love Dying for Krug 2002, or Blufunk musician Keziah Jones who chose Thelonius Monk for Clos de Mesnil.

I’ve used the Krug ID app once, sitting in my kitchen on a Friday night and enjoyed it but let’s not pretend that we’re not already set for pleasure when there’s an open bottle of Krug in the room. According to Spence the matches are idiosyncratic right now, but he is hoping they will go further and select music that affects taste, temperature, perception of bubbles and other sensory aspects of enjoying Champagne.

‘I work with sound designers and composers to make music inspired by science, and the potential is huge. At present most brands use this research for advertising or marketing but it offers the ability to truly enhance the customer experience,’ he says.

‘We’re going to see growth in sensory apps’

‘I’m sure that over the next few decades we are going to see a further growth in sensory apps that will alter our eating or drinking experience,’ he says.

‘The idea of augmenting flavours is going to get bigger. Glassware, for example, is set for a revolution and will soon be able to play with textures, temperatures and sounds. I’m wary of making claims for health benefits without long term study, but we can imagine ways to, for example, lower salt in foods or lower alcohol levels in wine without compromising flavour simply by working with the packaging or environment.

‘Who knows what the results will be, but it’s going to be interesting to watch’.

Do have a favourite piece of music when drinking certain wines, or have you noticed any differences in the glass depending on what’s playing? Let us know in the comment section below.

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