This past week I got to immerse myself in the most distinctly French experience I’ve had since arriving in Paris – le festival de musique – a festival that’s essentially a giant excuse for everyone in France to leave work early, throw back a few drinks and enjoy music on every street corner, bar, park, and metro station in the city.
It was an amazing day, night, and morning.
There was such a diversity of interesting music – a solo guitarist playing tunes from “dirty dancing” to a bunch of kids, two dueling DJs (the one with a portable smoke machine won), a couple of Rastafarian reggae singers on the RER train, and even a man playing a collection of giant bells on truck bed outside Notre Dame. Just as interesting was the diversity of behavior amongst those listening to the music, specifically their drinking behavior.
Being the upstanding, responsible, academic individual that I am, I used my scientific observation abilities to hone in on the type and amount of alcohol being consumed by the groups listening to each genre of music. I then used this data to make educated decisions about which music attracted the most degenerate groups so that I could join them avoid them.
Most of the Parisians seamed to be keeping their drinking in check. Those listening to the blues street musicians were sipping on wine and beer, the large group around the truck-bell musician was doing the same, and not surprisingly, the kids surrounding the solo-guitarist weren’t tossing back too many brews. The dueling DJs were a different matter though, and I had to unfortunately dedicate more time there to document the significantly larger quantities of wine consumed by the audience – at one point I even saw a flask and a mini-keg!
I witnessed the most alcohol consumption later that night though, when I followed the deep boom of a bass to a large dubstep-rave outside the Odeon metro station. As I approached the mass of people jumping in synchrony to the deafening music it quickly became apparent that these festival-goers had traded their wine for many liters of flavored vodka.
This sparked my curiosity, why were some groups heavier drinkers than others? Was there something about dubstep and the DJ-house music that caused those listening to drink more? There was a significantly higher percentage of young people at the rave but that doesn’t necessarily account for why they were drinking hard alcohol while the college-aged kids elsewhere were drinking beer and wine. I needed to do some research.
The Effect of Noise on Taste
In 2011, an article published in the journal Food Quality and Preference, looked at the effect of music and noise on how 80 college-aged individuals perceived the taste of alcohol (Stafford et al., 2012).
The study was pretty simple. When each participant entered the lab they were blindfolded and given a set of four different solutions (bitter, sour, sweet, and salty) to taste so that they had a baseline to compare against for the rest of the experiment. The students then put on headphones and were divided into four groups. One group had house music played in both ears, another had a news article being read in both ears, a third had music playing in one ear and the article in the other, and a fourth heard neither noise. The members of each group were then given alcohol of varying concentrations (with mixers) and asked to rate the level of sweet/bitter/sour/salty taste and overall strength of the alcohol in each drink (on a scale of 1-100).
Before we evaluate the results it’s important to first think about how the researchers controlled for external factors that might affect the data (like different alcohol preferences in the subjects, mood at the time of the study, type of music they normally listen to, etc.). It appears that the researchers did account for most of these issues, and they chose students with standard alcohol habits, no known taste aversions, and who were in average moods. They also chose the music genre and alcohol mixers based off of an initial study of the preferences of ten students. However, it would have been great to see the house music compared to other genres like jazz and country to make sure that the data wasn’t genre-dependent.
The results showed that those listening to music in both ears actually found the alcoholic drinks significantly sweater than the other three groups. Additionally, the ability to discern between the different strengths of alcohol was significantly lower in the music/news and only-music individuals than the other two groups, a result that has been shown in other papers (Seo et al., 2012). The fact that music only appeared to effect sweetness perception and none of the other three tastes is especially interesting because on average, the sweater alcohol, the more it gets consumed (Lanier et al., 2005).
How does this all occur in the brain?
There are very few articles that show how music affects taste perception in the brain. One thing that is somewhat similar is a process known as sensory deprivation. In sensory deprivation, one sense in eliminated and because of that another sense gets stronger. A perfect example of this would be how blind individuals often have a very good sense of touch. It’s been shown that the louder a noise the more it inhibits a person’s ability to distinguish taste (Woods et al., 2011). The music at the rave was much louder than anything I had heard at the festival, so maybe the reverse of sensory deprivation was occurring. Perhaps the Parisians’ sensory systems were so over-stimulated by the loud music that they were less able to perceive the alcohol concentration, leading to the consumption of more and harder alcohol. Additionally, the music might have made the vodka taste sweeter, making it even easier to drink. This is primarily speculation though, and lack of concluding evidence makes it difficult to know exactly what was happening in the brain. Perhaps I will have to conduct a research study of my own to determine the regions of the brain involved, as well as the effect of different music genres on alcohol perception. I wonder if any Emory students would volunteer for such a tasking experiment!
– Camden MacDowell
Lanier, S. A., Hayes, J. E., & Duffy, V. B. (2005). Sweet and bitter tastes of alcoholic beverages mediate alcohol intake in of-age undergraduates. Physiology &Behavior, 83(5), 821–831.
Stafford L., Agobiani E., Fernandes M. (2012). Effects of noise and distraction on alcohol perception. Food Quality and Preference 24: 218-224
Seo H., Hahner A., Gudziol V., Scheibe M., Hummel T. (2012). Influence of background noise on the performance in the odor sensitivity task: effects of noise type and extraversion. Exp Brain Res 222:89-97
Woods, A. T., Poliakoff, E., Lloyd, D. M., Kuenzel, J., Hodson, R., Gonda, H., et al.(2011). Effect of background noise on food perception. Food Quality and Preference 22(1), 42-47