Medical Mysteries of Music

Published on July 9th, 2018 | by Alan Cross

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Can you use music to change the taste of wine? A guide to the art of pairing wine with the right music.

[This was my weekly column for GlobalNews.ca – AC]

It all started with a glass of tomato juice.

On a recent long-haul flight, the man across the aisle ordered up glass after glass of the stuff. Not Caesars or anything with alcoholic content, but straight Heinz juice.

After his fourth serving — I’m guessing, I couldn’t keep track — I was craving one myself. This was strange, given that I never, ever drink tomato juice. I find it too strong, too acidic and in no way refreshing. So why the sudden urge? Maybe I was unconsciously wondering what my fellow passenger was getting out of his experience.

When the flight attendant next came by, I asked for a glass (as did the guy next to me). I took a sip. It tasted… good. Very good, in fact. [NOTE: Lufthansa serves 53,000 gallons of tomato juice on its flights annually. Compare that with 50,000 gallons of beer. On a German airline! And when United threatened to drop tomato juice from its beverage selections, there was a passenger revolt.]

This led me down a deep rabbit hole of scientific inquiry into why food and drink taste differently when you’re in an airplane at a high altitude.

Firing up the in-flight wifi, I learned that the lower cabin pressure (the equivalent of an elevation of about 6,000 ft) and the low humidity impact our senses of smell and taste. In order to give food any taste, it’s over-salted and over-spiced (except for curry, which, for some reason, tastes just the same on the ground as it does in the sky).

But I also discovered something more. The drone of the engines also affects our sense of taste.

This I could test immediately. When dinner service commenced, I pulled out the noise-cancelling headphones, but didn’t put them on. I tasted everything on my tray, noticing all the sensations and spicing. Then I slipped on the headphones and took a few more nibbles. The difference was remarkable: The sauce was far too salty but the fruit was suddenly more, well, fruity and the chocolate sweeter. Fascinating.

A few weeks later, I got a call from Noble Wines. Would I be interested in hosting some kind of event involving wine and music? And if so, what would I want to talk about?

“I have just the thing,” I said, remembering my tomato juice experience.  “Let’s conduct an experiment in pairing wine with the right music.”

Keep reading.

Here’s my appearance on AM 640 Global Radio.

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About the Author

is an internationally known broadcaster, interviewer, writer, consultant, blogger and speaker. In his 30+ years in the music business, Alan has interviewed the biggest names in rock, from David Bowie and U2 to Pearl Jam and the Foo Fighters. He’s also known as a musicologist and documentarian through programs like The Ongoing History of New Music.


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