Musical Refinement

Sometimes a tugged mental thread yields the most unexpected byways of learning.

This particular journey began the other evening, when I was listening to a French radio station, Swing FM, while sipping a glass of champagne. The music playing was a heavy Hammond organ thing, the champagne didn’t taste quite right, and fortunately, some small task diverted my attention. When I came back to my glass, the music had changed to a happier swing piece, Southern Sunset.

It could be because I’m not a big fan of the mighty Hammond, but I was sure the champagne tasted better once the organ blues song had ended.

The question mark that popped up above my head was: Did the music affect my experience of the taste of the champagne?

And because this isn’t the end of my story, the simple answer is: Probably.

Some studies have shown that the tongue is easily fooled. When wine drinkers were exposed to various kinds of music, from Carmina Burana by Orff to Just Can’t Get Enough by Nouvelle Vague, the subjective perception of a wine’s taste could change by up to 60% – cabernet tasted richer, chardonnay more zingy, and so on.

Chalk it up to cognitive priming theory. The brain can be primed to respond in a certain way by environmental factors.

A point to be noted in passing: If you are trying to impress with a good wine, or cover the faults of a bad one: Play the right

But could music actually change the way wine tastes, objectively (i.e. quantifiably)?

Again, according to some winemakers, the answer is: Maybe.

The sound frequencies of music played to vats of maturing wine are said by some to enhance the yeast activity during the fermentation process. I haven’t been able to find any studies which back this up, but the winemakers who play monastic chants and classical music to their vats seem persuaded.

And so to the end of my exploration today, the current apex of winemaking and fermentation sound techniques, the Sonor Wines speaker/vat technology.

Sonos Wines techology Illustration: Sonos Wines

Sonor Wines technology
Illustration: Sonor Wines

Created by a Viennese winemaker / musician, the claim is made that refinement of wine through music can be achieved through “a special speaker (…) placed into the tank or barrel to expose the fermenting grape juice to classical, jazz, electronic, pop or rock music. This method positively influences the maturing process of the wine and produces a better taste.”

My initial reaction?

It’s wondrous strange, and well, why not?

I don’t know if it works, I don’t know if it’s quantifiable genius or certifiable humbug, but on this dreary and rainy autumn morning, I’m happier for having found it.

Human Harmonicity


Illustration of the score of EEG-fMRI music (Printed by Sibelius 4.0).
(a) Score of brain music of Subject A, (b) score of brain music of Subject B.

These two items seem to me to belong together: A study showing that the human brain is wired for harmonicity, and the translation of brain signals into music.

First, from ScienceNOW:

“Since the days of the ancient Greeks, scientists have wondered why the ear prefers harmony. Now, scientists suggest that the reason may go deeper than an aversion to the way clashing notes abrade auditory nerves; instead, it may lie in the very structure of the ear and brain, which are designed to respond to the elegantly spaced structure of a harmonious sound.

“Sensitivity to harmonicity is important in everyday life, not just in music,” noted researchers. For example, the ability to detect harmonic components of sound allows people to identify different vowel sounds, and to concentrate on one conversation in a noisy crowd. Because amusics don’t have problems with these tasks, even though they can’t distinguish consonance, further investigation of subjects with the condition should provide valuable information of the role of harmonicity in communication and perception, Demany says.”

A team led by neuroscientists Jing Lu and Dezhong Yao of China’s University of Electronic Science and Technology write:

“Music and language define us as human. Emotional expression and communication, through language or non-linguistic artistic expression, are recognized as being strongly linked to health and sense of well-being. Therefore, as an artistic expression, music may represent human mind or mood.

“We hope the on-going progresses of the brain signals-based music will properly unravel part of the truth in the brain.” In the new study, they added blood flow measurements from an fMRI machine to the mix. Combining EEG and fMRI allowed pitch and intensity to operate independently, a baseline distinction separating noise from music. To demonstrate, Lu and Yao recorded the brains of a 14-year-old girl and 31-year-old woman at rest.

Audio of the music above can be heard at WiredScience here.

So, we are programmed to seek harmonicity and our brains make music of their own. I like the sound of that tune.

Scale-Free Brain-Wave Music from Simultaneously EEG and fMRI Recordings