I Love The Smell Of Bach In The Morning

This month’s New Yorker has a story about researchers who have discovered how interdependent our senses are when it comes to enjoying an experience. (h/t Tyler Cowen)

For example, people’s perception of how crispy potato chips are when they eat them is dependent on what type of sound they are listening to. People will perceive foods as more bitter, sweet or satiating depending on the color, shape, texture, weight of the vessels they are consuming them from even if the product doesn’t change.

…Spence asked people to sample a dark Welsh ale: one sip while listening to a light, tinkling xylophone composition, and the second to the sound of a deep, mellifluous organ. When the second piece of music stopped, the audience had fallen silent.

“Wow,” a girl near me in a vintage houndstooth dress said. I knew this particular trick of Spence’s—I had watched him perform it multiple times—but it still worked on me. With only a change in the background music, the deep-brown beer had gone from creamy and sweet to mouth-dryingly bitter.

While these techniques have been used to help market food and other products, they can also be used to promote healthier eating.

He noted that other researchers have shown that the elderly, when eating tomato soup, must add more than twice as much salt as a young person does in order to achieve the same taste. Why not mitigate that increased salt consumption, and its attendant health hazards, by presenting the soup in a blue container, a color that Spence has shown can make food seem significantly saltier?…The effect could be used similarly, Spence said, to design soundtracks that replace some of the lost flavor of food for the elderly.


This year, he began working with a children’s cancer center in Spain, to experiment with plating, lighting, and acoustic tweaks that could counter the pervasive metallic taste and nausea that are common side effects of chemotherapy.

Since performing and visual arts are a sensory experience, the article got me wondering what the benefit would be in engaging a fuller range of senses at performances, museums, galleries, etc.

Most specifically, I wondered what might be helpful in making the experience more welcoming and less anxiety inducing for new attendees. My first thought was the subtle smell of chocolate chip cookies or homemade bread wafting from somewhere.

Beyond that I can’t think of too many other specific examples of sights, sounds and textures that would be conducive to an experience. (Although according to Holly Mulcahy, in Chattanooga, Maple Street Biscuits are hands down the way to go.)

Many arts venues will often have music playing and the lights adjusted to create a specific mood for visitors and attendees. Artists are already plugged into the impact of color, light, sound, and sometimes smell, as tools and possess a little insight in this regard. But often this insight is focused on the impact of the presentation on the viewer rather than the viewer’s total experience.

Clearly, you can go mad trying to determine if the curve of the arm rests on your seats best enhances the experience of Shakespeare or Arthur Miller. It could be helpful to keep this research in the back of your mind and think about what obvious opportunities to engage a fuller range of senses might exist. It may involve changing default lighting schemes or soundtracks in favor of more suitable ones.

About Joe Patti

I have been writing Butts in the Seats (BitS) on topics of arts and cultural administration since 2004 (yikes!). Given the ever evolving concerns facing the sector, I have yet to exhaust the available subject matter. In addition to BitS, I am a founding contributor to the ArtsHacker (artshacker.com) website where I focus on topics related to boards, law, governance, policy and practice.

I am also an evangelist for the effort to Build Public Will For Arts and Culture being helmed by Arts Midwest and the Metropolitan Group. (http://www.creatingconnection.org/about/)

My most recent role was as Executive Director of the Grand Opera House in Macon, GA.

Among the things I am most proud are having produced an opera in the Hawaiian language and a dance drama about Hawaii's snow goddess Poli'ahu while working as a Theater Manager in Hawaii. Though there are many more highlights than there is space here to list.


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