Sonic seasoning – how music guides our subconscious food choices

Background music can influence food choice. But does it also influence our subconscious behavior towards food?


According to a study by Danni Peng-Li and colleagues from Aarhus University, it does. This opens up the possibility to compose music that could nudge us into healthier food choices. Pretzel or cookie? The choice might depend on the music we are listening to. Sonic seasoning describes the idea that our food choices and likings not only depend on the food itself, but also on the sounds we are listening to. A team from ESN member University of Aarhus explored how a specially designed sweet or salty soundtrack would influence how long consumers gaze at sweet or salty food.

The gazing time is believed to be a proxy for the less conscious (implicit) interest in food and might be a more direct route to the consumers´ interest. 72 volunteers from China and Denmark were asked to look at images of sweet and salty food at the same time, for example French fries and doughnuts.

Cheeseburger shuffle and waffle waltz

While looking at the images, they were either listening to sweet music – high pitched, legato, major arpeggios, slow tempo, or salty music – fast tempo, staccato, minor chords. With the help of eye-tracking, the researchers analyzed the gazing time of the participants. The results showed that people looked significantly longer at sweet food when sweet music was played, while their gaze centered on the salty food when salty music was played. Without music, there was no difference in gazing time.

The sweet music made the participants look longer at the sweet food than the salty music made them look at the salty food. This indicates that it might be harder to compose pleasant salty music than it is to compose pleasant sweet music. Somewhat surprisingly, a closer look at the differences between the Chinese and Danish participants did not indicate any major cultural differences.

Background music as a nudge towards healthy food

Overall, the study shows that specifically tailored taste-congruent soundtracks can guide consumers´ eye-movement and food choice. This brings up the exciting possibility that, with the right background music, consumers could be nudged towards choosing more healthy food.

What will the future bring – new compositions that enhance our desire for salads, greens, and whole grain foods? Further studies are needed to follow up on this idea.

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Source: Food Quality and Preference Volume 85, October 2020, 103962 The influence of taste-congruent soundtracks on visual attention and food choice: A cross-cultural eye-tracking study in Chinese and Danish consumers Author links open overlay panel.

Danni Peng-Li, Derek V. Byrne, Raymond C.K. Chan, Qian JaniceWang

Photo: Hadis Malekie /