Taste the music

by Rob Horning

19 May 2008


The BBC reports on a study of how listening to music can affect our appreciation of wine.

The Heriot Watt University study found people rated the change in taste by up to 60% depending on the melody heard. The researchers said cabernet sauvignon was most affected by “powerful and heavy” music, and chardonnay by “zingy and refreshing” sounds. Professor Adrian North said the study could lead retailers to put music recommendations on their wine bottles.

This seemed a pretty random thing to be investigating—at a certain level everything affects how we perceive everything else, so what’s the use? (But it’s interesting that this study was commissioned by a vintner, as if seeking a scientific imprimatur for a new line of marketing attack.  People are bored with pairing wine with food; let’s see if they’ll bite for pairing it with music!)

Of course our judgments are affected by our environment. Consuming wine is already meant to evoke a kind of class-inflected gestalt—the sort of thing that has political pundits contrasting the wine-track from the beer-track among American voters. Our subjective experience of both wine and music is so nebulous that they seem a perfect pair; we make unverifiable subjective claims about them both independently, so why not fuse them and enable a host of new pompous prescriptive declarations? Both have an edifice of connoisseurship built up around them, meaning that they are both especially suited for deployment as cultural capital. Bringing them together broadens the opportunity for such displays exponentially.

Basically, studies like these reveal what behavioral economists insist on, what Dan Ariely’s book Predicatbly Irrational makes clear over and over again: that context shapes how we consume things. Most goods seem to have intrinsic value, but they turn out to be experiential goods. Oenophile propaganda aside, wine has no intrinsic quality—we can’t determine what it is “really worth” or how good it “really” tastes independent of what’s going on when we are drinking it. We make the giids useful; they don’t have some finite amount of value stored within them beforehand, in the abstract. But it’s very difficult for us to break the habit of attributing our personal ability to give goods value to the goods themselves—what Marx called commodity fetishism, basically.

There is a physical relation between physical things. But it is different with commodities. There, the existence of the things quâ commodities, and the value relation between the products of labor which stamps them as commodities, have absolutely no connection with their physical properties and with the material relations arising therefrom. There, it is a definite social relation between men, that assumes, in their eyes, the fantastic form of a relation between things. In order, therefore, to find an analogy, we must have recourse to the mist-enveloped regions of the religious world. In that world the productions of the human brain appear as independent beings endowed with life, and entering into relation both with one another and the human race. So it is in the world of commodities with the products of men’s hands. This I call the Fetishism which attaches itself to the products of labor, so soon as they are produced as commodities, and which is therefore inseparable from the production of commodities.

So Marx attributes this phenomenon to the capitalist mode of production and labor exploitation and so on, but it may be exacerbated by our awareness of our own limitations, and our wish to augment the amount of value we are able to experience. If the goods have pleasure-giving qualities we don’t, maybe we can better ourselves through them. So it is that we set ourselves for disappointment over and over again in consumerism, as we acquire a good and discover the pleasure we get from it is once again limited not by the good itself but by our imagination.

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