I was recently introduced to something I never knew existed, but wasn’t surprised to see that if it did exist it would be in New York: Musical Pairing, the art of harmonizing music to your meal.
As a certified sommelier and NYC beer tour guide, I’ve had my fair share of food pairings: chocolate and wine, dinner and beer, whiskey and bacon. Always food and drinks; however, never with a third element. Now, during a Musical Pairing popup dinner at Ruth’s Chris Steakhouse, I’d get my chance.
A bit of background about Musical Pairing. It was started by a woman named Barbara Werner. As a single woman living in NYC and doing what all single women here do — joining every dating site in existence — she realized she enjoyed her own company more than that of a random stranger. So, she began taking herself out on dinner dates and bringing a pair of headphones. It was during one of these dinners, funny enough at Ruth’s Chris, she realized that her food tasted different depending on what song was playing. It was this “ah ha!” moment that led to something equal parts delicious and science.
“One day I was lost in my music and found myself eating the best meal I had ever had,” explains Werner. “My mouth was watering and I found myself diving into each bite. And then the track changed. The entire experience was lost. I sat there wondering what it was that made that magnificent delectable dish become ordinary in seconds. I realized that the only thing that had changed was the music. That set me on a two year journey to find out why.”
Applying Math To Food Pairing
It may sound crazy; however, sensory perception tests at major universities that are finding that pitch and sound can affect the salivary glands and the detection of salt, spice and more. This makes sense, literally, as the auditory and gustatory receptors of the brain are in very close proximity.
Werner took this information and put simple math to the science, perfecting the equation through endless hours of taste testing and pairing. When a particular combination would cause her mouth to water and her pace to change from eating to devouring, she would take notes on every aspect of what was happening, from the musical tempo to the cooking preparation.
She found she could assign numbers to dishes based on their main protein, the sauce, the cooking method and the spice level. From there, she could also give numbers to music based on the genre, tempo, primary instrument (or vocals) and the dynamics. While different individuals might come up with different numbers based on their preferences, what matters is that the number one gets for the dish matches the number one gets for the music.
Put simply, lighter foods pair better with lighter music and vice versa. Take for example a grilled tilapia with lemon oil and a little spice, which Werner would assign a 6. She came up with this number based on the idea that Fish + 1, Light Sauce + 1, Grilled + 3, just a little spice + 1 = 6.
A musical suggestion to go with this might be Vivaldi’s “Four Seasons, Spring,” based on the genre +2, fairly uptempo +2, primary instrument strings +1, some dynamics but not many +1 = 6.
And there you have it.
What’s important to remember is you must begin with the food first. The music has already been chosen for you. You can’t call up your favorite artist and ask them to increase the tempo of a tune. Instead, you need to play with the food — its proteins, sauces, spices and cooking preparation — and go from there, also taking the sides and condiments into consideration.
Then there’s the drinks, which also get a number. When incorporating beverages into the equation, Werner suggests throwing out all the rules you thought you knew — like white wine with fish and red wine with beef — and shake things up.
“We might serve straight tequila shaken hard with lemon peel — I call it “sipping tequila” — with an appetizer, or a beer or martini with dessert,” explains Werner. “Sometimes we serve black coffee with the entrée or a drink that has been tweaked enough so that it can go well with both a fish and a cheese course, or pair well with both a chicken and a beef course.”
It’s also vital to understand that everyone’s palates are different, and thus the number scale will also be different. Each pairing is a unique experience to the individual taking part.
Honing Your Music & Food Pairing Skills
My first time trying the Musical Pairing popup is a truly immersive experience, an overtaking of the senses — all five of them, including hearing — that I gladly welcomed. I’ll admit that not every pairing made sense to me. Moreover, at moments I felt slightly overwhelmed, forgetting the drink component while attempting to discover the differences in flavor of my ahi tuna and Prosseco when listening to “We Got The Beat” vs “Danny Boy” vs “Call Me Maybe.”
The truth is, all of our palates are different, and there are no right answers as to what’s the correct music, food and drink pairing — though Werner’s formula helps a lot. Moreover, there are mismatched pairings if you look at extremes. It’s all about elevating the dining experience, with the ability to hone your Musical Pairing skills over time and have it become more second nature.
Says Werner, “Right now, we only use four — sight, smell, taste and touch — but once you add hearing and you use all five senses that’s what make the good dish great. When you get the hang of it you can reorganize your playlist. I tell everyone, if you look at our suggested list for a specific dish, then you can find similar music in your own playlist. Or you can refine your playlist and break it down for a dinner party.”
This all being said, the music that will enhance one person’s meal won’t do the same for another, as tune taste is a very individual thing. For me, our first dish of vanilla ice cream — hey, Musical Pairing is all about mixing things up, so why not start with dessert — really drove this home. I take my first bite sans music, and it feels refreshing and cold on my palate. Next, I don my headphones, “Canon in D” playing in my ear. Suddenly, the ice cream tastes creamier, sweeter. It also brings me back to the previous October, when one of my best friends was married in California. The song is so strongly linked to that memory I’m almost taken back there, the ice cream and wine adding a pleasing touch to the memory.
Another notable pairing during the evening was the filet with bearnaise sauce served with mashed potatoes and asparagus. For a drink, a “Makers Mark Manhattan” with extra cherry to really bring out the bourbon flavors in the meat sauce, all paired with “Nessum Dorma from the Opera Turandot.” This particular pairing is special as it was Werner’s particular “ah ha!” moment, where she realized the power of Musical Pairing. For me, it made me realize certain textures can also pair with the music, as the juicy and tender steak seemed to hit certain notes of the opera.
A fun dessert pairing was the Chocolate Explosion, a molten lava cake, paired with “Gangsta’s Paradise.” For this, almost in unison, the table bobs their heads between bites of chocolate. I’m not sure it changed the taste for me — although I do think it seemed a bit richer with the old school beats — but it certainly altered the experience.
And that’s what Musical Pairing is about. A unique sensory experience; one you may not have ever thought possible. It’s about mixing things up, experimenting, having fun, opening your mind and, at Werner’s Musical Pairing Popups, meeting new people.
There’s An App For That
Werner has also developed a Music Pairing App for iOS and Android for tasters who don’t feel like doing the math. You’ll input your food to then be given beverage recommendations — not just wine, but soda, beer and spirits, too — and then music suggestions from a variety of genres. To make the app even sweeter, there’s downloadable music, as you can listen to 20 seconds of a song and click through straight to your iTunes.