Is it the Wine or is it the Music?

By Marian Shinuda


As the famous Danish author and poet, Hans Christian Andersen, once said, “Where words fail, music speaks.” Throughout history, the power of music has been debated among intellectuals and musicians alike, with many concluding that music can greatly influence the way we view our world. In movies, music evokes emotion out of viewers, and in marketing, retail chains often play catchy tunes to encourage shoppers to stay longer. Evidence suggests that music may have a great impact on the way that people perceive their surroundings, including their experiences selecting wine.

In 1999, Adrian North and his team of researchers from the University of Leicester in England published their findings on the influence of background music in relation to buying behaviour in the Journal of Applied Psychology. The researchers set up a display in the alcoholic beverages section of a UK supermarket for a two-week period. The display carried four French wines and four German wines priced reasonably for the average shopper. Researchers matched the wines of both countries for price and sweetness. The supermarket played French folk music and German folk music on alternate days. The researchers also alternated the French and German wines from the right side of the display to the left side. Researchers asked those who selected a bottle of wine from the display to fill out a four part questionnaire about their choice.

First, the questionnaire asked consumers for the reason behind their selection of wine. The second question asked consumers to rate, on a scale of zero to ten, how often they typically favoured French wines (zero) or German wines (ten). The third part asked consumers to rate (from zero – not at all, to ten – a lot) the extent of the music’s ability to make the consumer think of the countries the wines came from.

Finally, consumers stated “yes” or “no” to whether or not the music influenced their decision of which wine to purchase.

The researchers underwent the study to test the hypothesis that background music causes consumers to recall information relevant to available items for purchase. The results of the questionnaire showed that the French music made consumers think of France, and the German music made consumers think of Germany. French wine sold more often when French music played and German wine sold more often when German music played, as expected. Researchers studied the respondents’ ratings of usual preference for German or French wines and found that most respondents lacked a predisposition for either type.

Researchers believe that the results show an undeniable influence of cultural music on wine purchases of the same culture. North argues that music influences a consumer’s choice most when they enter the store uncertain of which product to buy, or when they are only somewhat involved in the purchasing decision. Researchers emphasize that although most respondents seemed unaware of the effect of music on their wine selection, whether or not people consciously allow music to affect their choice of purchases should be studied further.

To continue his research on music and its influence on consumers, North conducted another study at Heriot Watt University, published in the British Journal of Psychology in 2012 detailing the effect of music on wines’ taste.

North chose four pieces of music before undergoing the study. He asked five students under the age of 25 to listen to the music and match each song with descriptions he provided; “zingy and refreshing”, “powerful and heavy”, “subtle and refined”, and “mellow and soft”. The students all responded identically: Carmina Burana by Orff matched “powerful and heavy”, Waltz of the Flowers from Tchaikovsky’s Nutcracker for “subtle and refined”, Just Can’t Get Enough by Nouvelle Vague for “zingy and refreshing” and Slow Breakdown by Michael Brook matched “mellow and soft”.

North recruited 250 students under the age of 25 on a university campus. He split the students into ten conditions, 25 students per condition. Five of these conditions involved drinking white wine and listening to one of the four pieces of music chosen, or no music at all. The other five conditions involved the same auditory stimuli but with red wine instead of white wine. Participants drank the wine in one of five rooms, each with a different auditory condition.

Subjects then rated the wine’s taste on a scale of zero (“wine definitely does not have this characteristic”) to ten (“wine definitely has this characteristic”) for four different rating scales; ‘powerful and heavy’, ‘subtle and refined’, ‘zingy and refreshing’ and ‘mellow and soft’. Participants also rated their liking for the wine on a scale of zero to ten, zero being “not at all” and ten being “very much.” Participants also rated the music played using this scale.

Finally, participants selected one of the four categories they felt best described the music played during the experiment. North found that participants perceived the taste of the wine in relation to the connotations of the music played. Participants often judged the wine as “powerful and heavy” when the piece associated with the “powerful and heavy” category played versus every other piece. Participants judged the wine under one of the four categories more often when the music associated with that same category played while they drank. North believes that the results of the study demonstrate music’s ability to influence the perception of taste. Overall, both of North’s studies prove that music can influence our perceptions. This influence goes further than our wine choice or taste preferences. Music influences the brain’s awareness of our surroundings in ways that we may not initially recognize or understand.


North, A.C., Hargreaves D.J. & McKendrick, J. (1999). The influence of in-store music on wine selection. Journal of Applied Psychology, 84, 271-276. doi: 10.1037/0021-9010.84.2.271
North, A.C. (2012). The effect of background music on the taste of wine. British Journal of Psychology, 103, 293-301. doi: 10.1111/j.2044-8295.2011.02072.x
Andersen, H.C. (n.d.). “Hans Christian Andersen Quotes.” Goodreads. Retrieved Feb. 23, 2014.