This story started with a note in which John invited me to hum to his cheeses. The invitation, which was delivered as a commentary to a recent blog – “London’s Singing Lift” (28 April 2019) – read: “An experiment has recently taken place in Switzerland where certain types of music played to cheeses have been found to improve their flavour and speed up the time it takes for them to mature. Perhaps you would like to join me in my shop and we could hum to the cheeses together? Yours sincerely, John the Cheese.”
By dint of its very quirkiness, John’s proposal appealed enormously. How could I refuse? His cheese shop is just a few hundred metres from our London home so going for a brief hum would be easy. But there was a concern – cheeses do not have the wherewithal to respond in this way, so how could it work? With no ears, no nerves, no sensitivities generally, the idea that cheese could be affected by music felt preposterous.
As is my custom in such circumstances I called on three stalwarts who I have consulted for years when needing help in assessing reality: ‘common sense’, ‘personal experience’ and ‘science’. Based on common sense and experience I felt very uneasy – humming just could not work! However, as an inquisitive scientist I was less dismissive. My heroes, the eighteenth-century surgeon John Hunter and the nineteenth-century naturalist Charles Darwin, believed that all proposals, however odd, deserve to be tested. Both were quoted as saying – ‘Don’t think, try the experiment’. So why not give humming a try?
It was in this spirit of enquiry that I replied to John telling him my position and adding some practical details in the spirit of fun. I was particularly keen to ask that, if the experiment took place the cheese to be tested should be the most delicious of cheddars – the hand-made Lincolnshire Poacher.
My response went :“Dear John, I am game, but we should assess the effect of humming in a carefully controlled study in which you pay for the ingredients. Take two ample slices of Lincolnshire Poacher and use each to make a cheese and ham baguette. Put one sandwich in a sealed container and we two then sing to the other. After two minutes or so we taste them to assess if there is any difference. Is this acceptable? Yours, Joe”
John knows about cheese, about his customers and, to my surprise, about the scientific process, and in no time we managed to design a study that was rather more sophisticated than the one I had originally proposed.
On the day of the trial, an announcement appeared in John’s shop window. The message read: “Come in and sing to our cheese. You are invited to take part in an experiment to establish if the flavour of cheese is affected by exposure to music. The exposed cheese and a ‘control’ will then be tasted by a local blogger, minor celebrity and major nuisance – Prof. Joe Collier”.
Although judging was not due to take place till closing time, I popped by earlier to see how the study was progressing. With the control slice of cheese tightly wrapped and tucked away in a draw, the target slice sat on a plate on the counter. One by one customers volunteered to sing and during the day the test cheese was serenaded by snippets of classical opera, some church music sung in Latin by a local builder and, from a young Liverpool supporter, two verses of “Come on you Reds”. Added to these were the occasional nursery rhyme, the chorus from the Victorian hit “Daisy Bell” (‘Daisy, Daisy give me your answer do’), bursts of melodic poetry and several loud hummings of “Land of Hope and Glory”.
When I returned at 18.00 hours the shop was empty and judging began. I was metaphorically blindfolded and, after some noisy manoeuvring behind my back, was presented first with ‘Slice A’. Then, after I had savoured a mouthful and swilled out the remnants with a glass of water, it was ‘Slice B’. After much reflection I declared that there was a small but detectable difference between the two – ‘B’ was the cheese that tasted better. Hoots followed from John – ‘B’ was the cheese that had been sung to all day.
While John felt vindicated, my feelings were mixed. With only one sample, with no objective end point, with one researcher who was biased and with such very different treatments of the two cheeses – no controls for humidity for example – the study would never meet traditional clinical trial standards. But, no matter, the day was fun and the result will make many happy. Moreover, in a world where gardeners talk to their plants and farmers bathe their cows in Mozart, singing to cheese may not be so preposterous. And, by the way, the outcome suggested that nuisances can sometimes be helpful too!
The illustration is a photo of John the Cheese in front of some of his charges.
For help with writing this blog, I would like to thank John, Rohan and Vivien.