I’m always happy to talk about my taste in music, but what about the taste of music? A new exhibition at Manchester’s Science and Industry Museum is asking visitors to match certain types of music with tastes. Does this sound sweet, sour, bitter, salty?

Ridiculous, you might think, and as I listen to each of the sounds – screechy, plinkety-plonky, lush, mournful – initially I am reluctant to make my selections, fearing ridicule in front of curator Steven Leech. But then something magical happens: the screechy music does indeed suddenly bring to mind bitter lemons and the lush sounds do conjure up strawberries.

Leech’s music-meets-food exhibit is a fun way of interpreting a serious piece of research by Charles Spence, head of the Crossmodal Research Laboratory at Oxford University. It is the model for much of this new exhibition, Turn It Up, which takes the research being done into the effects of music at universities across the world and tries to make it accessible to a general audience.

“The exhibition is about the way music affects our bodies and minds, and drives us to innovate, create and share,” says Leech. “We did some audience testing and found that the majority of the people, unless they played an instrument or could read music, felt ‘unmusical’ – ignoring the ubiquity of music in their lives and its centrality in our culture.” He aims to show that in fact almost everyone is musical and has an emotional response to what they hear.

The exhibition is in two halves. The first looks at the innate human urge to create music and where our ingenuity and technological innovation have led. This section draws on objects, displaying a weird and wonderful collection of musical instruments, listening devices from ancient gramophones to the iPhone, and new tech that allows disabled musicians to make music. It also charts ongoing experiments with artificial intelligence.

“The homeward-bound half is more reflective, thinking about the effect music has on us as individuals,” says co-curator Emily Scott-Dearing. We are programmed to respond to musical tropes – though whether as a result of cultural conditioning or something innate is far from clear. One exhibit demonstrates that a lullaby has certain musical qualities which are universally felt. Conversely, our brains are programmed to react adversely to dissonance. But Scott-Dearing insists cultural conditioning plays a part too. “In western music there are associations between major keys and happiness, and minor keys and sadness,” she explains, “but that is not universal across all music systems.”

Music’s ability to relax us is well attested – Classic FM has built its entire marketing pitch around it – and Turn It Up looks at ways it is used for medical purposes, not least to treat dementia sufferers. “Manchester Camerata has a project called Music in Mind, which runs group music therapy sessions in care homes,” says Scott-Dearing, “and there was a study that found a significant reduction in medication use.” Music was taking the place of drugs in reducing agitation and distress among patients.

Work is under way to produce an app which would allow this musical immersion treatment to be given remotely. Leech says the aim is to produce individualised “prescription playlists” that use sensors to track a patient’s mood through the day, and play pain-relieving songs when needed.

Music has other measurable effects on us. One study has shown that supermarkets playing generic French or German music in their wine aisles – think accordions and oompah bands – affects the amount of wine they sell from those countries. Consumers don’t have to know what they are listening to; they subliminally absorb the musical message and buy accordingly.

Other research suggests playing classical music in commercial environments makes consumers spend more money. “We have value associations that we put on music,” says Scott-Dearing, “and classical music is seen as high end.” Professor Adrian North has demonstrated that playing classical music rather than muzak or pop in a cafe can boost sales by 20%. Another study has shown that classical music encourages shoppers to buy luxury items, whereas country music prompts more utilitarian purchases.

Fast music, meanwhile, makes you shop more quickly. That also explains why tunes by marching bands are sometimes played at London’s Waterloo station – to stop commuters lingering on the concourse. Underground stations also play soothing music to boost commuter well-being and encourage calm behaviour in situations that can become stressful.

Can listening to music combat insomnia? My faith in whether sleep playlists work was somewhat undermined by learning at Turn It Up that one of the most common songs used by insomniacs is the dance track Dynamite by South Korean boy band BTS. But music to fall asleep to doesn’t have be soporific, Leech explains; familiarity can be more important. “If [music] makes you feel more comfortable and takes you to a different place, it can get you more prepared for sleep,” he says.

The exhibition draws on the work of sleep researcher Kira Vibe Jespersen, though her findings offer no magic bullet for insomniacs. She has shown that playing music does not objectively improve your sleeping patterns, but can make you believe you have slept better, compared with, say, using audiobooks.

Memory is another key theme of the show. Sometimes music triggers personal memories that become more important than the sound itself. Desert Island Discs demonstrates that week in, week out, playing the pieces that have become signposts in a person’s life. And that we set such store by the music played at the funerals of loved ones is no accident: it can encapsulate an attitude to life.

Turn It Up tries to answer many questions. Some are broad and quasi-philosophical. How does the brain process music? Why does it trigger memory? Why does it make us dance? Others are more practical.

What music, for instance, is best for a call centre to use while callers are on hold? Pleasant tunes without lyrics that appear to have no beginning and no end – callers don’t like to be reminded of the passage of time while they are hanging on. One experiment showed that they were more likely to stay on the line if the music was a version of Yesterday played on pan pipes, rather than the version with Paul McCartney singing it. His much-loved rendition made callers too attentive; zombification is the key here.

So does listening to music while we work help or hinder productivity? The answer depends on what you are doing: it helps with mechanical tasks but is distracting if you are carrying out complex cognitive tasks.

And what is the safest music to listen to while driving? Heavy metal surprisingly. Just joking – ballads are best.

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