Accounting For Taste

Accounting For Taste

Around a hundred years ago, back when taste was classified by just four little words—sweet, sour, bitter, and salty—a Japanese chemist named Kikunae Ikeda discovered something else inside his seaweed broth. He called it umami. Think of it as the culinary world’s “it factor.” It’s the anchovies and parmesan in your caesar salad, the lemon grass and fish sauce in your Thai curry, the ketchup on your french fries, the MSG in your kung pau chicken—you get the idea. Sure, the Ikeda-identified taste sensation already existed in traditional cuisines around the globe, but what he did by coining a word to describe it paved the road toward understanding the various chemical reactions we experience as flavor. In fact, researchers at the University of Miami later located the actual receptors responsible for the sense of umami, which they called taste-mGluR4. (As of yet, no one has ascertained how we experience bitterness. And maybe that’s a good thing.)

After last week’s musing on what makes a composition immediately appealing to listeners, I’ve now come to the somewhat obvious conclusion that things like tonality vs. atonality and consonance vs. dissonance are secondary factors when it comes to engaging the ear. There’s something far more complex going on here. If it were somehow possible to map the unfathomable labyrinth of stochastic variables that go into creating alluring music, I bet the art form wouldn’t really benefit or advance. On the contrary, such absolute theorems would stifle music’s creative impetus. Bottom line: music doesn’t like to follow recipes. So what’s really at the heart of an extraordinary piece of music?

Maybe it’s time we start hunting for sonic umami—that indescribable element capable of seducing a broad range of listeners into enjoying a particular musical composition. I think we can all agree that there is something inherent in music that goes well beyond the notes on the page, the riveting performance, and whatever concept the music attempts to communicate. Great music seems to commune with humanity’s collective soul. Of course we as composers would like to get our hands on some of this umami. Imagine if we actually could develop a better vocabulary to describe music’s emotional impact in a way that considers universalities while accounting for discrepancies in taste. Alright then, let’s sharpen our pencils, rally our psychobiologist, mathematician, and theoretical physicist friends, and formulate a new vocabulary. Maybe then we can make some progress into the secret inner workings that music has yet to reveal.

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4 thoughts on “Accounting For Taste

  1. dalgas

    I’d love some discipline in our definitions; things like “tonal” and “atonal” have about as many meanings as there are people. I don’t think we have a problem that needs new terminology as much we’re just incredibly sloppy with the terminology we do have. The difference with tastes is that everyone knows what sweet or bitter are; whatever we want to say about each, they can’t be mistaken for the other. And I don’t think the solution is in searching for a new musical “umami”; I think we already have it, and it’s just a question of getting our flavors straight first (even if we want to confuse them later…).

    Steve Layton

  2. JKG

    The meaning of “meaning”…
    So long as some artists search and pine for some sort of alchemical philosopher’s stone so as to enchant others regarding their own agendas, there will always remain some element in music which can only be described as “mysterious” for those inlucky few. There is, however, the notion that somehow we’ve managed, over the course of thousands of years, to inclucate within our listeners a sort of common understanding – a kind of aesthetic code – which even our children can relate to as :musical” upon its first hearing. I have used the analogy of a joke on several occasions, and it is frankly apt – in describing what one feels and how one should feel upon hearing a good joke, nothing kills the effect and usefulness of it quicker than analyzing it in terms patently unfunny. When music is analyzed similarly in unmusical terms, the result is not music, but a dead, trite, analysis.

  3. Matthew

    Speaking of which
    So great musical masterpieces contain the aural equivalent of MSG? No wonder Wagner gives me a headache. (Ba-dum-cha! Thank you, I’ll be here all week.)


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