Food for Thought

Food for Thought

Occasionally friends of mine will make comparisons between music and food. I find myself doing this all the time myself these days, being married to a musician who is also a fabulous cook. But is there a larger relationship that music and food both share on an immediate, visceral level? Finding out if there’s some sort of psychobiology at play here might tell us something about why certain people gravitate toward particular musical styles while other music—even though some of us might passionately love it—will never catch on with the general public.

George Steel, who heads Columbia University’s Miller Theatre, has frequently posited a correlation between gnarly music and spicy food. He’s even joked about including one to three peppers next to pieces on concert programs to warn listeners about the gnarl level of what they’re about to hear, the way some ethnic restaurant menus forewarn people about things like Sichuan pepper kernels or vindaloo. But does the analogy really hold up? Are total serialism or 96-tone equal temperament the equalivalent of habanero peppers or Thai jungle curry? Is music that is nothing but I-IV-V the sonic parallel to boiled chicken? For some folks, bland food is inedible. Is that the same as Miklós Rózsa’s claim about seeing Arnold Schoenberg cringe whenever he heard a major triad at some concert both of them attended in Los Angeles?

If harmonies are somehow akin to spice levels, perhaps timbres are equivalent to specific ingredients. Timbre is arguably the aspect of music that affects people’s internal comfort levels the most. Some folks can eat carrots no matter what the spice level is, but overdo spice on lamb and they’ll run for the nearest glass of water (which won’t help). This might be analogous to folks finding a diatonic tone cluster on a piano unsettling while they’d have no problem if the same cluster were played by a string orchestra.

Yet reactions to ingredients seem less determined by nurture than spice tolerance is, whereas reactions to timbre seem more culturally ingrained than reactions to specific harmonies. Some folks can’t abide cucumbers or coriander, which somehow seems more random and individual than having an aversion to harpsichords or saxophones or singers with either heavy vibrato or no vibrato at all.

Maybe, just like with food, you can’t make sweeping generalizations. Everyone’s tastes are different and ultimately equally valid. I pride myself on being able to eat almost anything, you name it: brains, tripe, bee larvae (ate it with glee in China a few months ago). And spice? Bring it on, and the hotter the better! But, for the life of me, I can’t stomach mayonnaise, mustard, or ketchup. Yuck! The very sight of them on a plate makes me want to gag. It doesn’t really make sense, but it’s a physical reaction that can’t really be rationalized. But a similar explanation might ultimately be at the root of musical tastes. I pride myself on being able to listen to just about anything, and love it all, yet I still haven’t come round to Elton John, Billy Joel, or Andrea Bocelli. Perhaps they are the musical equivalent of Hellmann’s, Gulden’s, and Heinz; at least they seem to be according to my taste buds.

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4 thoughts on “Food for Thought

  1. Max

    symphonies of taste
    Thanks for a great post! I never thought about it, but I can relate to tastes being like timbres and harmonies. Texture is provided by the texture of the food, rhythm by the chewing and swallowing, dynamics by the spicyness, and the melody… well, sometimes I start humming when a food particularily pleases me!

  2. CM Zimmermann

    De gustibus non est disputandem
    Is it not the case that comparing music and food within a framework of taste undermines the critical project. In other words, what can I possibly say about the fact that you cannot stand American condiments? If music is simply a matter of taste then how can one make the case for the responsibility of supporting contemporary art? How can one critically respond to someone who refuses to acknowledge new music (and music of the 20th century for that matter) because their tastes remain with the classical and romantic traditions?

  3. sgordon

    How can one critically respond to someone who refuses to acknowledge new music (and music of the 20th century for that matter) because their tastes remain with the classical and romantic traditions?

    Well… you can’t. Nor, in my opinion, is there any great need to critically respond. De gustibus non est disputandum, y’know?

  4. David M

    When non-musicians ask me what it’s like to compose and how I do it, I often use cooking as an analogy: you take certain ingredients that you happen to like, you have to understand what happens to them when you subject them to certain techniques, you imagine how they would taste in various combinations, you have an idea of what you want them to be like when you’re done, and you make adjustments and season to taste as you go. Sometimes you burn it and it’s awful. Sometimes you get a pleasant surprise. Some dishes depend on getting the sophistocated cooking techniques just right, while others just revel in the tastes of the basic ingredients. To push it a little further, a written score is like a recipe. . .

    There may be something to it, because a lot of composers also seem to be pretty good cooks.


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