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.