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.