Harmony and Flavour

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flavourI recently came across a post on the Dilbert Blog in which Scott Adams was toying with the idea of developing a theory of flavour analogous with musical structures of pitch:

I believe that flavor can also be reduced to a set of engineering guidelines. Specifically, I think you could categorize most flavors the way you categorize music, with high notes and low notes. Garlic and onions and pepper feel like low notes to me, whereas lemon and cilantro are like high notes. I've noticed that the best food has a combination of both, just like music. I'll bet an experienced chef could categorize most flavors in a way that would allow you to know if you were breaking any rules, such as cooking with all low notes. And I'll bet the high notes can't be more than say 10% of what you experience, in some subjective sense, without overwhelming the flavor.

Now I found this interesting in several dimensions.

First, it made me think of the debates between pyramid balance and equal voice balance in choral music. Relative preferences for one or the other are partly driven by genre and musical structure – SATB music with the tune on top is necessarily going to make different demands from close-harmony structures that use embedded melody – but there are acoustic matters in there too. Higher notes carry more clearly than lower ones, and if your sopranos sound out of tune it may well just be that there are too many of them for the lower parts.

You can also think of this orchestrally, of course. You need more cellos than glockenspiels for a balanced ensemble, for instance.

Second, it occurred to me that frequency of pitch (low vs high) isn’t the only dimension in which the comparison works. Just as different combinations of pitches produce qualitatively different harmonic experiences, different combinations of flavours evoke different culinary worlds. National or regional traditions have their characteristic combinations that can either be recreated wholesale or referenced with a sense of quotation (or what Philip Tagg would call ‘genre synecdoche’). That last sentence is true of both food and of music.

And if Adams is looking for ways to theorise taste combinations, harmony presents all sorts of useful distinctions: major versus minor, consonance versus dissonance, diatonic versus chromatic.

Third, I was interested in the way that this metaphor can work in either direction. Back in 2007 I did a class at LABBS Harmony College that explored harmony using the idea of flavours. The point of it was to help people who didn’t have the theoretical background to say, ‘ooh that’s a nice half-diminished chord’ to develop a personal vocabulary to articulate their intuitive responses to the feel of different chords. You don’t need technical terms to understand musical expressiveness, but it helps you make music more effectively if you can identify and compare qualitative distinctions consciously as well as intuitively. So, we explored music with the question, ‘if this chord were a taste, what would it be?’, just as Adams is asking, ‘if this flavour were music, how would it be composed?’.

(A lovely moment in that session was when a dispute arose within the quartet After Hours about a particular flavour. This was quite disconcerting, since they’d been singing together a good while by then and felt expressively very connected. The problem turned out to be a word-muddle: when one had said ‘tiramisu’, another had thought of taramasalata.)

And of course music has other dimensions than pitch. Form and texture are clearly important parts of cookery that translate directly. Rhythm is less obvious at first sight, though one may well experience cooking method this way. To stir-fry has a different relationship with time than to stew.

The food-music metaphor is deeply embedded in our culture in all kinds of ways and for all kinds of reasons. But aside from the anthropological dimension (which is fascinating but not my focus today), there’s a parallelism in the creative dimension. I find the process of cooking experientially very similar to the process of arranging, shunting back and forth between the technically-informed and intuitive bits of my brain within a broadly holistic context. Both the production of a meal and the production of a piece of music involves the development and concretisation of an initially somewhat abstract idea in a way that is essentially improvisational. And in both activities, the rules may sometimes hold you back from doing something really imaginative, but they also protect you from producing something truly inedible/unsingable.

Lots of really lovely ideas in here. As I'm quite sleepy I can only express right now my joy at just a few words being able to bring up a disco beat for me in Tagg's article (I'd never noticed that about the last quaver of the bar but it's playing loud and clear!)

Article's wonderful - embodiment is one of my very favourite subjects.

Thought on harmonic vocabulary - it's known that you start to see distinctions once you know the words for them (e.g. in trees) but do other vocabularies use analogy/synaesthesia/cross-domain mapping in the same way? I'm sure they do, as it seems like that's part of what the brain is (has ended up) built to do, but I'm enjoying trying to think of examples.

In any case, the mappings are always in the form of colour added to a solid structure, I think, which comes back neatly to what you've written here. It's useful and fun to find a new way to think about harmony, but you can't ever map that knowledge directly onto something else, as I'm sure everyone knows instinctively. Thank you - I've worked out now what's wrong with all experiments in colour-music! (e.g. Scriabin's clavier à lumières)

Got it - perfumiers!

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