Taste the music

Students dig in to an array of middle eastern food during professor Alessandra Ciucci ethnomusicology class where students explore how music engages the senses of taste and smell. Photo by Mariah Tauger.

Stu­dents dig in to an array of middle eastern food during pro­fessor Alessandra Ciucci eth­no­mu­si­cology class where stu­dents explore how music engages the senses of taste and smell. Photo by Mariah Tauger.

You may think I’m insane and you’re right,” said Alessandra Ciucci, an eth­no­mu­si­col­o­gist and a full-​​time lec­turer in the Depart­ment of Music, when she sug­gested we listen to the sounds of coun­tries like Syria, Morocco, and Iraq not with our ears but with our taste buds. “I want you to taste the music, let your ear smell it,” she said.

Ciucci is teaching a course on the music of the Middle East and in one sec­tion she and her students—who hail from depart­ments beyond just music, ranging from inter­na­tional affairs to English—examined music through senses other than mere hearing. The class meeting I attended was focused on taste.

And while this may indeed sound a little quirky, there’s actu­ally a bunch of anthro­po­log­ical research to sug­gest that she’s not alone in her belief that there’s actu­ally some­thing to this idea. “Anthro­po­log­ical work focused on the senses is founded on the insis­tence that the senses are not merely a bio­log­ical ground on which cul­tural mean­ings are con­structed,” write the authors of The Reor­ga­ni­za­tion of the Sen­sory World. “Rather, the sense are always already fully cul­tural, and ‘sen­sory per­cep­tion is a cul­tural as well as phys­ical act’.”

So the point here, I guess, is that while sci­en­tists would argue that our ability to “smell music” is more a matter of metaphor­ical thinking than one of per­cep­tual expe­ri­ence, that metaphor is informed by our cul­ture as much as it’s informed by bio­log­ical con­nec­tions between the senses. And per­haps more impor­tantly to the anthro­pol­o­gists, the metaphors we use are deeply ingrained in us, things we’ve learned from the very begin­ning of our cul­tural exposure.

For Ciucci, the impor­tant thing isn’t the bio­log­ical basis behind our senses, rather it’s the cul­tural infor­ma­tion we receive growing up and how that informs the way we expe­ri­ence our sen­sory world.

A great example comes from Ciucci’s own field­work. She was dis­cussing a par­tic­ular ren­di­tion of a song with a Moroccan musi­cian who, in expressing how little he cared for it,  said, “It’s just like eating a plate of cous­cous that has a lot of salt: you can’t eat it.”

After we ate our way through a smor­gas­bord of care­fully chosen Middle Eastern munchies like figs, sour cher­ries, harisa, and rose­water, Ciucci played a number of songs from the same area of the globe and asked us to describe what we heard with metaphors of taste.

I think what I was eating at the time when I heard the music influ­enced what I actu­ally thought about what I was hearing,” said Mark Suther­land, a cheese expert with World’s Best Cheese and a grad­uate of the Culi­nary Insti­tute of America who was invited to lec­ture at this par­tic­ular class as an industry and taste expert.

In describing how he “tasted” the song “Beyban” by Turkish rapper Sagopa Kajmer, Suther­land said, “the singer—the quarter tones she was singing, embell­ishing them just a little bit, added a little sort of spice and almost a little bit­ter­ness or sour­ness, some­thing that’s not sweet for just a quick second and that puts a little sharp­ness in your mouth.”

Next we lis­tened to a very dif­ferent kind of song, this one a tra­di­tional song from the pearl divers of the Ara­bian Peninsula:

Per­son­ally, this made me feel like I was eating dry bread, like I needed a long cool drink of water.

One stu­dent heard pome­gran­ates. And the reason, she explained, had to do with her knowl­edge of the story of Perse­phone, who tasted the fruit while in the under­world which meant she’d have to stay in Hades for a third of every year. So the song really reminded her of the under­world, which called to mind a cul­tural con­nec­tion with the pomegranate.

Another stu­dent heard car­damom, because it reminded him of reli­gious chanting and incense.

I was thinking of an olives,” said another. “Espe­cially because they have the pit in the middle, which is kind of like the hard droning and then the more inter­esting tastes around it is the actual subtle vocal­ists. But it’s salty and not as smooth as other tastes.”

It’s hard to take all of this and com­bine it into some kind of con­trolled study, which is what—as a sci­ence writer—I’m inclined to want to see. But Ciucci and Suther­land would, I think, encourage me to step out­side the data for a moment and think more about the metaphor, the intu­itive sen­sory expe­ri­ence, the cul­tural infor­ma­tion that brought these var­ious stu­dents to their per­sonal encounter with the song.