“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.