nutrient.jpgIf music be the food of love, play on —Shakespeare
Harmony is meant to correct any discord which may have arisen in the courses of the soul… rhythm too was given for the same reason… —Plato
It is by the Odes that a man’s mind is aroused, by the rules of ritual that his character is established, and by music that he is perfected. . . . —Confucius
The Culinary Metaphor Pt. 1: Music and Nutrition
In my previous post I wrote about using food metaphors as a kind of oblique strategy for discussing music. Let’s get more specific, to explore the method to this madness. Today’s angle: nutrition.
Music: Nourishment and Poison
The American Heritage Dictionary defines nutrition as “the process of nourishing or being nourished, especially the process by which a living organism assimilates food and uses it for growth and for replacement of tissue.”
Plato and Confucius would have liked that. For them, music existed to guide and improve human beings, and the right and wrong musics created good and bad people, respectively. Medieval musical thinkers and composers avoided the tritone (the augmented fourth interval) because many thought it to be of Satanic and therefore dangerous origin. And in the 1980’s, Tipper Gore’s PMRC based their campaign to place parental warning labels on recordings on the idea that it is necessary to “protect” listeners from certain kinds of music.

In my own comings and goings I recently tried to play some music by an artist called Gnaw Their Tongues for some close friends, presenting it as one of the most interesting, disturbing and depraved recordings I’ve ever heard. With an introduction like that, it’s perhaps no surprise that they passed, but the vehemence with which they did, and their unwillingness to let even a few seconds of those threatening sounds enter their ears, seems to suggest, if only anecdotally, that music is something we consume at our own risk.
You Should Eat That
If music can be nourishment or poison, which music is which? How do we know? And who decides? And even if we can decide, does it follow that we should only listen to nourishing sounds?
These are all tough questions, to say the least, and I’m glad to say that I have no intention of answering any of them. I have my own views as to whether and how judgments of musical quality get made, but so do we all.
The questions I’m interested in are: can we tolerate the idea that some music is better for us than other music? And if not, why not? In other words, can we believe in musical nutrition?
You Can Lead a Horse to Broccoli, But You Can’t Make Him Eat
OK. Let’s do this, and let the culinary metaphors begin.
First off, let’s observe the obvious: to say that all music is equally good for you is to say that there’s no difference between what’s in different pieces of music. I think we’d all agree that that rings the crazy bells with vigor.
But hang on, let’s say to ourselves. No one would ever say that Help Me, Rhonda and Rock Around the Clock have exactly the same contents. Are you saying that one of those is better for someone than the other?
Good point, we congratulate ourselves. Suddenly it seems as though the whole idea is absurd (though at least Plato, Confucius and Tipper Gore disagree. That’s a lot of brain power – and a respectable political head of hair – thrown in for good measure).
But wait, we reply to ourselves again, just because it’s hard to see differences in musical nutrition (mutrition?) between similar music doesn’t mean the differences aren’t there.
It’s probably difficult to observe different health properties of two jelly donuts, but if we were to compare a jelly donut to a chocolate cake (or a song to a sonata), we’d have plenty of differences to discuss (ding ding, metaphor).
On the one hand, we definitely like certain kinds of music and don’t like others. Lollipops and licorice (ding ding). We are untroubled by this, even though these very preferences prove that the pieces of music we like and those we don’t like are in fact different in some way. If they weren’t, how would be be able to tell which was which?
If we say that all music is equally good for us, then we are saying that we only want those differences that serve our prejudices about music. We are saying that we want the music to have different flavors, but that we want taste to be the only nutritional value (ding ding).
Intangible Nutrients
I find it somehow sublime to think that perhaps it is the same faith we have in real nutrition (this milk has calcium – that’s good for my bones) that allows us to dismiss Plato’s beliefs about music. We say: music cannot be healthy or unhealthy, because it does not have nutrients. It has no nutrients because it is intangible.
Such a belief is so absurd as to be almost charming, because although music’s lack of physicality prevents it from having actual nutrients, our vivid perceptions of the differences between pieces of music suggest clearly that music fashions real characteristics from the intangible, and therefore it is intangible nutrients that we should be looking for.
At the very least, we have to admit, until further investigation, that they might be there, and we have the culinary metaphor to thank for that.

(Music Curator)


  1. samz
    November 23, 2009 at 3:05am
    I believe music is the food of our soul. without muic our life is dull. no color! the music gives us life.
  2. r4i software
    November 23, 2009 at 3:33am
    I love music like anything. Whenever i am low, sad, starving for food, when m angry on someone, when i m depressed, when i m in worries in these all circumstances when i listen music then only i cam overcome these situations otherwise i will fail to do anything. Music makes me energetic, feel fresh, i can do wonders after that. For me music is really like a main nutrition.
  3. Robb
    November 23, 2009 at 7:22am
    The main problem with this concept is the notion that we can determine what exactly is healthy in the first place. It would be easy to proclaim darker music as unhealthy due to its channeling of dark emotions... while such music tends to be complex, offers stress relief and a healthy creative outlet to marginalized groups, and fosters skepticism (plus a lot of times it is more complex and mentally stimulating). On the other hand, poppy music can't be dismissed outright as unhealthy due to its ability to lift spirits, increase popular involvement in music, and foster more positive emotions (even if it is often less complex and mentally stimulating). Similarly to how society must balance collectivism with individualism, balance is required (on aggregate) in cultural phenomena (music). When we use the already overused health language, we risk rigidly defining "right" and "wrong" in an area that is more exemplary of a needed balance. There is danger in trying to make the intangible too tangible. Imagine doing the same with religion... What we end up with is a stronger tendency toward fundamentalism and sectarian clashes. And quite frankly I prefer music to be fluid, even anarchic. Music is one thing where the junkfood can actually sustain some individuals. Why ruin that?
  4. Tony
    November 23, 2009 at 8:06am
    Once again I have to say that tying music to food is a flawed analogy because food is required to survive and music isn't. Also there are a variety of specific nutrients we must have from food to continue living. People can listen to one type of music exclusively and get everything they need from it. I really don't think that any type of music is any more nutritious or poisonous than any other type. In fact when we think of pure music with no lyrics I can't see any music that would be negative unless it's comprised of sounds that are harmful to the human body. One could argue that some lyrics make some music "poisonous", but it's the lyrics which are negative, not the music. Some music might be better suited for "negative" lyrics, but you could just as easily have a bubblegum pop song with a racist message than the standard skinhead punk platform. In fact a cleaverly crafted racist bubblebum pop song might be more "dangerous" than the punk song because the punk song tends to be preaching to the choir. The bubblegum pop song would probably have a wider audience and might get the message to more people than a punk song. I think music can be tied to food in terms of variety and "cuisines" and the choices we make, but trying to tie music to the nutrition food provides is an illogical comparison.
  5. tina
    November 23, 2009 at 10:29am
    It's good to see this thought-provoking dialogue while society is drowning in mostly superficial mindless fodder served up on (most) TV channels. I'm glad there are other folks out there excercising their brains instead of letting them just be accosted by a barrage of meaningless "junk food". Sorry--I've just been surrounded by ignorance lately, and this is refreshing--now if I can just divorce those who would never open a book and listen just to rap & country music!
  6. Henning
    November 23, 2009 at 12:41pm
    I watched a little bit of the American Music Awards last night. Now I have a stomach ache.
  7. Barbara Cain
    November 23, 2009 at 12:46pm
    Help!! We turned on Pandora the other day and listened without any problems. Since then every time I try to log in it says the password isn't right. Then I tried another password I use sometimes, with the same result. Finally I clicked on "forgot your password" and the message said that it was being e-mailed to me. It never came and I tried a half dozen times, and still no reply! What now? Can I speak to a live person to get the problem resolved? Thank you for your help.
  8. Michael Zapruder
    November 23, 2009 at 1:22pm
    @samz & @r4i - thanks for the comments and glad you like the music @Robb - thanks for the thoughtful comment. I think it's interesting how naturally we go from the idea that some music is better for us than other music to suspicion about who and how that determination might be made - we have strong instincts towards freedom, and I suppose that's a good thing - but, even if we prefer music to be anarchic, it certainly is not that - even gnaw their tongues is a carefully selected set of sounds, and an equally carefully rejected set of sounds - as I said in the post, I'm not particularly interested in answering the question of what is or isn't "healthy" music - I'm interested in the fact that we want the sounds in our music to be different, particular, and significant, but we do not want those sounds to have uncontrolled meanings somehow. that seems a bit farfetched... @tony - thanks as always for your consistent, smart replies - I'd only say in response that I propose talking about music as if it is food as a metaphor (simile if you're being particular), not an analogy (a fuzzy difference, but an important one - the soft-focus of metaphor is much better, for the reasons that you state in your post). more importantly, though, I am not saying that music is food, I am saying that talking about music as if it is food is a cool strategy for getting into productive discussions. I think we're proving that point now...:-) @tina - thanks! @henning - you curmudgeon you. what music would you prescribe to heal a stomach ache? and @Barbara - I sent your request to our tech people at - they are pretty quick so you should hear back soon -good luck and thanks for listening!
  9. Peter Milner
    November 23, 2009 at 1:30pm
    I was listening to a sermon the other day from Pacific Crossroads Church in Los Angeles, California. The line that wove itself into my subconsious went something like this, "Great political movements are generated by musicians rather than politicians, and not the other way around. Jay Z may have more influence, politically, than Obama." I thought this was a poinant comment given Obama's magnitude this year. After all, music is the cry of the soul for meaning! Music makes us human more than perhaps any other art form!
  10. hedIsoche
    November 24, 2009 at 1:59pm
    I highly enjoyed reading this article, keep on making such exciting stuff!
  11. Au Pair
    November 24, 2009 at 5:11pm
    Very interesting metaphor. I reality it is not to far from the truth. If you think about the different food you consume and the different ways they make you feel, the same goes for music. Plus, add the effects of cravings and they are very similar.
  12. Kevin Sorrell
    November 25, 2009 at 3:25pm
    Does this mean we can now eat music LOL
  13. TheFatLossBlogger
    November 29, 2009 at 1:48pm
    Hallo. My name is Maddie. I am an ex-Fattie. (Everyone in unison: "Good evening Maddie"). Being a food-lover par excellence and a music lover by reason d'etre, I have had a penchant for combining them my entire life. Just like its complimentary wine, every dish also has its proper accompanying music. The menu would be too long to go into here in detail, but, suffice to say that listening to the correct music while enjoying your favorite dish goes a long way to ensuring both our physical and psychological well-being. So if a healthy lifestyle is important to you, choose your music as carefully as your entree'. We can not begin to comprehend the damage that fast-food joints dish out to us by playing rock, metal and other fast-paced music whilst we wolf down the proverbial burgers-n-fries.
  14. Ryan Browne
    November 30, 2009 at 1:16pm
    All metaphors are limited. I find the "Music as Food" metaphor very thought-provoking. Another one I think about sometimes is "Music as Conversation". Sometimes we just want to joke around with our friends, other times we need a "deep and meaningful". Some people need to make everything seem light and bright and have no appetite for darkness or seriousness. Others are too serious. And everyone has different tastes and needs at different times when it comes to conversation. When I'm listening to a Kanye West track, it's like hanging out with one of my more ego-maniacal yet entertaining and funny friends; when I'm listening to Elliot Smith, it's like sitting down with a bottle of wine in a dark, dark, bar, and discussing life's inescapable miseries.
  15. Howard Black
    December 04, 2009 at 6:17pm
    Wow, thanks for the Plato refresher! It's been a long time since college. Plato -- and music -- remains as mysterious and sublime as ever, however.
  16. Doug
    December 11, 2009 at 11:38pm
    I find the food metaphor to be incorrect. Not flawed, really wrong. Music is not someting that adds to us, it is something we use to either amplify or nullify how we feel: happy, sad, angry, meh. The choices we make in music don't affect us so much as we affect our choices in music. 'Good' music agrees with us, makes us feel how we want, while 'bad' music has a more crosses-to-vampyres effect. I mean, hasn't some piece of music just absolutely revolted you, made you want to leave the room, or burst into flames, or something? I guess, in a way, music is more like politics or religion than food.
  17. Ramon Salvo
    December 16, 2009 at 7:39pm
    Somebody once said that Words make you think a thought. Music make you feel a feeling. A song make you feel a thought. I think he is talking about verbalization and visualization, left and right brains.
  18. bilberry plus
    December 18, 2009 at 2:54am
    Music is a food that feeds our souls.No one is on this earth can live without music.Music has all feelings-Happy,sad,angry.It makes us feel tension free and fresh.All i can say is music is our life.
  19. John
    December 29, 2009 at 6:01pm
    So, if I am listening to Hip Hop and heavy rock, am I on a bad diet? I actually had not idea what a tritone was, so I had to look it up after reading this article. I enjoyed reading the comparison between the two. Interesting points of view.
  20. dmckee
    January 05, 2010 at 5:22pm
    In my experience there is a range of people where on one end a person could take or leave music. It's just a stimulation of one sense (like smell). On the other end is the person who has music as a "core" element of their mental make-up. Music is meaningful, important and expressive. Everyone loves food (ok, most everyone). So I agree that music as food is, at best, just inspiration for the opportunity to talk about food. It seems to me that people connect-to or enjoy art in general by three general categories : Technical construction Innovation Emotional change So a "junk food" song is "Good for you as food" because it helps you with a hard day at work. But that complex classical piece that your mind swims through helps you to see things in a new light using new "tools".

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