If 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).
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.