Wednesday, February 24, 2010

The Taste of Music

As my exposure to music increased (in both amount of time spent listening as well as variety of sounds listened to), I came to realize just how similar our sense of hearing is to our sense of taste. Even though foods are made up of the same basic ingredients, the tastes developed vary from place to place, culture to culture. The basic “ingredients” for music are pitches, timbre, rhythm, meter, tempo, and volume. Different cultures developed their own distinct “flavors” of music using these “ingredients” in various ways. Composers are chefs of music, perfecting tastes, combining flavors, and looking for new tastes in order to create the best recipes.

When you taste something, you do three things whether you notice it or not. First, you identify the taste as best you can by using previous exposures as a reference. Then, you compare this type of taste with different ones, identifying similarities and differences. Finally, you take this new data and store it into the giant computer that is your brain for future reference. The more data you gain, the easier it is to identify these similarities and differences which enhances your sense of taste.

Listening to music works the same way. Genre labels were developed within popular music to better distinguish what “flavor” the music is. Even though metal music developed from rock music, with several similarities, the two genres sound different enough to be in different categories. Throughout western music history, composers were encouraged to write in the style and “flavor” of their time while advancing it to the next stage. Society was continuously too busy developing to pay much attention to the “flavors” of the past. With the creation and improvement of recording technology during the 20th century, the interest and ability to preserve music from the past developed. People were no longer limited to listen to just the most popular music of the time in concert halls, now they could listen to anything they wanted to, as much as they wanted to; all in the comfort of their own home.

When I listen to a piece of music, I identify it the best I can by using my database of categorized sounds. I try to guess what period it is from (and when during that period), what country the composer is from (or in some cases what country’s style the composer is imitating), who the composer is (and when during their life), and finally what piece it is. The more music I listen to, the clearer these “flavors” become, and the clearer these “flavors” become the more in touch I feel with the mentality (historical events, literature, visual arts, etc.) of the time it was composed in too. But “classical” music periods are more than just history lessons; they are the genres of classical music and should be used to describe music with similar “flavors” regardless of when it was composed.

So when it comes to listening to music, don’t get stuck in a rut eating the same foods all the time. Make sure you eat your vegetables (you might not like them but they’re good for you!). And every now and then try something new. You might like it.