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Sunday, October 24, 2010

How Music Is Like Cooking

I've been struggling with questions and nagging doubts about my music career as I consider schools and programs for a return to academia. Any area of study could potentially consume all of one's time and energy. Any field will have a community of researchers who find the details engaging and hold conferences and such to discuss it all. But I worry about keeping broader perspective on the larger purpose.

I recently thought of an analogy that seems valuable: cooking. Unlike music, the importance of food is more readily apparent, more concrete, more universally defined. Like music, however, cooking has innumerable facets and philosophies. By directly comparing music and cooking I have a way to consider the meaning of music. If some attitude we have about music would seem ludicrous regarding food, then we should question if the attitude is justified.

At its most basic, cooking provides safe, digestible, and ideally healthy sustenance. Music is definitely not as necessary and fundamental, but perhaps it could be described as emotional or spiritual sustenance. There are many functions of music that I won't get into here (though understanding and defining them is definitely important). Anyway, this music/cooking analogy is not going to hold up completely but consider the following:

  • In classical music, extreme deference is given to composers, and many classical teachers are absolutely insistent that the "correct" music is precisely the notes written in a score, though unspecified musical parameters are open to interpretation. Is there such a classical idea in cooking about recipes? Are there any chefs who learn their craft solely by following detailed recipes as strictly as possible?
  • In collaborative music making, there is a complex dynamic between individual expression and group coordination and sublimation of the individual. Surely there are times in collaborating on a meal or on a dish that chefs must be thoughtful about how their contribution fits in the whole.
  • Music is often considered artistic and some music teachers act as though artistry is the entire point and without artistry music is nothing. But cooking has potential for artistry yet remains undeniably valuable even when no artistry is present. Maybe we need to acknowledge that just engaging in music is healthy and doesn't need to always be artistic.
  • In music, cults of personality are widespread. Great musicians and composers are idolized, revered, and studied from myriad angles. Certainly respect is given to great chefs, but it seems ludicrous to me to consider emphasizing specific recipes from renound chefs at the level that we do with music compositions. Maybe musical hero-worship needs to be de-emphasized.
  • Cooking and music are both very strongly tied to culture. Nutritionists are justified, however, in talking universally about health and nutrition (as long as they acknowledge that people do vary physiologically). Similarly, music definitely has universal and cross-cultural aspects which should be studied and appreciated alongside the respect for cultural traditions.
  • The value of learning to cook is undeniable. Everyone ought to know how to cook basic food for themselves to be healthy and economical. Any suggestion that beginning cooks ought to aspire to be professional chefs would be absurd. In music, however, there is less clarity of what it means to learn to be competent and functional in order to just make simple, effective music for oneself. We don't assume that the only valid reason to learn to cook is to prepare meals for guests; and we shouldn't assume that the only reason to learn to make music is to perform for others — even though cooking or performing for others can be great. Music and cooking can both be very social, and are perhaps best that way, but the social element is not the only goal.
  • Creativity can be a very exciting aspect of either music or cooking. But clearly there is value in cooking even with no creativity, and the same must be acknowledged about music.
  • A large number of musicians veer toward perfectionism. Too often, perfectionism is essentially taught as part of music lessons, even at relatively early stages. Some degree of accuracy is import, of course, but just as you can still eat food that is a tad too salty or too dry or whatever, we can still appreciate imperfect music. In fact, we better appreciate imperfection because otherwise we'll starve and make no music.
  • People certainly vary in their tastes. We can talk about general preferences, but some people like more spices than others. I really prefer to be able to add salt if I want instead of food being salted a lot already. I prefer much less spices than many other people. On the other hand, I have complex musical tastes.
  • In both the world of food and music, unskilled ignorant consumers take in highly-marketed products of debatable quality and health-value. Good chefs and musicians have a responsibility to introduce people to healthier options — that are still delicious.
  • In both cooking and music there is a tension between accepting practical or limited ingredients versus wanting to draw from the widest possible choices of spices or instruments...
  • There are cooking competitions but everyone recognizes how subjective they are; and most people never consider competition in relation to their own food and cooking. Music is the same, and some musicians need to be reminded of that. Even the most competitive contest chef probably never loses awareness of the quirky place of competition in the broad world of cooking.
  • In both music and cooking, experiencing great works from masters can inspire and be part of learning to make your own.
This list could go on longer. By considering the complex yet concrete world of food in comparison to the somewhat ineffable world of music, one gains a humbling perspective. Far more could be said about this analogy, but I think readers should ponder further independently. Please consider adding comments below...

[post updated June 2, 2011]


  1. Very nicely done Aaron! I think the idea of taking certain predetermined elements and tossing them together is the essence of both cooking and music. You can be as structured or unstructured as you please....hmmm, I think this post is making me hungry. : )

  2. I found yet another person thinking of the same comparison (in addition to me and Philip Ball, whose book I reviewed in a more recent post):

    In the Handbook of Music and Emotion (Oxford University Press, 2010), John Sloboda writes in chapter 18 on music in everyday life:

    "Both music and food have practical and aesthetic components. As for music, some people interested in food ('gourmets') are willing to pay substantial sums of money to go to 'special' non-everyday places, where food is prepared and served with great thought and care, and everything is done to ensure that full attention is placed on the textural, sensual, and structural properties of the meal. This is a perfectly valid way of consuming food, and one which merits close study. It undoubtedly brings with it a set of emotional responses that are distinctive and interesting. But it would be very strange if food psychologists were to act in ways that implied that they thought that the gourmet experience was the most central or paradigmatic mode of food consumption, and the one which merited central study, relegating the study of everyday food consumption to the margins.

    "Maybe the difference between food and music is the issue of necessity. If we don't eat we die, and therefore the mundane, goal-oriented (and survival-oriented) aspects of food consumption are clearly central to any psychological consideration of it. Music is not a necessity for individual survival, and so, although it may be recruited for goal-oriented activities, there is nothing to require this. People who want to 'reserve' music for the aesthetic domain are free to do so, and this somewhat elitist impulse seems to have dominated the scholarly study of music."

  3. I'm overjoyed to read this -- as if I was stranded on a desert island, and have found other human beings living here. I'm particularly in agreement with the importance of amateurism, and imperfection -- that merely engaging in a musical activity, just playing an instrument, say, is valuable even if it is routine and mediocre. It seems daft to me that our culture nudges us into being audiences for great performers -- as if we should only eat food at the best restaurants.