Illustration by  Drew Bardana

Illustration by Drew Bardana

Music and food often go hand-in-hand. The right music can make a delicious meal even better. Many social ceremonies just aren’t complete without the appropriate songs and accompanying vittles. For example, we’re only allowed to eat the birthday cake after a verse of “Happy Birthday to You.” And, sometimes musicians even use the language of food to talk about music. What is it that draws food and music together, exactly?



Psychologist and popular science author Steven Pinker once famously dismissed music as “auditory cheesecake.” His implication was that music, like cheesecake, is all about giving us pleasure. Yet, some sixty-plus years of research on music have proven that people use and understand music in many ways—it’s not just about pleasure. And there’s no universally accepted concept of music (many of the world’s peoples don’t have a category that directly corresponds to our idea of music in the West). Generalizations like his are, more or less, unhelpful. Still, pleasure undoubtedly links music to food in some circumstances. Eating can be an aesthetic experience, and playing and listening to music can be satiating. Music and food function as sources of pleasure for many.



Many restaurants carefully select the music that their customers hear while they eat. Muzak and similar companies profit from knowing what kind of music is suitable for different kinds of establishments—and for different appetites. It’s not just in American restaurants where food and music are carefully paired. Check out The Ethnomusicologists’ Cookbook, edited by Sean Williams, for some examples. The cookbook explains the musical contexts of meals from around the world and includes recipes for an entire meal and recommended listening for while you cook and eat. Try the Brazilian feijoada with a side of Luiz Melodia, the corned beef and taro leaves from Tonga with some Tongan stringband music, or the salmon and rosemary bread from Norway to be eaten to the sounds of the fiddle and accordion. 



Talking about sound using words meant to describe taste is an example of what’s called synesthesia, the perception of one sensation when another sense is stimulated (another example might be when you see colors when hearing music). In English, we have a dearth of words to describe timbre, the color or quality of sound. As a result, onomatopoeia and synesthetic metaphors have come to comprise a significant portion of the English vocabulary for timbre. We describe sounds as bright or scratchy, for example. Taste words are no exception. Music can be spicy. A voice can be sweet.

According to ethnomusicologist Adrian McNeil, musicians in North India use food words to talk about rāgs, melodic and improvisatory patterns. A particular musical phrase of one rāg can be described as a chatpaṭā, a “tangy sensation.” Another can be described as having a smooth and sweet flavor. McNeil was once told that when performing a specific afternoon rāg, he should make the proportions of two phrases similar to those of the proper proportions of a samosa with chutney—he needed just the right amount of chutney.

“¡Azúcar!” (Sugar!) was the catchphrase of Celia Cruz, the late Queen of Salsa. In her shows, she used to tell a story about her interaction with a waiter at a Cuban restaurant in Miami. He asked if she wanted sugar in her coffee. Implying that all Cubans like sugar in their coffee, she allegedly replied, “With sugar! With sugar, my dear boy!” Over time, she abridged her retelling of the story to a mere cry of the word “azúcar!” The author of Listening to Salsa: Gender, Latin Popular Music and Puerto Rican Cultures, Professor of Spanish and Portuguese Frances Aparicio writes that Cruz’s use of the word “azúcar” has even deeper significance. “The symbolic reiteration of the word ‘azúcar,’” she writes, “reaffirms the role of Celia Cruz’s voice and body as an icon of Cuba’s African-based heritage and mestizaje” (Aparicio 2010: 226). Embedded in the word and Cruz’s performance is a history of slavery, sugarcane plantations, and ideas about racial and gender identity.

Salsa (literally, sauce), on the other hand, is so-called not just because of taste, but because the word conveys the music’s hybridity. The term refers to the genre as a mix of sounds from Cuba, Puerto Rico, and New York—a sauce. Throughout the 20th century, the word was also used to refer to the “spiciness” of Latin American music, especially in New York, and only came to refer to the genre we know as salsa in the 1960s. Connotations of spiciness and hotness have remained prevalent in the marketing and branding of the genre. Here are some titles of salsa compilation CDs from the past twenty years: “Hot and Spicy Salsa,” “Salsa: Hot and Spicy Dance Hits,” “Salsa: Spicy Mix of Hot Rhythms and Latin Spirit,” and “Salsa Fresca.” The word “salsa” evokes stereotypes of Latinidad by alluding to flavor. With a simple reference to the food, you can dream up ideas about passion, romance, and the sound of the music.



More than just “auditory cheesecake,” music can stimulate your appetite and it can make our meals complete.  And food can give us a rich language for talking about sound. Do you use music words when you cook or talk about food? Do you have certain songs that you always pair with certain dishes? If so, let us know in the comments section!


Mike Silvers is an assistant professor of ethnomusicology who lives in Champaign, IL.