Last Friday an article by professional food developer Barbara Stuckey appeared in the “Life and Culture” section of The Wall Street Journal. Ms. Stuckey writes that, though she loves her job, she is “constantly frustrated by the unwillingness of most Americans to try foods that challenge their palates.” Americans, she says, tend to cling to their favorite bland foods, and these tend to be loaded with sugar. “Expanding our repertoire of foods isn’t just about exploration and new pleasures,” Ms. Stuckey explains, “It’s also the first step toward eating a broader, healthier diet.” Instead of simply bemoaning the problem, she provides practical, concrete steps to self-education that actually sound like they could be fun.
As I read the article, it occurred to me that her observations could also be applied to musical taste. Indeed, the metaphor of “taste” turns out to be very apt.
As children, we tend to regard all sweet food as good and anything with a hint of bitterness as bad. When I was a boy I thought adults were crazy or masochistic because they prized foods like asparagus, tart cranberries, and dark chocolate, or bitter drinks like coffee, beer, and wine. Of course, as Ms. Stuckey points out, many adults never diversify their tastes beyond their childhood predilection for sweetness, and this impairs their ability to enjoy a broader range of foods. Those, on the other hand, who have discovered more complex flavors usually don’t want to cover them up with too much sugar or fat.
Something similar applies in music. When we are young, we regard anything with a peppy melody or a foot-tapping beat as “fun” and “exciting,” while anything that is longer, slower, or without a drumbeat strikes us as “boring” or “gloomy.” As we grow up, however, we discover—or don’t discover—that other musical forms not only exist, but can offer a richer, more profound, and subtler emotional-intellectual experience. Just as food is more complex and interesting than “Sweet? Yum! Bitter? Yuck!” so music can elicit more complex and profound emotional states, such as sorrow with sweetness, or joy with solemnity.
Br. Leo Checkai entered the Order of Preachers in 2007. He is a graduate of the University of Maryland, College Park, where he majored in Physics and received a citation in British and Postcolonial Anglophone Literature. Here is his very interesting post on musical taste: