Zadie Smith On Joni Mitchell’s Blue

In her recent essay in the New Yorker, novelist Zadie Smith recounts her listening history with the music of Joni Mitchell–specifically, Mitchell’s 1971 album Blue. Here is the title song from the record:

Smith describes encountering Mitchell’s idiosyncratic and alternate tuning jazzy-folk music for the first time while in college and hating it. But years later she hears the same music on the radio while taking a road trip with her husband. This time, surprisingly, she loves Mitchell’s album and it makes complete sense to her. Smith wonders about this shift in her listening history: “How is it possible to hate something so completely and then suddenly love it so unreasonably? How does such a change occur? (…) It’s not even the content of the music that interests me here. It’s the transformation of the listening.”

Smith doesn’t have a clear answer to the questions of how and why her listening changed over time and “the inconsistency of identity, of personality.” But the shift in her musical taste inspires her to muse on how she might have become a different person had she listened to and been a fan of certain records and musics when she was younger: “What kind of person would I be if I knew this album at all…?” And she articulates what makes it difficult for us, as we get older, to get into musics  that are new to us and differ substantially from the sounds with which we grew up: “Shaped by the songs of my childhood, I find it hard to accept the musical ‘new’, or even the ‘new-to-me.'” Then Smith points out a contradiction many of us may share and which may help explain why new music can be hard to metabolize: “For though we recognize discontinuity in our own lives, when it comes to art we are deeply committed to the idea of continuity.”


I have written on this blog previously about some of my listening experiments. Reading Smith, it strikes me that we might learn the most about our musical tastes by deliberately listening to music we don’t like or don’t think we like and making note of that experience. I have been trying this lately as a way of mapping my tastes and to some extent I’ve learned some things. (“This is way too aggressive for me.” Or: “The rhythm isn’t interesting.”) But the listening experimentation can go further than simply making us aware of the songs that shaped our childhood (when we musically came of age) or figuring out what we do and don’t like. My experience so far has me wondering whether or not our tastes are fungible to the point that they can actually be reset. If there were a “super” listener that’s exactly what he or she would be able to do: appreciate everything anew with each listen, finding deep meaning in every idiom, unconstrained by personal listening history. The super listener would hear with ears and sensibilities truly wide open.

On Flavors, Tastes, Sound And Perception: Thinking Through Ruhlman’s Twenty

“Clear your way. Always be thinking.” – Michael Ruhlman, Ruhlman’s Twenty

First, let me say the obvious: if you like to cook and want to know more about the science and craft of cooking, you’ll probably enjoy Michael Ruhlman’s Ruhlman’s Twenty. The book provides much to think about by explaining fundamental techniques and ingredients in a sensible and accessible way. Having said the obvious, there are other interesting things happening in Ruhlman’s Twenty. In the midst of the cooking theory, tips, instruction, and recipes, Ruhlman spends a fair amount of time talking about taste perception. Here are two examples:

“The complexity that comes from the intense sourness offset by a parallel sweetness goes especially well with…” (100).

“Does this sauce have the depth of texture and satisfying nature that I’m after? If not, fat may be the solution” (134).

Complexity. Sourness. Sweetness. Depth of texture. The overarching theme of this book is how we create and perceive specific tastes, and Ruhlman wants us to “always be thinking” about what affects what in the alchemical world of the kitchen. As it turns out, in the world of cooking, everything affects everything else. In the chapter “Acid” Ruhlman writes: “When you taste anything, ask yourself, What would make this better? Often the answer is acid.” He then discusses the effects of adding a drop of vinegar to a spoonful of soup. Ruhlman describes the taste as brighter: “Bright is an element of flavor that takes some imagination. I don’t mean literally brighter, but synesthetically brighter: vinegar has a brighter flavor–clear, clean, crisp” (92). Similar discussions ensue in chapters on salt, sweetness, and other tastes.

In the end, cooks work with essentially six distinct tastes: sweet, salty, sour, bitter, metallic, and umami–a Japanese word that roughly means “savoriness.” And while it may be difficult to put into words what these different tastes do and the complex ways they interact with one another, good cooking can’t happen without their presence in various ratios. Think about a favorite daily sauce: vinaigrette. Oil (fatty umami), vinegar or lemon juice (sharp sourness), a pinch of salt (saltiness), and maybe some honey (sweetness). That’s four of the six essential flavor components. No wonder salad is so tasty!


As in cooking, so too in music?

Just as food presents us with a range of tastes, music presents us with a range of heard and felt vibratory perceptions. In music, we speak of low-, medium-, and high-range pitches or registers. Low-pitched sounds vibrate at a slower rate than do high-pitched sounds. Moreover, low-pitched sounds are often considered to have a “dark” tone quality or timbre (think of a low note bowed on a double bass, or the sound of a deep gong softly struck) while high-pitched sounds have a “light” quality–or like Ruhlman’s vinegar taste, are “brighter” (think of a shrill piccolo sound). A musical instrument’s design, its mode of vibration, and the material it’s made out of also affect its timbre. It’s for this reason that a flute and a violin sound different and distinctive even when they play the same pitch. When composers score works for different instruments (violins and brass say, or electronic sine tones and pad sounds) they create new hybrid timbres that are more than the sum of their parts. In music as in cooking, one can mix and match to create new depths of perception.

I’ve been thinking about Ruhlman’s book as I’ve been working on some electronic music pieces. I’m in the mixing and balancing stages of a project, listening through to make sure all the sounds are sitting in the right proportion to one another to create a pleasing soundscape. As I listen it strikes me that sounds are like flavors–each one has a different taste. I don’t mean to say that there are six basic sounds that correspond to sweet, salty, and so on. But I do mean to say that different sounds, like different flavors, affect us in many different ways. Put another way, sounds have a feeling dimension just as flavors have a taste dimension.

The five electronic music pieces in my project each have over a dozen parts–including marimba samples, sine tones, Rhodes, glockenspiel and celeste, tom toms and cymbals.  There are a lot of layers and each layer has a distinctive pitch register and timbre profile. The parts were improvised and recorded many months ago: chord progressions were worked out, harmonies, basslines, and rhythmic counterpoint among the percussion added. Then everything was put into order so the pieces have a basic arc shape (each is some 20-plus minutes in length). Now I’m experimenting with different combinations of these layers, tweaking their volume, their tone, their pitch, and adding bits of delay and reverb effects to augment and change them. It’s a lot to think about and the possibilities for tweaking can feel endless.

But like Ruhlman’s story about the effect of a drop of vinegar on the taste of a spoonful of soup, I’m finding that small changes can have large effects on the overall feel of the music. For instance, tuning tom-toms to the tonic note of a section adds a deep euphony. Or pitching a hi hat sample up one octave makes it feel more metallic, crisp and brittle. Or maybe one part needs an EQ scoop (lowering the volume of its middle-range frequencies) to make it flatter, softer, and more transparent. Of course, the sound really isn’t any of those things–it’s basically a sawtooth wave sound–yet that’s how it feels as I listen and so I adjust parameters according to this imagined profile. All this tweaking is done intuitively, until the sound of the music feels right.

Finally, I’m surprised at how different the pieces sound as I return to them day after day. Same headphone volume, but a slightly different listening me, I guess. Taste is like that: it’s not entirely in the flavor, the ingredient, or the sound, but neither is it entirely in our perception of these phenomena either. It’s a combination of the two and that’s what makes the intersection of flavor, taste, and perception so interesting: it’s an unstable and ever-changing encounter for our senses.

On Finding Cross-Sensory Inspiration: The Spell Of Michel Bras

The Michelin-starred, self-taught French chef Michel Bras may as well be a music composer, such is his multi-sensory approach to his culinary craft. In the ambient and thoughtful documentary Inventing Cuisine: Michel Bras (2008), directed by Paul Lacoste, we see Bras at work on the kitchen–poaching fish, peeling veggies, brooding over his (fascinating) sketchbooks, and generally just looking concerned, lost in thought, and worried about the state of things in his kitchen. But we also see Bras outside in the blowing wind, under overcast skies, finding inspiration in the shifting play of light, wind, rocks, grassy hills, and whatever else he notices in the rugged environment near his restaurant in Laguiole, a remote area in southern France.

In one scene from the documentary (which begins at 4:57 in the YouTube clip below), we find Bras outside observing the sky and landscape through a piece of glass he’s set up on an easel. Like a painter, he’s trying to literally “frame” a piece of his environment by tracing what he sees directly onto what is essentially a translucent canvas. Later, Bras will use his glass tracing as the basis for designing the layout of a new dish on a dinner plate (which we actually saw Bras assembling just before this scene; so much for proper film chronology). “Everyone has their own reading and rewriting [of nature]” says Bras. “The plate is the most difficult part. It’s a sky on a stormy night. The backlit cloud bank captivates me, so maybe I’ll paint it on a plate.”

This scene reminded me of composers finding inspiration (or the idea/ideal that composers find inspiration) in their environments by turning their ears towards say, the rhythmic sound of city traffic and hearing music as with Steve Reich’s City Life (1995)

or maybe noticing the enchanted aura of an old cathedral and imagining out from there as with Claude Debussy’s La Cathédrale Engloutie (1910, performed here by the composer himself in 1913!)

or otherwise paying attention to something else that they want to translate from one medium into another.

And back to cooking, this is what is so fascinating about Bras in this scene: the cross-sensory nature of his creative process. As is the case with someone who experiences synesthesia (experiencing one sensory domain in terms of another–like hearing a chord and seeing the color purple, etc.), Bras is taking in something visual but funneling it through olfactory means: a sight becoming a taste (not to mention a texture, a set of relations and contrasts). It’s all about one of my favorite processes: transformation. And not only does Bras work cross-sensorially to transform elements from one sphere to another, he also gets deeply into the materials of his craft:

“For years, I’ve been interested in the abstract side of things. I get into them, I identify with them. In cooking, I often identify with the ingredient. I try to understand it, become one with it in order to recreate it.”

Finally, like a composer who knows how different rhythms and harmonies will interact to make an enchanting sum greater than its humdrum parts, so too does Bras knows his edible materials well. For instance, he attributes his interest in pastry to the fact that they have a structure that can be altered in a predictable way: “You put in flour, add sugar, you know the outcome.” Bras, then, is a materialist, but like good artists in other fields, he’s a materialist fueled by imagination and the sense(s) to change one kind of matter into another:

“I have a physio-chemical approach to food that helps me enormously. Because I learned on my own it was a real struggle. Today I can sense and predict the transformation process.”

On Charles Duhigg’s “The Power Of Habit”: Exploring Music Listening Habit Loops

“Listening habits allow us to unconsciously separate important noises from those that can be ignored.” – Charles Duhigg

In his best-selling self-help psychology book, The Power Of Habit: Why We Do What We Do In Life And Business, Charles Duhigg examines the structure of habits and the ways they shape everyday life for individuals, businesses and communities, and societies as a whole. Through a series of case studies, Duhigg reveals the unstable ground beneath what we think are the free and unencumbered decisions we regularly make regarding how we spend our time, where we focus our attention, and the actions we take. “The choices we make every day may feel like the products of well-considered decision making” says Duhigg, “but they’re not. They’re habits.”

A habit is a powerful kind of groove, and every habit has three components: a cue, a routine, and a reward. Cues can be almost anything–like say, the smell of peanut butter–that functions as a “trigger that tells your brain to go into automatic mode and which habit to use.” Similarly, a routine “can be physical or mental or emotional.” Routines are the habit action themselves such as eating that peanut butter. Finally, the reward is the pay off for your routine–in this case, the gustatory pleasure you’d derive from eating the peanut butter. The reward part of the cue-routine-reward habit loop is key, says Duhigg, because it “helps your brain figure out if this particular loop is worth remembering for the future.” (In the case of my appreciation for peanut better, I would say that this habit loop is a keeper.)

With repetition over time our habit loops become automatic which is another way of saying that our brains stop taking an active (conscious) role in our decision-making. In its place, cue and reward become connected to the point that “a powerful sense of craving and anticipation emerges.” Thus, that feeling that overcomes me: I must have that peanut butter!


Reading Duhigg’s book it struck me that as music listeners we often approach our favorite musics as kinds of habits with their own cues, routines, and rewards. Music can give us a kind of “fix” of our favorite sound combinations. What’s more, it’s also excellent at creating desire within its own structures–setting up stimulus cues through melody, harmony, and rhythm and then prolonging our wait for the reward—like that huge chorus, the cathartic chord cadence, the infectious hook, or the massive beat. But the way music constructs desire through change and repetition is the subject for other blog posts. Reading Duhigg got me thinking specifically about our listening habits themselves: how some kind of desire to hear music functions as the cue, how listening to a music is the routine, and how pleasure (or something else along the same sensory continuum such as catharsis maybe) is the reward. Have you ever thought about your music listening practices as habit loops? And have you ever wondered how mutable your listening habits actually are?

I have particular musics that I return to from time to time for reliable and repeatable listening experiences. For instance, when I want a “logical” experience I often reach for J.S. Bach. Or when I want an interaction” experience where I can hear musical dialogue I reach for jazz or maybe duets such as the musical conversations between kora player Ballake Sissoko and cellist Vincent Segal on their excellent album Chamber Music (which I have written about here). When I want a “static” experience I might reach for some drone-oriented sound such as Hildur Guðnadóttir (whom I have written about here). Or when I want a “filmic” experience I reach for something like the electronic duo Deaf Center. Or when I want a “nostalgic” experience I turn to music I first heard when I was a teenager (progressive rock, 80s synth pop). These are just some of the ways I habitually organize my listening. I check out new stuff too, of course. And I always listen to new mainstream pop just for its novel sounds.

I’m sure I’m not alone in organizing my listening depending on what kind of experience I wish to cultivate. But it’s not a science. There are many, many ends to which we can put our listening means, and the same music can serve multiple agendas. J.S. Bach may be “logical” music for me but merely pleasant polyphonic ambient background sound for someone else not into Baroque rigidity. Music always depends on its listeners for its meaning.

But how do we get out of our music habit loops? How do we cultivate novelty in our listening habits? The challenge with experiencing new musics, of course, is that as listeners we get used to a familiar set of cues to indicate to us whether or not we’re “interested” or we “like” the music enough to keep listening. But Duhigg tells us that we can change our habits if we change the routine while keeping the cues and rewards the same. So: how might we keep our already accepted cues for listening to our go-to musics and their perceptual rewards while opening ourselves to new musics? Can we apply Duhigg’s model to cultivate new listening habits?


One day a few weeks ago, my friend Gary, a bass player and producer, suggested that I listen to the contemporary country band Lady Antebellum. “The production is incredible, man” he told me, as if you could separate production from the music, “and all the layered guitars are very deep.” Wait a second. This was just the kind of opportunity for a listening experiment I was looking for. Could I modify my listening habits and actually get into country music like Lady Antebellum? I decided to try. After all, what’s the worst that could happen? I’d become a diehard fan and renounce all other music? As if.

The plan was simple: set up a “Lady Antebellum” station on my Pandora Internet Radio app and just start listening for one whole week. The rules of the listening experiment were equally simple, yet severe: whenever I felt like listening to music (and usually this would be while I was riding the subway), I could only tune into my Lady Antebellum Pandora station and let country music do its Good Work. The goal was to stiff-arm my listening routine so that I only listened to country. So off I went, headphones on, to hear what would happen.


Pandora kicked off the listening re-enculturation party with Lady Antebellum’s ” “Love’s Looking Good On You” and my first reaction was to laugh uncomfortably–not at the music, but at how uncomfortable I was with the whole idea of actually listening to it. I was self conscious—as if I was being watched. But no turning back now so I just let the music play and the feelings of self-consciousness soon subsided. My first impression was that this music wasn’t trying to surprise or challenge me, just comfort me, as if saying, “It’s okay, we won’t bite. We just wanna talk.”

Gary was right: Lady Antebellum do indeed have some nicely layered guitar things going on. As their song came to a close, I debated whether or not to press the Thumbs Up or Thumbs Down icons on Pandora’s interface to tweak the app’s algorithm to give me more or less of what I just heard. Pandora generates its station playlists by drawing on millions of pieces of music that have been categorized by their musical attributes and then uses these data as a means of figuring out the contours of our listening tastes. If you click on the “Track” button as you listen to Lady Antebellum’s “Love’s Looking Good On You” you can read Pandora’s classification rationale set forth in a list of musical style attributes:

“We’re playing this track because it features country roots, acoustic rhythm piano, extensive vamping, intricate melodic phrasing, paired vocal harmony, mixed acoustic and electric instrumentation, major key tonality, slide guitars, vocal duets, romantic lyrics and many other similarities…”

The idea is that if you like this particular song that has these musical attributes, you’ll probably also like this other song by a different artist whose music shares similar attributes and thus probably has a similar sound. Clicking the Thumbs Up or Thumbs Down icons then, allows you to nudge Pandora towards more songs like the ones you’re liking. (You can read more about Pandora here.) I chose not to press the Thumbs Up or Thumbs Down icons and just leave Pandora to her own devices.

Next up was Deirks Bentley’s “Come A Little Closer”, then onto Rascal Flatts, Keith Urban and others. Over the next few days, I stuck to my listening regimen, listening to whatever Pandora would throw at me. And she was relentless, playing lots of Lady Antebellum mixed with tunes by other artists—every single one of whom are white artists, by the way–who fit the contemporary country musical mold. Some of the tracks I heard included Antebellum’s “Here Comes Goodbye”, “Need You Now”, “When You Got A Good Thing”, “One Day You Will”, “I Run To You”, “Perfect Day”, “Can’t Take My Eyes Off You”, “Heart Of The World”, “Things People Say”, “Wanted You More”, “Hello World”, “Home Is Where The Heart Is”, “Our Kind Of Love”, “Stars Tonight” and “American Honey”; Deirks Bentley’s Long Trip Home”, “I Wanna Make You Close Your Eyes” and “Settle For A Slowdown”; Rascal Flatts’ “Here”, “Love You Out Loud”, “Stand”, “Fast Cars And Freedom”, “These Days” and “Every Day”; Keith Urban’s “Sweet Thing”, “Making Memories Of Us” and “Stupid Boy”; Brad Paisley’s “She’s Everything”, “Little Moments” and “Remind Me”; Colbie Callat’s “I Never Told You”, “Bubbly” and “Out Of My Mind”; Tim McGraw’s “Just To See You Smile” and “She’s My Kind Of Rain”; Miranda Lambert’s “White Liar”; Jason Aldean’s “Dirt Road Anthem” and “Laughed Until We Cried”; The Band Perry’s “All Your Life”; Blake Shelton’s “God Gave Me You”; Carrie Underwood’s “So Small” and “I Just Can’t Live A Lie”; Faith Hill’s “I Need You”; and Zac Brown Band’s “Free” and “Whatever It Is.”


One morning several days into my country music listening my wife Natasha asked me, “So how’s your experiment going?” “Okay” I said, sounding a little dejected. “It’s harder than I thought and I’m struggling.” I was a committed listener, but it was hard to shake the feeling that the songs were too wordy (I like instrumental music) and the chord progressions too predictable (I like harmonic adventure). Not only that, my sense of musical taste felt immune to country music’s pleadings. I was staying the course though and Natasha found my self-imposed struggle humorous. “Why does it have to be an experiment anyway?” she asked, laughing.

I guess it had to be an experiment so I’d have an excuse to learn something about country music as a genre with its own conventions of expression. And I was learning something. I have to say, the music on the Lady Antebellum Pandora station was sometimes moving and always heartfelt–or at least it constructed and performed heartfeltness very, very effectively. It did this lyrically and musically. Lyrically, the songs’ subject matter was mostly about love, longing, memories, loss, religious faith, cars and pick up trucks, the experience of small time America, promises, and comparing a “good woman” to lots of valued things like say, a well-worn pair of tennis shoes (no kidding: see for example Brad Paisley’s “She’s Everything”). Most importantly, the songs told simple stories embedded with life lessons. It’s easy to follow a country song’s lyrics, but before my experiment I had never bothered trying.

Musically, country songs hammer home their heartfelt stories through a kind of sonic sentimentality. All of the songs I listened to featured twangy expressive vocals, slow tempos, a good solid backbeat on two and four, simple and reassuring chord progressions, acoustic piano, layers of guitars (especially slide guitar–that singular signifier of country wistfulness), and pleasantly predictable arrangements that always have a breakdown (rhythm section sits out for a few measures) before the final chorus returns to take us to the end, full throttle. The music has the effect of framing whatever you’re doing (I’m riding the subway, listening as I type on my phone) to create the sense that you’ve stepped into a middle-of-the-road Hollywood movie–specifically the montage section where someone is say, looking over old letters and reminiscing about good times past. The kind of movie you might watch while on an airplane because you have nothing else to do. I know it sounds like I’m making a judgment here, but the music really sounds like a film soundtrack.

As I kept listening to my country station, Pandora was making assumptions about me too, bombarding me every thirty seconds with pop up ads for Busch beer, a dating site called Christian Singles, and DeVrie University, among other things and services. Clearly there is a country music demographic that advertisers have access to through pinpointing and then catering to their musical taste profiles. The lesson here is that our musical tastes can help advertisers identify our broader socio-cultural identity profile.


In one section of The Power Of Habit, Duhigg touches on our habits of music listening. Drawing on a study of what makes Top Forty hits so popular, he observes that the songs we like tend to correspond very well to our everyday listening habits. We like our favorite songs, in other words, because they’re a lot like other songs we’ve liked. Says Duhigg:

“Much of the time, we don’t actually choose if we like or dislike a song. It would take too much mental effort. Instead, we react to the cues (“This song sounds like all the other songs I’ve liked!”) and rewards (“It’s fun to hum along!”) and without thinking, we either start singing, or reach over and change the station.”

So after a week of pretty constant listening and not changing the station I took stock of my progress. It turns out, you’re probably not surprised to hear, that my experiment didn’t re-wire my listening habits. Why is this? Why haven’t I been able to change my listening habits and love country music as something cool? One possible answer is that I haven’t spent enough time with it yet. Maybe I need a few years. But therein lies the catch: we tend to only spend time with musics we actually like, deepening out appreciation for them even more. When we don’t immediately like a music, we tend to stand clear of it. All this to say that it’s difficult to re-wire ourselves to love a music because it’s difficult to stick with something that you don’t really love. It’s clearly a catch situation.

To sum up: I’m glad I ran the experiment, but even after some deep country immersion, I still find myself only finding a narrow bandwidth of all the music I’ve heard “cool” and this fact alone may say a lot about my own limitations as a listener. Yes, there are some lady Antebellum songs I like (I kept whistling “Need You Now” at home and passed the sonic virus to my wife who started singing it too within seconds of hearing the melody!). But overall I don’t love contemporary country music and probably won’t seek it out for a while. Having admitted this, I’m not scared of country music anymore (!), and in fact quite open to its expressivity and its direct, plain-spoken qualities, appreciating it as a way of constructing a way of being in the world as valid as any other.

And anyway, who is to say what’s good music is?