Olfactory and gustatory imagery in music

It’s no mystery that there is a link between music and food, especially for musicians. For myself, I think this started as a young conservatory student. I found myself hungry all of the time and it was well known that receptions with generous spreads of appetizing treats followed most solo recitals. A performance of sonorous tones accompanied by a table of culinary delicacies is a beautiful thing! 

As a teacher and also in my own playing, I how found the imagery of food to be easily accessed although likely to make me feel hungry. One of my favorite images is the course bread and olive oil served as an hors d’oeuvres at Italian restaurants. The tactile sensation of the bread moving through the viscosity of the oil can help students move the bow through its entire length. I have found this works especially well when students are stuck at the frog and don’t feel comfortable moving all the way to the tip or when challenged to smoothly change the direction from down bow to up bow without losing sound.

Another really obvious, favorite food image is dark chocolate. I love using the image of a Sacher-Torte cake to evoke a deep, dark, dense sound. What comes to mind is the second movement of the Sonata in D Minor for Violin and Piano by Johannes Brahms which is played mostly high up on the G string. The downside of using this delicious image is that I usually have to explain what a Sacher cake is. This dense dark chocolate flavor is usually too strong a flavor for young palettes. These cakes do not seem to be readily available in the United States. However, a few years ago after having visited Vienna, ironically, the Woman in Gold was playing on the flight home. This movie, starring Helen Mirren, is about a Jewish woman’s epic court battle in the early 2000’s with the Austrian government to recover the Klimpt painting of the same name stolen from her family by the Nazis. Around the same time I returned home from Austria, my fingerboard needed to be planed and an appraisal was overdue. My friend, poet Joan Kantor, who has been quite instructive to me about visual art, suggested a combined visit to both the luthier and the Neue Galerie in Manhattan. It is a beautiful gallery und voilà, Sacher-Torte cake is served in their café!

The image on this card also suggests the imagery of spices. It displays curry powder and a ginger plant with enticing aromas wafting from a brightly colored dish. Olfactory imagery “is one of the most direct triggers of memory and emotion.” Just like taste, an aroma, if it is specifically about food, can also trigger hunger. However, this type of imagery is very direct and universally experienced. All of us have a relationship with food. With students, you may need to experiment to find the most effective type of imagery. Some students make imaginative connections with characters in a story, colors, travel abroad, or movement such as in a dance or even sports.

I have found that teenagers and tweens in particular do well with olfactory and gustatory imagery. It is impersonal enough so that the student won’t feel as though you are invading their private, internal world but easy enough for the teacher to make a connection. Inquiring with students as to whether they have tried a particular restaurant in town is a good conversation starter. Cuisines that generously use spices such as ethnic foods and even barbecue sauces and rubs can inspire a variety of textures, moods and tone colors in music. Paired with enough bow technique and vibrato, students can start to develop their own palette of colors on their instruments. I have also found that around the time when violin students move to full size instruments, perhaps around 8th grade, is a good time to have discussions about how a student perceives their own sound. It is a great time to move out of the intermediate approach to mostly technical, rote based learning. The student is now ready to start owning their sound.2

  1. MasterClass staff. ‘Sensory Imagery in Creative Writing: Types, Examples, and Writing Tips’ (Nov. 8, 2020), masterclass.com. (Accessed June 13, 2021).
  2. I have started using the pronouns they and their when referring to students. Even though these pronouns are not always grammatically correct, their use is for inclusion of the LGBTQ+ community.
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