I read an intriguing article this morning. Entitled Why Do People Make Music?, the piece reported on a study by 75 researchers of songs sung in 55 languages. Though the article did not offer a definitive answer to the question it posed, it offered some possibilities. Among them: “Across cultures, the researchers found, songs share certain features not found in speech, suggesting that Darwin might have been right: Despite its diversity today, music might have evolved in our distant ancestors.” (Darwin, incidentally, suggested music may have been a tactic used to solicit mates.) I’ve often wondered why people—why I—enjoy music. What is it, I wonder, that makes music pleasing to the ear and to the brain that absorbs the sounds? At the same time, I wonder about apparent generational rivalries between music; why does classical music seem to appeal to some generations, while rock n’ roll does not? And vice versa? And what causes a person’s taste in music to change over time? There was a time I considered traditional country music nothing but offensive noise; though I am not an enthusiastic fan today, I find some country music very satisfying. Similarly, I once was not enamored of most classical music, whereas today I find much of it quite appealing—even moving in the extreme. Many other examples exist; they offer no answers, just more questions.


Sitting here in my cluttered study, my thoughts turn away from hearing to other senses: taste, smell, touch, sight, and touch. Taste and smell seem in some ways closest to hearing, in that people have strong preferences (or dislikes) for certain foods and odors. I like the flavors of cumin and cilantro and the smell of grapefruit juice and I am strongly attracted to certain styles of folk music rock. My taste and smell preferences could be driven by genetics (it is my understanding that people either love cilantro or hate it, the latter because a certain genetic characteristic in some people makes it taste like soap). Could that be true of music/sound? Of course it could be; but is it? I have the same questions about what pleases the eye—is my appreciation of what I consider beauty related to my DNA or have I been taught, culturally, what is pretty and what is not?  And touch…the gentleness of a person’s fingers stroking my neck might give me either a pleasant sensation or disturbing shivers; it is the touch, itself, or ownership of the fingers? Did I learn that reaction, whichever it is, or is it encoded in my DNA?


None of my questions are new. Most, if not all, have been answered by someone at some point; either I did not hear/see/appreciate the answers or I did not believe them. Or, perhaps, I simply do not remember what I once understood. The brain either is reliably inconsistent or we do not know how to fully interpret or recall the signals it receives. Whatever the reason, the inability to remember everything…EVERYTHING…is more than mildly maddening. I sometimes feel the urge to beat myself bloody and unconscious with a cast iron skillet, thinking that treatment might unlock all the memories my brain refuses to release to my consciousness.  [No. Not really. I have an allergy to pain.] But possessing an imperfect memory is frustrating in the extreme. Yet I might find it impossible to live with absolute recall. Perhaps my copious flaws are simple mechanisms of self-protection. That’s a charitable way of looking at it.


Where does one go to get truly professional instruction on proper care of stainless steel knives? Not just someone who “learned from experience” and is satisfied that the experience qualifies the person as an expert. No, I am looking for someone regarded by experts as an expert. My ability to sharpen stainless steel knives is better than it used to be, but I suspect learning on my own was not the best way to learn. I want to be really good at it. I’ve never been good at using whetstones. But I’ve gotten considerably better at using honing/sharpening rods. I want to use them the RIGHT way, though. And I want to be good at using whetstones. Or whatever is the best way. The longest-lasting way. Tell me. Please.

About John Swinburn

"Love not what you are but what you may become."― Miguel de Cervantes
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