Musical Timbre and the Texture of Wine

music and wineI’m working on a book about wine and music pairing (co-authored with Clark Smith). So I’ve been thinking about the elements of wine and music that create the sense of congruence or conflict.

There are remarkable similarities between timbre in music and the textures and aromas of wine. Timbre is what makes a clarinet differ from a trumpet. There are a variety of factors that make up the timbre of an instrument or group of instruments. One is tone—the overall blend of frequencies in a sound. This is what you control when you adjust the treble or bass on an amplifier. Add more treble and the tone becomes brighter and sharper; add bass and the tone is muted or dull.

There is an obvious analogy with wine. Some wines have bright fruit with clear, precise aromas and crisp flavors that seem to sparkle and can be associated with higher sound frequencies. Other wines are dark, murky, and dense creating associations with lower frequencies. Experienced audio engineers can distinguish the relative strength of the various harmonics that make up a sound just as experienced wine tasters can discern the various layers of different tonalities that make up the aromatic, textural, and flavor profile of a wine.

In music, the frequency balance of a sound, which creates its tone, can vary over time. The tone can persist for the duration of the note or it can fluctuate. This is especially true when the overall timbre of a group of instruments shifts as instruments enter, pause, or shift their dynamics as the music unfolds.  The fluctuations gain their character from another factor influencing the timbre of an instrument–the envelope of the sound, the way each note begins or ends. ( The elements of a note’s envelope are attack, sustain, delay, and release) Some instruments have a sharp, precise shape to the beginning of the note. Others have a gentle, smooth entry. Some instruments sustain the note before it decays; in others the volume falls off rapidly after the initial burst of sound.

Similarly, the tonal balance of a wine changes substantially as the wine evolves on the palate. The initial plump, juicy flavor sensation shifts markedly after a few seconds as the acidity or tannins become more apparent. In some wines, the fruit power persists; in others the fruitiness fades to be replaced by mineral or earth notes. This shift in the tonal balance of a wine occurs because of the influence of the structural characteristics of the wine—the fruit, acidity, tannins, and alcohol—which also display something analogous to an envelope. Acidity can have an immediate angular edge or can be gentle at first gaining sharpness as it becomes more prominent. Tannins build slowly or come on aggressively with shifts in granularity as the wine evolves. The precise nature of the decay of the tannins is one of main determinants of wine quality.

Just as the internal rhythm of a piece of music is influenced by how the notes sustain or decay, the perceived rhythm of the wine depends on how the structural components display their envelopes. The perceived “sustain” of each structural element is a crucial factor in determining what it’s like to experience a wine.

Finally, the overall sound of a piece of music can be summarized as its texture. Songs can be thick, smooth, dense, or sparse. “Texture” has a related but more technical use in music theory referring to the number of voices (or separate streams of sound) and how they interact.

Similarly, in wine, the overall result of the interaction of its structural components–their envelope and their internal rhythm–makes up its texture. Like music wine also can be thick, smooth, dense, or sparse, the result of several layers of “voices” interacting over time.

Music and wine pairing works because of these congruencies. And when there is conflict between the music you’re listening to and the wine you’re sipping, the wine really does suffer.

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