Relations: Music and Tea

hand in hand
hand in hand
a beautiful and complex
a beautiful and complex

Tea is music, music is tea. Music allows for one to consume an experience and taste the “beverage” of song, piece, or melody through what the listener experiences in the act of listening. Tea creates a narrative in and of itself, allowing for one making tea to become immersed in creation. As Lao Tzu would say, music and tea “always ignores that and chooses this.” Both allow for the listener or consumer to not be distracted by the past or future, but to choose this or the current moment which blossoms forth into the experience of the drink. Tea and music are old friends; they complement each other like a crumbly lemon biscuit and Earl Grey. Tea has many characteristics of great music like beauty, complexity, engaging narrative, and comprehensive experience. Music has many semblances of tea, the act of interpretation, perfecting the brew of a certain piece, and most importantly, enacting beauty within form (or the tea itself).

Tea creates music. I know, crazy right? The wonderful noises that naturally come about in the act of making tea, like the enthusiastic gurgling of the water or the swishing of the bamboo whisk in the Japanese tea ceremony, create music. “We want to capture and control these sounds, to use them not as sound effects but as musical instruments.” John Cage noticed how these everyday noises evoke beauty and create music. Sen-No-Rikyu (the famous tea sage in the 17th-century) noticed this music in much of his poetry. He listened to water hitting the bottom of his bowl and took solace in the noises:

When you hear the splash
Of the water drops that fall Into the stone bowl
You will feel that all the dust Of your mind is washed away.

Sen- No Rikyu

You might also notice your kettle squealing for your attention, the sound of a metal spoon stirring honey, all evoke a response from the listener. These sounds bring up images, maybe a memory from your mom making you chamomile for bed, a mentor being a good host making you tea. These sounds coming from your tea ware (which are instruments) are music because they create harmony, beauty, and elicit an emotional response.

Music is tea. Tea can heighten a conversation similar to how music can provide a nice ambiance. The caffeine in the drink boosts mental energy evocative of music rejuvenating one’s spirit, and theanine (an amino acid in tea) allows for relaxation reminiscent of how many people use music to gently relax into sleep. Music also allows for the listener to be fully engaged in the narrative at hand whether that be a new Taylor Swift song or a Mozart Symphony. The listener is engaging the present and steeping in what the musical creator(s) brews up. When a person consumes tea, they are engaged in the mouthfeel, the sequential tastes that create a “melody.” You can taste each narrative to its conclusion until the cup is totally drained and empty. Music and tea both share this linear perspective of time, a beginning and an end, an experience given, and an experience gone. Many sages of tea have guidelines to how one should consume tea, and even each container of tea almost always lists directions on how to most successfully brew the tea. As a relationship with the specific tea develops, then the consumer establishes their own interpretation of the tea. This process is reminiscent of the act of a performer synthesizing the music of Beethoven, Stevie Wonder, Miles Davis, Whitney Houston, etc. who all left lasting imprints on how certain kinds of music are to be interpreted. Each piece of music ever written has guidelines within the notes written out but also in the original performance, the historical culture in which the piece was created, and the sound desired by the creator. What is paramount to a great performance is a successful interpretation from the performer: someone who took all the information given by the sages of music, tasted the astringent guidelines of the piece and made a uniquely subjective performance that delighted the listener. Think of a cup of tea as the performer and the consumer as the listener.

Tea also embodies the quintessential goal of musicians performing a piece of music. It immerses the drinker into a sensual world away from mundane everyday life, taking one through a narrative every cup full and every cup empty. It captures the audience as they approach the tea (or performance) to take sips of the wonderful notes brought out in each unique strain or method of tea. Tea is often consumed to the tune of swanky, hip new music in bougie coffee shops offering expensive tea, or flashy synth pop at your local tapioca tea store. Tea is even harvested to the sound of music. To help pass the time and stay positive, workers will sing local songs while plucking tea. The story that a song takes the listener on can expand or compress time. Music can allow for an escape from the confines of a person’s stressful schedule and provide the listener with a nice adagio in the day, just like tea. Many tea drinkers use tea to calm down and think, to get away from the trials and tribulations that the world has to offer. Tea slowly consumes one’s present in the process of pouring and steeping, allowing for the present moment to expand in a similar way that music evokes.

This interpretation of music and tea being connected allows for tea to enter the bigger discussion of the arts. Art is something that has a vast historical tradition tied to cultural and historical events. Investigating how tea is music and how music is tea encourages one to consider how tea can be used as a means for personal expression, something to derive meaning from, or maybe even a way to interpret nature’s gifts. One could go as far to say that the act of consuming tea is an attempt for humans to derive personal expression out of nature. Humans have discovered and attempted to perfect the process of making tea, potentially attempting to bring out the true flavors that each type of plant and process express, in turn, trying to better experience an unbridled expression of nature as a performance (the taste or experience of consumption). Whatever the relationship, tea and music both allow for human expression that is immersive and successful, something that many find solace, love, and contentment in.