The Sound of Pasta

Posted on in On Our Radar by Eugene Ruffolo

Musings on Music,
Food, and Life


Creativity is truly one of the great mysteries. How does one create something beautiful, original, and deeply meaningful? Artists speak of the inexplicable feeling of ideas flowing through them, of being mere vessels for some greater power. We are familiar with the image of the writer staring at a blank page—that daunting experience artists know too well. As a lifelong musician, I have devoted much of my time and energy to following the muse, instilling in me a sense of awe regarding all things creative. I am fascinated with the creative process—and the through line that connects every artistic discipline. They are surely all related. But as a professional musician and an ardent food lover and cook, it is the connection between these two particular art forms that captivates me the most.

Whether I am deeply immersed in writing a song or cooking a delicious meal, a similar feeling takes hold as I surrender to the process—the mysterious and wonderful alchemy of creating something unique and rich out of nothing. Surely creativity is pure magic. But maybe it can be broken down, and in doing so, might we unlock principles that also contribute to a life well-lived?

So what do a beautiful plate of pasta and a well-executed song have in common? More than you might imagine.


Consider the elegance of a simple tomato sauce—fresh tomatoes, olive oil, garlic, salt, and pepper.

Sure, you could add more ingredients, but why? It’s perfect as it is. And in its simplicity lies its grace. As a young adult interested in cooking, I would observe my grandmother over and over as she created this signature Italian dish, and the one thing I marveled at each time? Simplicity. So simple and so good.

Now imagine your favorite Hank Williams song: three chords, a memorable hook, and an emotional message that shoots straight to the heart. Voila! This is not to say that more sophisticated recipes or forms of music don’t have their place, but isn’t it the simple things that delight the most?


Nothing exposes the amateur chef more strikingly than the overuse of spices. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve had friends visit from Italy, only to sample Italian food here and deliver the same refrain, “What’s with the garlic?” Often we tend to overdo it. Cooking is about adding just what’s needed and making the recipe speak with the requisite amount of herbs and spices. More is less.

And just as the cook must resist the temptation to overseason, the songwriter must home in on the essence of the song, finding a way to strip away the unnecessary to reveal the emotional heart. In fact, lyrical economy is possibly the very quality that makes songwriting such a formidable task, and separates it from its close cousin poetry, and certainly novel writing. It is the unique job of the songwriter to craft a compelling story in three short minutes, all the while working with the added elements and constraints of rhyme, melody, and harmony! No easy task. But in keeping things simple and economical, we cut to the heart of things.


I remember clearly a moment early in my career. I was recording my first album with a producer much more experienced than I. I stood over the recording console and attempted to direct the process. The song had a cello part, and I wanted to hear more of it. “I love the cello—turn it up!” I barked. He paused the music, looked at me with a mixture of frustration and disgust, and admonished, “Just because you like the instrument doesn’t mean there should be too much of it in the mix!”

I learned an invaluable lesson that day, one I’ve carried with me and which serves me well both in the recording studio and in the kitchen: balance. One of the most notable details about eating in a restaurant in Italy is that you will likely find no salt or pepper shakers on your table. The chef has already decided how the meal should taste. So if you like parmigiana on your tomato sauce, that’s wonderful, but remember the balance!

Seasoned musicians live by the adage that in music, the notes not played are as important as the ones that are. We speak of the “space” and “silence” being as important as the music itself. In fact, in those very spaces we often find the sweetest music. Cooking is the same. What’s left out is as important as what’s put in. So honor the space, and remember the balance.


If you want to write a song, study a Bach prelude or listen carefully to a Gershwin tune. In those time-honored pieces lies the key to musical architecture. Once you dissect and master those, creating your own musical gems will be that much easier.

Similarly, aspiring cooks might benefit from reading Mark Bittman’s How to Cook Everything or Macella Hazan’s Essentials of Italian Cooking. And if you don’t like cookbooks, keep a watchful eye on your grandmother. There is great wisdom in studying those who have come before. And although cooking, music, and life itself are creative acts inviting improvisation and free expression, it pays to keep a weather eye on form.

But in the end, isn’t it all about feel? A great musician can never be created, just as a truly gifted chef can’t be hatched in a cooking school. Ultimately, it all comes from somewhere deep inside. What differentiates any great artist from a less-gifted one is that intangible element of feel—the X factor that simply can’t be quantified. And therein lies the mystery.

But the arts are an open playing field for all. So whether it’s a song, a plate of pasta, or just a walk through the woods on an October day, embrace the moment and enjoy.

Eugene Ruffolo is an acclaimed singer/songwriter about to release his seventh CD, Canto per Mangiare, a collection of Italian songs and cherished family recipes.

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