Friday, February 3, 2012

Blackberry and raspberry were very piano. Vanilla had elements of both piano and woodwind

"Sweet and sour smells were rated as higher-pitched, smoky and woody ones as lower-pitched. Blackberry and raspberry were very piano. Vanilla had elements of both piano and woodwind. Musk was strongly brass." Thus claims a very interesting article in the Economist named Smells like Beethoven, focused on the study of individuals comparing sounds to smells.

"Most people agree that loud sounds are “brighter” than soft ones. Likewise, low-pitched sounds are reminiscent of large objects and high-pitched ones evoke smallness. Anne-Sylvie Crisinel and Charles Spence of Oxford University think something similar is true between sound and smell.
Ms Crisinel and Dr Spence wanted to know whether an odour sniffed from a bottle could be linked to a specific pitch, and even a specific instrument. To find out, they asked 30 people to inhale 20 smells—ranging from apple to violet and wood smoke —which came from a teaching kit for wine-tasting. After giving each sample a good sniff, volunteers had to click their way through 52 sounds of varying pitches, played by piano, woodwind, string or brass, and identify which best matched the smell. The results of this study, to be published later this month in Chemical Senses, are intriguing."

The whole synaesthesia experiment has yielded results that show that even for "normal" people some overlap between the senses does happen.

pic Smell.oƒ.Sound. by Allison Kunath via picsy


  1. It makes sense. Especially as scent seems to be the one sense that we don't have a really clearly defined language to describe, of COURSE we have to rely on words from other senses to describe smells.

    Anyone who's described a perfume as "screechy" or "warm" or "heavy" or "bright" or "sweet" should realize that it's not just those who experience synesthesia that recognize some overlap between the senses. After all, people say that blue is "calming" and that yellow is "happy".

    I do interpret some aspects of fragrance as shapes or lines - it's not completely consistent, but I know some fragrances are small and sharp-edged and others are large and curved or even fuzzy-edged .. maybe with sharper more precise bits coming off them. Or even that some fragrances are partially low-pitched, then have a gap, and another higher-pitched 'section'.

  2. A,

    yeah, it does. Barring trained musicians, I think many people are having a bit of a difficulty with articulating sound as well (though they understand it perfectly); it's the lack of a common vocabulary. Funny how vision has usurped the vast percentage of words over other senses, eh?
    Some scents do have a complex structure, they can have lower and higher pitches at intervals; probably also a copying mechanism of our noses.

    Regarding colours I don't know whether we have been very much conditioned to believe that they are so because we've been taught they "stand for" something in colour therapy/mysticism/eastern religions etc. For instance I personally find (usually) yellow profoundly irritating, though I immediately back-pedal mentally and think it's a "bright", good colour.

    I find this phenomenon also applies sometimes with smells: lavender is touted to be "relaxing" in aromatherapy, but real lavender essential oil is stimulating to me!

    Do you agree?

  3. Actually, I do agree - and I have similar reactions to the color yellow and to lavender. The essential oil is definitely stimulating ... however dried lavender in cotton sachets seems more calming, somehow. (Though that could be because I associate the smell with clean linens.

    Orange is my "energizing/happy" color, but I think a lot of people have the response that orange can be irritating, jarring, or just too 'loud'.

    There's a big overlap when trying to decipher what we observe because it's part of how we interpret our senses (innately) and what we observe because it's part of our socialization/culture or upbringing.

    I do think *some* things are innate ... I thought I loved the smell of a wood-burning fire in all contexts. Then I learned otherwise when there was a large fire moving toward my hometown. The whole hillside was alight, and that much smoke just broadcasts a message of 'danger'. On a visceral level, I was having the same reaction as my dog! Everyone was on edge, and not just because we logically knew there was a risk of the fire moving into town. It was the smell.

    On the other hand, we know there are things that are open to interpretation by upbringing or culture. For example, since I'm American, I find the smell of spiced pumpkin very homey, soothing, fall-like, and positive. My English husband has none of these associations - and hates my spiced-pumpkin smelling body lotion.

    So though this has gotten quite long, what I'm saying is that I think the reactions we have to information from our senses is such a mixture of learned information and innate reaction and individual preference that we'll never entirely be able to sort one thing out from another. Which is perhaps why a cross-over in the language we use to describe different types of sensory input is inevitable!

  4. A,

    thought-provoking and I find there are some things that are global (we do react to strange, burning smells with a sense of alarm and to bitter/mouldy things with a trepidation of possible poison/spoil/putrefication in the back of our minds I guess; it's evolution written large).

    As you wisely say, it's a tangle of innate, personal and associative (via cultural upbringing) which makes the mix so very interesting; I guess if someone has a pleasant association with a burning smell they might grow up to not be so very alarmed by it compared to the general population (though so hard-wired things are hard to shake), whereas that might be mulptiplied into a real phobia by someone who has survived through a large fire and bears the mental scars to show for it.
    The thing is, when in a set context, we rarely know which is which regarding any given speaker/writer, do we?

    Funny how you mention pumpkin in that context, as I always found that that famous Hirsch study about men being aroused by pumpkin pie's scent surely is a very US-focused result (and probably the women's study about licorice is too); men in our culture for instance have very, very dim recollections of the smell (it's not something too common and not at all "traditonal" or customary in order to trigger associations). But bring on the baklava, vanilla sweet submerged in cold water, halwa or figs & cheese and they do have pleasant and sometimes sensual/aphrodisiac associations with them.

    The language we need to use ~when cool-headed and in a mood of wanting to be understood thoroughly~ has to differentiate between what we ourselves perceive as important/formative to us than what is objectively a common-recognised effect without emotional baggage ("I smell burning tires!" is different than "I smell hot rubber" I should think). But that's fodder for the next post. ;-)


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