Scent and Sound

Fragrance lovers are generally sensorial creatures, but it would be strange if a love of some of the finer pleasures in life were limited purely to olfaction. What about things that stimulate the other senses — cinema, art, dance, theatre, opera and music?

Haydn Williams

Scent and Sound

It's no surprise that multisensory experiences can provoke even greater wonder and delight, so how does scent interact with another artistic endeavour like music? Can it have a deeper role to play working in harmony with another art form?



It's easy to see why scent and sound are connected so readily. There's a shared language of base/bass, mid and top notes, as well as harmonies and accords. There's also the appealing idea of the perfumer being like a composer (or producer) creating an end product from a series of notes or elements. In Western music, there are 12 notes, but endless ways to arrange them, whilst the perfumer has the rather unenviable task of creating a perfume from a palette of infinite possibilities! We can also think of different fragrance notes as having their own musical frequencies. This idea goes all the way back to 19th Century chemist and perfumer G.W. Septimus Piesse, who created a 'Gamut of Odours'. This acted like an octave of smell, from 'high notes' like verbena and peppermint at the top of the scale down to 'low notes' such as vanilla and patchouli.



Certainly, smells and sounds have always performed the existential functions of procreation and protection. We can see it in nature — the song of the nightingale attracting a mate, the roar of the lion deterring rivals, a skunk using its vile odour to protect itself, and the queen bee using pheromones to find a male. It's no different for us humans. They are vital senses for myriad reasons — not least communication, safety, reproduction and even entertainment. When a sound and an aroma are presented simultaneously, that might be a cause for an even greater human response. There could be an evolutionary logic at work here — for example, the sound of movement accompanied by an unfamiliar smell might signal that a predator is close by.



So can stimulating the auditory and the olfactory senses simultaneously lead to a more intense sensation? The church clearly thinks so. There is a deep religious connection between incense, choral music, and singing, especially in the Catholic Church. They both have a sanctifying role — and whilst it's perfectly possible to experience them independently, the combination of the two elements provides a greater, more intense feeling of spirituality.



It must be said that aromas are not always used to elevate music to a higher place, and there's a long history of smell being used to mask malodours in theatres, cinemas and clubs. In Victorian times scented paper fans were used in London theatres to improve the 'air quality', and more recently, one of the unintended consequences of the UK smoking ban in indoor settings has been the need to cover up the smell of stale, sweaty venues that were previously overpowered by tobacco! This is particularly relevant in nightclubs, which can be dark, cramped and lacking in ventilation. Scientist H. Schifferstein examined how the club experience could be enhanced simply by introducing smell. His research found that the scents of orange, seawater, and peppermint were all equally effective when compared to a baseline of no scent in terms of enhancing dancing activity, people's evaluation of both the music and the evening, and the latter's mood (this was based on 850 completed questionnaires).



Some clubs and DJs have taken the idea of scent and multi-sensory stimulation and elevated it even further, making it part of the experience. Dutch DJ Erich Berghammer is known as 'Aroma Jockey ODO7'. He describes himself as the inventor of 'scented clubbing' — composing various fragrances in real-time to accompany the music being played. He does this via ventilators, fans, incense burners and air sprays. Erich has also created a 'fragrance opera' called 'Scentsymphony', performed in a darkened room. A pre-selected scent and sound sequence is played to the audience, taking them on an atmospheric journey of 36 scents in 28 minutes.



There have also been brands that have recognised the power of scent - and what it can do when added to music. U.S brand Dunkin Donuts launched a famous campaign in Seoul, South Korea, where they ran radio adverts on the city's buses. So far, so normal. The difference was that every time the brand's catchy radio jingle played, it would trigger a 'scent-dispenser' releasing the aroma of coffee into the bus. The results were impressive — over 350,000 experienced the 'flavour radio' ad, and sales near bus stops increased by 29%!

It's not just food companies that try to gain a competitive commercial edge by marrying smell and sound. Another major scented product line comes from musicians themselves — branded artist perfumes. The start of this phenomenon goes back to Elvis in the late 1950s (with his fragrance 'Teddy Bear') but really took hold in the 00s with Britney, Rihanna, Jennifer Lopez, Beyonce, Katy Perry, et al. The perfumes became a brand extension and an easy way to have additional products in fans' homes. This has continued to be a massive sector of the market, especially for younger girls, with more recent lines from Ariana Grande, Justin Bieber and Little Mix. Do J-Lo's fans enjoy her tunes more if they are wearing her signature fragrance at the same time, or does a Britney perfume smell even better to the wearer if accompanied by the sound of '…Baby One More Time'? I don't know for sure, but I'm ready and willing to be pinned down with a pair of headphones and some testers to do the research!



Perhaps a more interesting and surprising departure into scent comes from the Icelandic band, Sigur Ros. Lead singer Jònsi has established a shop and apothecary in Reykjavik with his sisters called Fishersund. They sell perfumes, candles and skincare products, none of which trades on the notoriety of the band nor uses the band's name. There seems to be a genuine love of fragrance and a desire to use locally sourced ingredients in an artisanal way.

In reality, is it possible that we focus unduly on the effect that stimulating individual senses has on us? Is it really the case that we experience the world via an individual sense anyway? "While we like to think that there are five separate senses, that's not the way it works," said Donald Katz, a neuroscientist at Brandeis University, Massachusetts. "What your brain really does is take objects and process them. It is actually just one big chemosensory system."

This idea seems to make sense in relation to fragrance. After all, there is the tactility of the bottle, the colour of the juice and the pleasing sound of the spritz. All these things do something intangible yet vital to our overall experience of a scent. It's the multisensory pleasure of perfume.


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