Amp Up Your Fragrance Game

The Connection between Sound and Scent

Plan8
4 min readMay 11, 2023
Audio and Scent mixing desk dreamed up by the writers and Midjourney

Imagine the sweet, flowery scent of daffodils and the rich and complex fragrance of cardamom. Can you guess which sound corresponds to which of these aromas?

Most probably, you intuitively associated sound 1 with daffodil and sound 2 with cardamom. This is a practical example of synesthesia, to experience one sense (i.e. smell) through another (i.e. hearing).

The connection between music and scent has fascinated humans for ages. In the so-called perfumer’s bible from the 1850s, William Septimus Piesse described the process of making perfume with language borrowed from musical composition. This language is still in use in modern perfumery, using words such as “note” to describe particular scents or “chord” to describe their combination. In fact, perfumers speak about “composing” a perfume, with their laboratory desks being called “perfumer’s organs”.

Many artists have been inspired to explore this connection and the suggestions by Septimus Piesse, for example, to associate certain pitches with certain notes. In fact, science shows that we generally associate brighter scents such as citrus fruit or iris flower with higher pitch, while darker scents such as musk or roasted coffee are associated with lower pitch. However, the connection between music, sound, and perfumes is far more fascinating, profound, and complex.

From Primordial Soup to Sophisticated Sniffer

Evolutionarily speaking, smell is the oldest of our five senses, having its origin from bacteria buzzing around in the primordial soup to find nutrients and avoid poisons. This was done by means of chemical recognition, called chemotaxis. This ancient capacity to detect and distinguish between different chemical molecules has been retained and refined by our noses. A scent is in fact made up of a cocktail of chemical molecules that are dispersed in the air, and some of these molecules will attach to olfactory receptor neurons in our nasal cavities. The information is gathered and then passed on to other areas of the brain. One of these areas is the so-called olfactory tubercle, which seems to have a possible role in the integration of smell and hearing.

Byredo’s speaker inspired diffuser.

An interesting study showed that certain neurons in the olfactory tubercle would react to both scent and sound. Some would only react to scent, some only to sound. Others would not react to either but only when scent and sound were combined. In particular, scent and sound that go together would enhance the perception of the pleasantness of the scent.

This leads us to another fascinating study, where researchers studied how sound and music would influence the perception of a scent.

Sound and Scent: The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly

Our perception of the pleasantness of a scent is clearly influenced by sound and music. The researchers discovered that when the study participants were exposed to pleasant music, they also tended to perceive a scent as being more pleasant. Accordingly, if the participants were exposed to unpleasant music, they also perceived the scent as being less pleasant. But perhaps most interestingly, when the study participants were exposed to so-called white noise (roughly what you hear from an untuned TV), they perceived the scent as being the least pleasant.

The visual equivalent of the acoustic environment in many high end stores. A broken experience.
The visual equivalent of the acoustic environment in many high end stores: A broken experience.

Perfume brands should take note here: mind your sonic environment! As noise can be detrimental to the perceived pleasantness of a scent, even worse than bad music, the common noisy environment at the tax-free counter or shop-in-shop in a department store might actually cause the customer to perceive the fragrance of those precious drops as less attractive due to the surrounding sonic mess. The default sampling environment is literally the acoustic equivalent of a messy and untidy counter, with half-empty bottles and used tissues lying around.

While it is not realistic to offer a sound-proof sampling and shopping experience, some simple measures like a carpeted floor and some absorbent roof tiles might cut out the most obnoxious high-frequency bustle. This is where most of the energy of the scent-killing white noise resides. A more exclusive setting might perhaps include some kind of acoustic shelter, such as sonic hoods — why not with integrated loudspeakers playing a bespoke musical interpretation of the exquisite perfume composition?

Acoustic treatment and a thoughtful music and sound experience.

This leads us back to synesthesia and the yet under-explored field of combining sound and scent into exciting and inspiring multi-sensory experiences.

Striking the Perfect Chord: Sight, Story, Sound

Perfume and home fragrance brands generally spend a lot of effort on design, visuals, and storytelling, but could indeed leverage the connection between music and their products better. Perhaps by creating a more engaging sampling environment or websites that do their products justice also from the auditory perspective.

Examples where brands have explored this theme in different ways include the Olfactive Stéréophonique by Byredo, a fragrance diffuser inspired by hi-fi speaker design theory, or niche perfume brand Stora Skuggan, who invited artists to create audiovisual interpretations of their perfumes, presented as interactive pages on their website.

For sure, further pursuits in the field of scent and music can lead to innovative and exciting possibilities, and the creation of new ways to experience scent and music together.

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Plan8

Plan8 — a design agency for music and sound.