Making Sense of the Perfume of Hearing

Making Sense of the Perfume of Hearing

Back in 1990, Diane Ackerman came up with a definition of music which is still making my head spin: “Music is the perfume of hearing.”

Written By

Frank J. Oteri

Frank J. Oteri is an ASCAP-award winning composer and music journalist. Among his compositions are Already Yesterday or Still Tomorrow for orchestra, the "performance oratorio" MACHUNAS, the 1/4-tone sax quartet Fair and Balanced?, and the 1/6-tone rock band suite Imagined Overtures. His compositions are represented by Black Tea Music. Oteri is the Vice President of the International Society for Contemporary Music (ISCM) and is Composer Advocate at New Music USA where he has been the Editor of its web magazine,, since its founding in 1999.

My summer reading list of books about olfactory sensations finds me now voraciously devouring Diane Ackerman’s A Natural History of the Senses, a national bestseller when it first came out in 1990 which devotes roughly equal amounts of time to smell, touch, taste, hearing, and vision. Admittedly some of the theories it promulgates are now outdated, e.g. she states there are only four different tastes (five are now acknowledged) and they are each triggered in specific places in the tongue (refuted), etc. But such informational shifts are inevitable given that our understanding of most things—especially science and history—continues to evolve over time, pace Dmitry Medvedev. Also inevitable is that my newfound interest in how people perceive aromas, which was initially triggered by music, has ultimately taken me back to music, as I knew it would. For starters, Ackerman suggests a definition of music that’s been making my head spin: “Music is the perfume of hearing.”

Though the book was written with a general readership in mind, Ackerman then goes on to get into some music theory nitty-gritty, albeit largely citing Deryck Cooke’s The Language of Music: “Do we tend to respond to a minor seventh with ‘mournfulness’ and to a major seventh with ‘violent longing’ and to a minor second with ‘spiritless anguish’ because we’ve formed the habit of responding to those sounds in that way, or it something more intrinsic in our makeup?” And earlier, after ranting a bit about all the young people who are destroying their hearing by blasting loud rock and roll (I can only guess what her reaction would be to today’s seemingly ubiquitous iPod people) she attempts to make a distinction between noise and music.

[T]he noises that irritate us are sounds loud or spiky enough to be potentially damaging to the ear. Because a sound grates on our psyche, or actually hurts, we want to get away from it. But there are also non-threatening sounds we just don’t like. […] Musical dissonance, for instance. In 1899, when audiences first heard Arnold Schönberg’s revolutionary “Transfigured Night,” they thought it was closer to organized noise than to music.

Although some readers of these pages might immediately be thinking: Transfigured Night? What about Schoenberg’s subsequent musical development, the rise of integral serialism, Cage’s indeterminacy, free jazz, Merzbow and noise music. On all of this Ackerman, sadly, is silent. Given her perfume analogy for music, though, it would have made for fascinating reading to find out what her thoughts were on all of these sonic experiences. Perhaps trace the parallels between Schoenberg’s earliest twelve-tone works like the Suite for Piano or the Wind Quintet, which in terms of their formal abstraction are analogous to the roughly contemporaneous 1921 release of Ernest Beaux’s landmark, synthetically derived perfume Chanel No. 5, a scent whose name alone hints at its own abstraction. Granted No. 5 is way more popular than anything penned by Schoenberg to this day, but it seems like there was definitely something in the air at that time, so to speak.

However, Ackerman’s agreement with the claim that most people can draw meaningful distinctions between minor sevenths, major sevenths, and minor seconds, poses something of a challenge to our currently relativist anything-goes approach to the materials of musical compositions. So often nowadays we like to say that musical perceptions are acculturated and that there are no absolutes. But there are flavors, odors, and tactile sensations that appeal to few people, and Ackerman also describes color consultants who claim that specific colors give off specific mood-affecting chakras which can be beneficial or harmful. Might there be some hard-wired biology standing in the way of most of us loving relentlessly pounding chains of minor seconds and sounds even more dissonant? Might such sounds ultimately be bad for us to listen to?

Many musical oddballs (me included) revel in such sonorities, but perhaps we fool ourselves if we think they will ever be meaningful to a significant audience. Then again, Chanel No. 5 is one of the few perfumes from the 1920s that is still on the market. Perhaps Schoenberg just needed a better marketing department.