Music and Smell: Brian Eno’s Scents and Sensibility

Bitter orange foliage, blossoms and fruit by Franz Eugen Köhler, from Köhler's "Medizinal-Pflanzen". Public Domain.

Bitter orange (neroli) foliage, blossoms and fruit. By Franz Eugen Köhler, from Köhler’s “Medizinal-Pflanzen”. Public Domain.

I’m a composer of more than twenty years, a musician of thirty years, and an accomplished knitter. I sew reasonably well, I write, I love to cook and plant things and once had a tiny business making and selling my own felt and textile jewellery. You could say I like to make things. In fact, creativity is my life force, and it’s the thing that gets me going more than anything. That and sensuality: creativity as it relates to the senses. In order to create in any medium or art form,  I feel that I really need to get to the core of an activity and find out how things work in the background. If there’s a science to it, I try to learn about it, if there are methods and practices that artists use to make their work, I find out about them and practice them. That’s what I intend to do with this blog, to really get into the nitty-gritty of the sense of smell and the art of perfume.

One of the things I wanted to do when I started Perfume Polytechnic a few months back was to investigate the connections and parallels between music and perfume. This is something else I do, and perhaps it’s because I’m a synaesthete as well as a creative person – I like to see and find the connections between things. Or perhaps it’s because I hope to use fragrance or scent or smell in an artwork I create one day. As music is the field I understand best of all, perhaps I strive to understand other creative practices by finding parallels and similarities (and also differences) between other artistic practices and it. I see other art forms through the lens of music, and my understanding of it, as well as looking at each art form as a separate entity.

I’ve only just started digging into this topic of the connections and differences between music and perfume, and in doing so, I came across a wonderful article by Brian Eno called Scents and Sensibility, published in Details Magazine in 1992. It was news to me that Eno, a well-known musician and creative polymath, is a long time fan of all things smelly, including fragrance. Eno is interested in trying to understand the working innards of perfumery and the science of smell, and in his article muses about the futility of trying to find a classification system for smells that is neat and clear and finite. He also laments the difficulty of finding a direct and clear language to describe smells that doesn’t simply rely on metaphors and similes. Eno draws some wonderful comparisons between the areas of music and scent, and how the two fields are studied and described, but I won’t spoil too many surprises by summarising any further. You can read Brian Eno’s Scents and Sensibility here.

In 1993 Eno released an ambient instrumental album called Neroli, named after the syrupy sweet, floral and heady essential oil produced from the blossom of the bitter orange tree (citrus aurantium subspecies amara or bigaradia). The perfume ingredient neroli actually got its name after the popular 17th Century Princess of Nerola (Anne Marie Orsini, aka Marie Anne de la Trémoille) started using the oil to fragrance both her gloves and bath. A lovely name and etymology for such a beautiful fragrance ingredient!

I haven’t listened to Brian Eno’s Neroli yet, but I intend to soon. Did you know that Brian Eno was interested in perfume and the sense of smell? What do you think of comparing one art form to another – can it be done, or should each art form stay clearly defined as a separate entity? Let me know what you think in the comments box below!

Until next time…

Polly Technic

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Scent Mapping: Diagrams and Aroma Wheels

Scent mapping tries to make sense of the smells in the world around us by mapping them in a variety of ways. This can take the form of various diagrams, tables, and aroma wheels. Usually such diagrams contain categories that classify and group individual smells, but they can also tell us other things, such as how we relate smells to gender, and also how similar or dissimilar certain smells are to one another. They can also tell us something about how we react – both physically and psychologically – to certain smells. There are a number of famous scent maps, including Paul Jellinek’s odour effects diagram, and Michael Edwards’ fragrance wheel from his Fragrances of World book. In this post I’ll be introducing you to some of these wheels and diagrams, which are fascinating to look at in their own right. In a future post, I will be discussing some of the findings of a study by Manuel Zarzo and David Stanton, in which they compared various odour databases, scent maps and wheels and drew some interesting conclusions about our perceptions of scent. Paul Jellinek’s odour effects diagram (a later version here has been modified by his son Joseph Stephan Jellinek and Robert Calkin) originally dates from 1951. Jellinek’s map proposes various categories or types of smell, and also the various effects that such smells have on us, e.g. stimulating, erogenous, calming or fresh.

Jellinek’s Odour Effects Diagram

Michael Edwards’ fragrance wheel, from his Fragrances of the World book, comprises a number of fragrance categories, showing the relationship between one category and the next. In Fragrances of the World, which is released every year, Edwards groups thousands of commercially available fragrances into these categories. The book is intended for industry use so that sales assistants can recommend new fragrances to customers, based on similarities with a customer’s favourite perfumes.

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Michael Edwards’ Fragrance Wheel. c. Michael Edwards

Mandy Aftel’s Aftelier Natural Perfume Wheel consists of categories of scent families, sub-categories within these (like Jellinek’s diagram, labelled with subjective descriptors such as fresh and heavy), and individual notes/ingredients within the sub-categories. The Drom Fragrance Circle is similar to Aftel’s, complete with subjective descriptors, and aligning some scent categories with gender.

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Drom Fragrance Wheel

The aromachemically-literate among us might be interested in Givaudan’s very beautiful scent ingredients map, which reminds me of a stylised subway diagram.

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Givaudan’s Scent Ingredients Map

There is a well-known connection and cross-sensory interrelationship between the senses of smell and taste, so the following wheels are provided for your interest and comparison with the fragrance-specific diagrams provided above. It’s interesting to me how much overlap there is. First up is Ann Noble’s Wine Aroma Wheel, originally devised in the 1980s.

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Ann Noble’s Wine Aroma Wheel

Below is the Beer Flavour Wheel invented in the 1970s by Dr Morten Meilgaard. wheel

And finally, Niki Segnit’s flavour wheel from her brilliant book The Flavour Thesaurus.

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Flavour Wheel from Niki Segnit’s “The Flavour Thesaurus”

What do you think of scent mapping? Do you have a favourite map, diagram or scent wheel that I haven’t included here? Does scent mapping help you to understand smell, fragrance ingredients and fragrance better? I’d love to hear what you think – let me know in the comments below! Until next time, Polly Technic