Making Sense of the Perfume of Hearing

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 Admittedly some of the theories it promulgates are now outdated, e.g. she states there are only four different tastes (five are now acknowledged) and they are each triggered in specific places in the tongue (refuted), etc.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.

One thought on “Making Sense of the Perfume of Hearing

  1. mclaren

    We need to make a sharp distinction twixt musical consonance and acoustic roughness. A perfect fifth can function as a musical dissonance in the right context (a p5th substituted for the plagal cadence in gothic music qualifies; or imagine a I-IV-V-I cadential progression in the key of C major ending on a perfect fifth formed from the dyad F#-C#), while an acoustically rough interval such as the major second can function as a musical dissonance, as for example in the ending dyad of Bulgarian folk music.

    “There is no equation between acoustic and musical truth,” wrote Joseph Yasser. At the outermost extremes, intense prolonged loud acoustic roughness reliably produces an increase in galvanic skin response, heart rate, and tends to activate regions of the brain associated with processing physical pain.

    However, it’s hard to get or sustain this kind of intense loud acoustic roughness. You would have to play fortissimo f horns a minor second apart for more than a minute or two to get that kind of stimulus, and that’s rare in any style of music. Another example would be long-sustained organ minor seconds in the upper-middle register with a sharp hard-edged organ registration. Once again, this is quite unusual in any style of music.

    As we move away from these intense extremes, the physiologically disturbing affect of acoustic roughness plummets dramatically. For example, sustained minor second in the upper middle register between two flutes doesn’t sound harsh at all. The flute tone is mostly noise, and its even harmonics (such as they are) prove so sparse that they don’t interact very much even when you play minor seconds.

    When we move to percussion instruments whose sounds die away quickly, even the most acoustically rough stimuli sound positively piquant and delightful. Minor seconds, even fff ones, played on the marimba or xylophone or vibraphone, don’t sound disturbing at all. In order to prove disturbing, the interacting strong beats in the critical band have to last long enough to beat noticeably, and on a percussion instrument with a rapid decay like a xylophone, they don’t.

    All of this was covered in the 1965 paper “Tonal Consonance and Critical Bandwidth” by Plomp and Levelt, J. Acoust. Soc. Amer., Vol. 38, issue 4, pp. 548 ff, 1965.

    So yes, there is a biological component to the perception of musical consonance and dissonance. But it only dominates at the outermost extremes, when two extremely loud tones interact within 1/4 of the critical band (above 500 Hz, roughly one quarter of 270 cents). Moreover, if you pile up a whole lot of interacting clustered notes, the effect goes away — as in Ligeti’s or Xenakis’ or Stravisnky’s or Cowell’s tone clusters. Too many beats between too many adjacent notes within 1/4 of the critical bandwidth produce so much physiological activity on the tectorial membrane that there’s no clear center of disturbance, and thus no sense of physiological discomfort. A tone cluster tends to sound like a dense animated timbre, not a series of stacked-up musical dissonances, for this reason.

    So the biological component of our reaction to music, while real and measurable and studied in many listening experiments, only dominates at the extremes. Throughout the rest of the range of musical stimuli, i.e., where you don’t have two dense harmonic series sustained extremely loud tones playing for a long period of time (minutes) a dyadic interval 70 to 100 cents apart or so, or an interval like the major seventh in which the octave of the lower tone loudly interacts with the fundamental of the top note in 1/4 of the critical band, acculturation and musical style tend to overwhelm the biological effects of acoustic roughness of smoothness.

    So one obvious answer to your question about minor seconds is: sure, if you play ‘em on a vibraphone or a marimba or a xylophone, they sound delightful.

    Biological and neurophysiological limits on the human short-term for music and the human ability to perceive and recognize patterns in music as constrained by our sensory channel capacity are another matter entirely. A piece of music need not be rough to sound intensely unpleasant. In information-theory terms, a good deal of redundancy is necessary in music to produce a sense of audible organization. Music which does not exhibit audible organization tends to become unutterably wearisome. But that’s an entirely different issue from musical consonance per se.

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