Saturday, April 14, 2007

Pitch Perception In Music and Scent

I always think of pitch in music correlating to pitch in scent; for instance, a high note in sound vibrates at a faster frequency than a low note and likewise a high-pitched lemon note vibrates (maybe not physically save for how it evaporates faster--but certainly in feeling) faster than a base note, and therefore smells "uplifting" in comparison to how a base note (woods, for example) feels "heavy" to smell and to wear. Someone on a forum has already nixed this idea flat out but hasn't told me why. Perhaps high and low frequencies in scent don't correlate with highs and lows in olfactive pitch to start with, but take for example this question posed by biologists (Citation: Chittka L, Brockmann A (2005) Perception Space—The Final Frontier):

...are odor mixtures simply perceived as a compound entity with distinct components (like a triad in vertebrate pitch perception), or are mixtures unique entities that are perceived as fundamentally different from their elements (like “white” in color perception)?

I think when our noses are trained, we can smell olfactive pitch better than most people who have never learned to smell; likewise people who've had training in music (or people who are naturally inclined to perceive on a higher plane) can hear pitch (recognize highs and lows) better than those who have never connected what they hear with notes on a scale or their own voice being able to go higher and lower. When I teach people to sing for the first time, it starts with recognizing that basic difference between high and low and how it correlates with the physical dynamic of how we produce sound with our voice. When they are able to make the mental connection, it's truly eye-opening and freeing for them. It's about learning to hear, even though they've always heard. It's about going beyond the physical and into the realm of perception.

When I say pitch, I mean just the highs and lows we perceive, not the "texture" or type of smell which I correlate in my mind with timbres of sound--a flute and a harp can play the same high note but they don't sound the same. Also, two notes played one after the other on the same instrument don't sound the same unless they were deliberately performed the same way twice, so music isn't as simple as biology makes it out to be, either. "How" it's played is a huge factor in differenciating the sounds we hear. Still, a high C is a high C. A440 is A440. Pitch and timbre are two different things. Volume (loudness)is another.

I think certain accords (scent chords if you will) smell more like one new accord (a different smell altogether) than a mixture where the notes are more distinguishable. It would be harder to distinguish individual notes (and pitches of each) in an abstract scent mixture. I generally don't like perfumes that smell like one smell because they bore me, whereas perfumes that I perceive as being multidimensional and having distinctive placement of notes I can recognize as highs and mids and lows are more interesting. But the trained nose is like the trained ear. I listen to and sing a lot of complex music so an intricate jazz chord sounds interesting to me, and I can distinguish the notes within it and the motion of chords before and after that chord that makes sense and sounds beautiful in context, whereas the person who doesn't listen to complex music might hear a jazz chord and it sounds like noise to that person (because the chord didn't sound like a simple major or minor chord for instance). The physical ear alone doesn't perceive music, nor even individual notes for that matter, even though notes exist...or do they?

Anyway, I don't think it's far off when this article, Structure-odor Relations--a Modern Perspective by Luca Turin and Fumiko Yoshii says: We hope that biologists will realize that, once a vocabulary is agreed upon, odor is as reliable a sensation as pitch or color.

They've already nixed the vibration theories but I don't think they're as focused on pitch perception alone the way I am--however, they do use the term "wavenumbers" which I'm assuming doesn't correlate with scent pitches at all. How then did they come up with the idea of scent pitches? I think the olfactive scale is a workable concept--it makes perfect sense to me and helps me visualize olfactive structures in space just like I can visualize chords inside my head, but apparently the olfactive scale has little to do with the physical proof of how one smells. It's more to do with how one thinks about what one smells. Well, that's all I'm concerned with. I wish we could just expand on the olfactive scale idea and have it make sense like the H & R chart makes sense to me. Is that too much to ask for? I love the piano keyboard and how it simplifies how we see and hear musical notes the way no other instrument has laid it all out so clearly for us from top to bottom.

Maybe olfactive pitch has to do with tenacity or longevity (or evaporation rate) than vibrational frequencies. But if low = slow, that means I was still right about something. It boils down to listening to how something makes us feel. That's not to say that individuals can't find heavy smells uplifting, but I don't think we could say that a lemon note is lower pitched than a wood note. Even if the particular wood note has high pitched elements in it, wouldn't they be considered something like overtones?