Silvio Levi writes

Music and Perfume

Has anybody ever told you to listen to a perfume? It might seem absurd to use your hearing to appreciate a fragrance, and it is a turn of phrase more than anything, but the truth is that some people do ‘hear’ smells as though they were sounds.

This is the case for what is known as synaesthesia, a condition in which one sense is simultaneously perceived as if by one or more additional senses, that is, a perceptual phenomenon in which stimulation of one sensory or cognitive pathway (auditory, visual, etc.) leads to automatic, involuntary experiences in a second sensory or cognitive pathway. This often manifests as the appearance of a visual image, generally following acoustic stimulation (‘coloured hearing’), but also applies to tactile, painful and thermal sensations.

For an estimated 0.05 – 4% of the population, letters have a colour, words an odour or a sound and months a geometric shape. While this phenomenon has not been studied extensively, synaesthesia does seem to affect people who become artists, but it cannot be excluded that it is far more widespread than we know and only more evident in artists. Some musicians, including Pharrell Williams, Kanye West and Lady Gaga, are aware of their synaesthesia and the role it plays in their creativity, just as Oliver Messiaen, Franz Liszt and Duke Ellington must have been. Synaesthesia is considered a benign pathology and usually only involves one extra sense in addition to the sense directly involved. While it would be inappropriate to cite synaesthesia in this context, there is no doubt that olfactory stimulation can arouse gustatory, visual, tactile and auditory sensations, without those senses having been activated in any way. It is probably an indirect association, since a complex odour with many different components, such as an Eau de Parfum, can activate reactions in the brain that evoke complex situations in which the senses are stimulated virtually if not physically, thereby causing diverse sensations.

Therefore, listening to a perfume with eyes closed and free of preconceptions can evoke images, sounds, emotions and memories, as well as colours and tactile perception. For synaesthetes, these sensations become incredibly realistic, engaging and impossible to disassociate from the cause, whether that be a note, the name of a month or a colour. When you think about it, perfume can often have a teleporting effect. Just one sniff and we suddenly find ourselves in distant places with different people, we might feel hot, cold or wet, yet we haven’t moved an inch. Perfumes are almost always created to give an olfactory shape to a text or story and are sometimes so successful that they really do convey situations and emotions very similar to the original text that inspired the Nose. The opposite effect is described extremely vividly in Suskind’s Perfume, perhaps the book that best depicts the world of scents with words. It is therefore possible to express the emotions of a perfume with another art form.


Pieces of music and perfume

Music is often used in perfumery as the inspiration for an essence and a lot of perfumes take their names from songs, dances and operas. Many years ago, I had the idea of translating Ravel’s Boléro into a fragrance, but none of the perfumers I asked, some of whom were truly great masters of their trade, knew how to tackle this challenge, how to translate the crescendo and the rousing timpani into a perfume without using diffusers or technology. To this day, nobody has risen to the challenge, but it awoke in me what was perhaps an even more audacious idea, to create original music from a perfume. It might seem obvious, after all, a film soundtrack is intended to enhance a scene or even to narrate it. Dialogue between different art forms is extremely stimulating. In my case, as the sole author of the inspirational texts and co-creator of the fragrances, I found it fascinating to discuss what I wanted from the audio representation of my perfume with the musician. I let the composer smell the perfumes without telling him anything about them and I asked him to describe the emotions, colours and places that each fragrance communicated to him. Only then did I tell him how each perfume had been created, what my inspirations were and my reasons for choosing each specific ingredient and accord. It was amazing to see how many words that the composer had written down appeared in my original text and it was as though he had perfectly understood the emotions that the perfume was supposed to convey. The musician then started work on his own creative process, with continued discussions to ensure that the piece of music reflected as closely as possible the emotions that I wanted to communicate through the fragrance. In the same way that the musician and singer become one on a good song, creating something that they could only have made together, Philip Abussi of Mokamusic and I created something that was entirely our own. We both had the utmost respect for our individual talents. Sincere and spontaneous exchange of our reciprocal intentions influenced us both in our efforts to create a complementary and synergistic relationship between sound and scent and send an emotional message. The music did not solely have to express the emotions aroused by the perfume, but inspire me to say, “yes, this is my perfume”. Watching people smelling the fragrance with their eyes closed, while listening to the corresponding piece of music through headphones is incredible. It is clear that they are ‘seeing’ something, as their facial expressions change and the music enhances their olfactory perception. Our work, which consists of 10 pieces of music for ten fragrances by the brand Calé Fragranze d’Autore, will be presented at the tenth edition of Esxence – The Scent of Excellence in Milan, after four tracks debuted at the 113th edition of MIPEL in Milan. Perhaps one day in the future, we will attend concerts that combine perfume and sound. This wouldn’t be entirely new, perfumery has already made forays into the world of theatre, cinema, vernissages and museums with varying degrees of success, but the idea that the musical score is itself olfactory is decidedly innovative. As with all things, we cannot yet know whether we have got it right, whether these are masterpieces. Only time will tell. There is no doubt it was an incredibly exciting feeling to write words that became perfumes that then became intangible musical stories. Today we are creating short tracks, but tomorrow a more complex project could be transformed into an olfactory opera in which each chapter has its own fragrance and music. Of course, in order for these associations and collaborations between different arts to be appreciated, it is necessary to reawaken public interest in perfume. Despite being neglected for centuries, the sense of smell is making a comeback, in part thanks to the enormous boom enjoyed by the sense of taste. While olfaction does not have the same dominance as in the animal world, we are increasingly attentive to the odours that emanate from the world around us. We do not yet give equal importance to all the senses and the sense of smell is decidedly overlooked, but things are changing and we are learning the importance of heeding smells, which can and should be a guide: a warning but also attraction to another, safety or danger, anticipation or memory. And in addition to those vital signals, it can also introduce us to real or fantastical worlds since it shares so much with music, including the ability to involve us emotionally, making us part of situations that we have never experienced but which feel completely real. Perfumes are an example of virtual reality that existed long before the invention of the computer and have nothing to do with science fiction. Odours can be pleasant or unpleasant, beautiful or ugly, lively or dull, cheerful or melancholy, heavy or light, just like sounds, tastes, concrete objects and images. They each have an equal role in the arts, but what is truly important is increasing interaction and collaboration between the mediums. Let’s hope that one day it will be quite normal to cheerfully whistle the ditty that goes with our perfume.


In a world that changes at an alarming pace and sees the gradual disappearance of crafts and professions that once seemed eternal, Artistic Perfumery must evolve for two crucial reasons. The first is that demand for quality fragrances is increasing constantly, thanks to the exponential growth in consumers of perfume in general and of mass-market fragrances. The second is that even though it is still finding its place in the world, there is great interest in creating new distribution networks. There was plenty of other motivation behind the creation of Esxence ten years ago, when it looked s though we were taking a gamble, but these two reasons justified our plans and investment, as well as being the main drivers for the growing interest of multinational perfume corporations in a market that they had until recently ignored. Over the course of this decade, Esxence has created an identity within the sector, allowing key players to come together and form new scenarios and collaborations. New opportunities have been created here for new generations of perfumers and for companies in diverse sectors, where quality meets art. This year, Esxence will be opening its Conference Hall doors to everybody, even on those days formerly reserved for industry professionals, because the promotion and distribution of information, documentation and experimentation, as well as market analysis and prospects, is the key mission of this unique event. The themes that will be explored this year include the Chinese market, the role of algorithms in ecommerce, the influence of Instagram culture on fragrance design, olfaction and other senses, and the influence of story-telling on creativity in packaging, plus an appearance from the great Michael Edwards, author of reference books and guides for artistic perfumery fans, live interviews, book presentations and many other important surprises that will be revealed during this very special edition. Naturally Esxence has not abandoned its core ethos of “be foolish”. Artistic Perfumery needs room for that touch of madness, that vital ingredient, which is insufficient alone, but so often paves the way for new developments. It is often from bizarre and apparently illogical choices that new trends are born. Artistic Perfumery is, by definition, the R&D department of the perfume sector and we can only help the development of the sector if we are free to express ourselves. Any attempt to abide by the rules of marketing would amount to suicide. This edition will once again present Esxkin-The Excellence of Beauty, the space devoted to beauty where selection begins for the products that will go on to become Niche Cosmetics. The brands that emerged here in previous editions have already performed very well and, despite being niche products within a niche sector, the future for this type of creativity looks rosy, with an informed and curious public that is able to distinguish between boastful claims and serious professionals who are exploring new and extremely promising avenues.

April 2018

Last of Silvio Levi

Music and Perfume

Has anybody ever told you to listen to a perfume? It might seem absurd to use your hearing to appreciate a fragrance, and it is a turn of phrase more than anything, but the truth is that some people do ‘hear’ smells as though they were sounds.

This is the case for what is known as synaesthesia, a condition in which one sense is simultaneously perceived as if by one or more additional senses, that is, a perceptual phenomenon in which stimulation of one sensory or cognitive pathway (auditory,...

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