Ms Crisinel and Dr Spence wanted to know whether an odour sniffed from a bottle could be linked to a specific pitch, and even a specific instrument. To find out, they asked 30 people to inhale 20 smells—ranging from apple to violet and wood smoke—which came from a teaching kit for wine-tasting. After giving each sample a good sniff, volunteers had to click their way through 52 sounds of varying pitches, played by piano, woodwind, string or brass, and identify which best matched the smell.
The researchers’ first finding was that the volunteers did not think their request utterly ridiculous. It rather made sense, they told them afterwards. The second was that there was significant agreement between volunteers. Sweet and sour smells were rated as higher-pitched, smoky and woody ones as lower-pitched. Blackberry and raspberry were very piano. Vanilla had elements of both piano and woodwind. Musk was strongly brass.
In this experiment, each volunteer was given four pieces of toffee. While they were eating two of them, a sombre, low-pitched piece of music played on brass instruments filled the air. They consumed the other two, however, to the accompaniment of a higher-pitched piano piece. Volunteers rated the toffee eaten during low-pitched music as more bitter than that consumed during the high-pitched rendition. The toffee was, of course, identical.