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When writing about perfume, I have a goldfish brain: Often, I forget what notes a perfume contains as soon as I read its press release or look it up on Fragrantica. A quick whiff of the fragrance in question can help orient my thoughts, but putting that scent into writing still remains a challenge. And yes, given that I trade in words for a profession, this might sound like a massive admission of failure.
Because smell is such an emotional, subjective experience – one person’s idea of a “sexy” scent might be a skin musk, for another it could be a narcotic jasmine – words frequently fall short when dealing in the olfactory. Visuals such as campaign imagery can engage in perfume’s more abstract qualities and edible notes can help ground a scent in familiar tastes, but these sensory aids can only go so far in encapsulating what is ultimately a dynamic experience. Now, perfumers are looking to another sense to help bring their scents to life: sound.
“I think that perfume, smell, frequencies, and music have more in common than words and images. The way they hit your senses, store memories, and can make you feel euphoric and lose room and space,” says Pär Grindvik, one half of Swedish music duo Aasthma. When Stockholm perfumer Stora Skuggan, known for its scents inspired by mythology and fantasy, was developing Azalai, a fragrance that launched at the end of 2022, the brand approached Grindvik and Aasthma bandmate Peter Mannerfelt to “reverse engineer” the juice into an original track.
Aasthma was up for the challenge. The duo got to work smelling individual components of the scent and creating a sound loop for each note that, like perfume components, could be played alone or layered together. “Both smell and [musical] frequencies can make the body and mind react in a similar way,” Grindvik explains. “Similar to how you react to drugs.”
Increasingly, consumers are exploring scent through digital mediums, whether shopping online for a hard-to-find perfume or discovering the latest viral launch through TikTok. We can’t smell through a screen (at least not yet), but music can fill in the gaps, painting the “feeling” of a perfume that conventional descriptions can’t. Stora Skuggan isn’t the only perfume brand using sound to better communicate fragrance, both online and IRL.
Brooklyn-based brand D.S. & Durga creates playlists tailored to each scent in its catalog: 2021’s Sweet Do Nothing is accompanied by Neil Young and Patsy Cline tracks to conjure an aimless West Texas hang out; last year’s Bistro Waters is a taste of turn-of-the-21st-century nostalgia courtesy of The White Stripes and Cat Power. In January, Diptyque commemorated the launch of its limited-edition Do Son collection by commissioning an original short from animation studio Werlen Meyer (of The French Dispatch fame), featuring a score by British musician and composer James Blake.
Perfumers have found scent and sound a fruitful pairing for in-person experiences, too. Jónsi Birgisson of the Icelandic band Sigur Rós has experimented with immersive art installations that mix sound and smell, such as his 2021 work Hrafntinna (Obsidian), on display in Toronto this year, and 2019’s Í blóma (In bloom), nominated for a 2020 Art and Olfaction Award.
“I often describe perfume materials as I would sound,” explains Olle Hemmendorff, Stora Skuggan co-founder. “An aromachemical can be ‘high pitched,’ have a smooth texture like a sine wave, or dry and squeaky like an acid bassline. Just like fragrance, music also seems capable of tapping into the emotional part of your brain without being consciously processed.”
For those unfamiliar with the often esoteric language of fragrance (the average consumer might not know what a chypre or a fougère is), music can serve as an entry point. Listing labdanum and agarwood in the base notes isn’t necessarily meaningful to consumers who are unfamiliar with those raw materials, but even the untrained ear can experience the emotion of a musical composition.
When Haisam Mohammed founded Stockholm-based perfume label Unifrom in 2020, he felt that conventional marketing techniques – photography and standard scent descriptions – could only tell part of his brand’s story. “I don't want to photograph the notes. I thought that was kind of corny,” Mohammed explains. “Sweden is very famous for music, and there's a lot of great producers here. So we thought about creating this world where we could try to convey the fragrance in different ways, and sound was one of them.” Unifrom worked with producer Tusabe to create what Mohammed calls “sound images” for its first scent, Maghreb. Later this year, Unifrom will introduce more olfactive and aural collaborations engineered with the aid of sound designers.
Just as sound can augment our sense of smell, fragrance can add depth to a range of sensory experiences. Unifrom collaborated with Danish label Heliot Emil to create a scented runway scape for the brand’s Spring/Summer 2023 show, diffusing the scent Dawn throughout the space to give attendees a scent memory to anchor the collection’s garments. While clothes exit the runway (and perhaps our minds) in a matter of seconds, our olfactory system’s connection to the hippocampus, the part of our brain responsible for memory, renders smell a particularly potent trigger for memory.
For Mannerfelt of Aasthma, who often wears fragrance while performing, “[Smell] also works as a sort of protection once you’re on stage.” The musician notes that a whiff of his perfume refocuses him while playing in front of a crowd, putting him “right back into it.” To Mannerfelt, perfume is a personal experience, “A lot like how a musical experience is unique to every listener.”
French perfumer Barnabé Fillion embraces the subjective nature of smell – he finds that words can actually detract from our individual experience of perfume. “The difficulty for me with words is, it's very suggestive. If I tell you that there is tea in a fragrance, even if there is no tea, you will smell it most of the time,” he explains. Traditional scent pyramids and note descriptions are secondary at his perfume brand Arpa Studios. Instead, Arpa invites audiences to “experience the future of fragrance with all of our senses,” including sound.
Fillion, the nose behind Aesop hits including Rozu and Karst, calls Arpa the “Institute of Synesthesia.” Synesthesia, which Fillion himself experiences, is a phenomenon in which one sense is felt through another. Those with synesthesia might report feeling the sounds of certain musical instruments as distinct tactile experiences, or interpret flavors as particular colors. Arpa recreates that sensation by bundling each of its scents with two additional elements: a vinyl record featuring tracks by composers such as Clément Varièras to stimulate the ears and a blown glass bottle by artist Jochen Holz to engage the eyes. The brand commissions additional original artworks, such as sculptures by Anicka Yi, to add textural components to its scents.
“The idea is to let people explore their memories through the different senses,” Fillion says. Music, visuals, and textures are guides to understand the perfumes rather than impose ideas on them, he explains.
That said, emphasizing the subjective qualities of scent is potentially a risky strategy given that many beauty brands are going in the opposite direction, touting a more objective approach to marketing that embraces ingredient transparency and downplays fanciful campaigns. At times, Mohammed says he has questioned whether taking a more experimental approach might alienate potential customers.
“Are we missing people that may love the story and the branding of [Unifrom], but are getting distracted by the idea that we want to do something in a different manner?” he says. “We are discussing it quite a lot.”
Creating a sustainable brand in a crowded market means doing something new, Mohammed believes. For some brands, that means bringing fragrance into the metaverse: British perfume brand Rook began experimenting with NFT scents in 2021 and the following year, Byredo collaborated with RTFKT on a Web3 perfume. And last summer, Gucci launched its Flora perfume in Roblox, complete with a Miley Cyrus avatar.
Musical playlists and digital tracks can certainly help fragrance buyers traverse an increasingly digital world. But our sense of smell still has no real digital translation. While music can bring the vibe of scent to life through a screen, Hemmendorff also sees music as a valuable component for creating an in-person – one could say analog – olfactory experience.
“With perfume it’s very hard to do something worthwhile digitally,” he says. “Perfumes can't be digitized, so perfume NFTs seem completely pointless to me.” To Hemmendorff, scent and sound are experienced to the fullest extent in an in-person setting where perfume and music can intermingle in one space, rather than separated through a screen. Though Stora Skuggan makes its musical collaborations available online, the brand has launched physical scent and sound installations for previous launches: For 2020’s Thumbsucker, the team collaborated with the violinist Tove Lund on one such installation; for 2017’s Moonmilk it worked with musician Hans Berg. The brand hopes to do the same with Aasthma and Azalai, and eventually stage one all-encompassing art installation featuring its entire range of olfactive-aural collaborations.
The written word certainly serves a purpose in communicating perfume – I’ve taken over 1,000 of them to do so here. But it’s not the only medium at our disposal. If straightforward words and descriptors evade you when describing your favorite perfume, don’t take it as a failure. Instead, consider it an invitation to ask: What does my favorite perfume sound like?