Fragrance is the best escape…
‘Take me to Ibiza,’ I chant as I spritz on a liberal puff of Paula’s Ibiza by Loewe.
With each huff of this slightly aquatic scent my nostrils flare in a desperate bid to suck it all in. It only takes a couple of seconds. Then I’m back on the island. The heartbeat sound of bass is pummelling my inner organs and saltwater is crusting on my limbs like a mermaid’s second skin as I dance.
This is extraordinary for several reasons.
First, in all my years writing about perfume I’ve never made the tangible connection between fragrance ‘notes’ and actual music.
Second, this is November. I would never normally wear citrus in winter, having gone through the rite of passage that dictates you immerse yourself in thorny brambles and fireside musks at this time of year.
But recently I’ve been approaching my perfume collection with the same fervour of an NME muso. I’m no longer abiding by the rules, or reaching for my fragrance with the reflex of a claw-crane arcade game.
I actually think about how my perfume sounds.
It’s like I need to know who the lead singer is in order to determine whether the scent will match my mood.
Sound and smell are in perfect harmony
The link between music and perfume is an interesting one.
‘A perfume sings, it also dances,’ says James Craven, perfume archivist at Les Senteurs. ‘It has steps, sensuousness and rhythm. In the same way that an instrument needs fingers to activate it, perfume needs human skin to lend it extra vitality.’
Then there’s the way both are physically pulled together using ‘notes’ to create different effects. In perfume, top notes are light molecules that make an initial impression. Mellow heart notes then burst though before richer base notes anchor the scent.
‘A citrus, or a bright white floral, used as a top note, for example, has the same quality of a high-pitched soprano in an opera,’ says Chris Yu, co-founder of Ostens.
The way we experience sound and smell is also similar. ‘You hear music when the vibration of the sound hits your ears, while scent molecules jiggle at different tempos and evaporate at different speeds,’ Yu continues. ‘Our noses can detect these vibrations and smell the difference.’
And just like a song has a build-up and release, ‘a fragrance also hits a crescendo before gradually dying down, to say musk or vanilla,’ adds Craven.
My perfume playlist
The similarities don’t end there, though. My perfumes also mimic my playlist. Some like D.S & Durga’s Debaser, which was inspired by the Pixies, is perfume stomping in a velvet jumpsuit. Others are pop songs that leave your collarbone smelling of candied fruit (Tom Ford Bitter Peach). For a remixed classic, look no further than Chanel No.5. The fizz of floral aldehydes is as unexpected as the flute-driven passages in Lizzo’s Mask Off.
Then there are the olfactory equivalents of Radiohead – Indie scents like Byredo’s Slow Dance you have to sit with for a while. Sweet myrrh, geranium, violet and amber sway together to conjure up the giddy, breathless exchanges of a first dance for the girl wearing Converse with a silk evening dress.
I like it on days when I need something to cut through the media noise of Covid infection rates.
Scent and music affect mood
But perhaps the most deep-rooted similarity between perfume and music is that both activate the limbic system, the brain region that holds and connects memory and emotion. ‘Fragrance, like music, is supremely personal and emotional,’ says Yu. ‘We all know how it feels to smell something familiar or hear a song that takes us to a special place in our memory. The instinctive happy or sad reaction is incredibly primal.’
Just hearing a few riffs of The Weekend’s Blinding Lights teleports me to a rooftop party in LA, complete with light-up dance floor. My friends are all close – so close our noses almost touch and we’re laughing. With one whiff of Louis Vuitton’s California Dream I can almost see the ombre colours of the sunset reflected on our skin and feel its soft, crackling heat over the city.
At a time when isolation is dampening my responses, a mix of scent and music is the most electrifying demonstration of what it feels to really be alive. ‘When you get into a groove with either, something moves through you,’ says David Moltz of D.S & Durga, who is both a perfumer and musician.
It is also a tangible barometer of my mental health. The act of choosing a fragrance is the equivalent of a daily emotional check-in and, by extension, key to boosting my resilience.
Perhaps Donna Summer sums it up best when she croons, ‘Can you feel it?’. Actually, yes. I really can.