Friday, March 04, 2005

A Symphony of Tastes

A really interesting piece in Nature News about a professional musician, ES, who has an unusual form of synesthesia - she experiences different tone intervals as tastes. The article can be found here, if you are a Nature subscriber, but the most interesting part is the table in the news entry, listing the tastes corresponding to different intervals:

Minor second: Sour
Major second: Bitter
Minor third: Salty
Major third: Sweet
Fourth: Mown grass
Tritone: Disgust
Fifth: Pure water
Minor sixth: Cream
Major sixth: Low-fat cream
Minor seventh: Bitter
Major seventh: Sour
Octave: No taste

As Nature also notes, the "pleasant" intervals seem to correspond to "pleasant" tastes. What they really mean by pleasant is a little bit shady here (an educated musician will have had a rather large amount of learning and thus is likely to have somewhat different preferences compared to someone uneducated), but generally it is assumed to mean foremost the intervals making up minor/major chords (minor/major third + fifth). Sweet is definitely considered as "pleasant" even to a newborn, but how one views "salty" varies a bit. Biologically speaking, both are pleasant tastes, while sour and bitter are considered unpleasant.

I would really like to know what happens when she hears tones combined into chords, with two or more tone intervals at the same time. If no cross-combination effects occur, a major chord (a "happy"-sounding chord) would taste sweet and a minor chord (a "sorrowful"-sounding chord) would taste salty.

Interesting is also, that an octave (experienced as the "same" note as the ground note but lower or higher) has no taste, and that a major seventh - which has similar apparent "feeling" as a minor second - also is percieved as bitter. And it is incredibly funny that tritonus (one of the two intervals in the table that did not evoke a taste, but rather an experience) is percieved as "disgusting". It is a horrible interval for intonation and most musicians really dislike the sound of it as well.

UPDATE: New Scientist News has an entry about this as well, and cite ES's description of Bach as "particularly creamy"

UPDATE 2: At Sean A Dave's Synesthesia site, there is an interesting list of different kinds of synesthesia. You can also listen to the song "Synesthesia" by The Bobs.

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