Jazz thoughts: The taste of music

Published online: 2 March 2005;

Synaesthete makes sweet music
By: Ruth Francis

Professional musician distinguishes intervals with her tongue.

Elizabeth Sulston can taste the musical notes she plays on her recorder.
A recorder player has fascinated neuroscientists with her ability to taste
differences in the intervals between notes.

The condition in which the brain links two or more of the senses is known as synaesthesia, and some sense combinations are relatively common. But this is the first time that the ability has been found to help in performing a mental task, such as identifying a major third.

Elizabeth Sulston was at school when she first noticed that she saw colours while hearing music. She realized that the same was not true of her peers, although linkage of tone and colour is a known synaesthetic combination.

As she began to learn music more formally, she found that when hearing particular tone intervals she experienced a characteristic taste on her tongue. For example, a minor third tasted salty to her, whereas a minor sixth tasted like cream. She started to use the tastes to help her recognize different chords.

This is boosting her performance.

Lutz Jäncke Neuroscientist at the University of Zurich, Switzerland

Talking to news@nature.com, she says: "I always had the synaesthesia, but really became conscious of it at 16. Then I started to use it for the tone-interval identification. I could first check it by counting the space between the notes, and second by 'feeling' my tongue."

The taste of music

Lutz Jäncke, a neuroscientist at the University of Zurich, Switzerland, works with musicians who report unusual qualities or skills. Thanks to a student investigating synaesthesia he was introduced to the recorder-playing Sulston.

To test her unique ability, he and his colleagues played tone intervals while delivering different tastes to her tongue. They used either the same
taste that Sulston associates with an interval, or a clashing one (see box).

They found that she was able to identify the intervals much more quickly when the taste matched the one that she says she normally associates with it. That kind of pattern would be difficult to fake, Jäncke says. He reports the results in Nature1.

"With incongruent taste she was sometimes slower than other musicians; she is extraordinarily quick usually," he says. "The synaesthesia is kind of boosting her performance. Her hit rate was perfect, but the difference was in the reaction times."

When asked whether Sulston's ability has any wider implications for
neuroscience, Jäncke laughs. "This is the million-dollar question!" he says.

"One might speculate that this could be a good analogue for learning: our skills are improved if we associate the item we learn with many other items. It may also demonstrate that synaesthesia may be modified for learning and used for other things."

For Sulston herself, the benefit comes simply from the way that she experiences music. "I can imagine that someone who has no synaesthetic perception does not have such an intense sensation as I do when listening to music," she says.

"Music is richer. It is difficult to say whether I would have become a musician if I was not synaesthetic."

Table 1 Tasting the tones

These are the tastes experienced by Sulston in response to hearing different tone intervals. The fourth and tritone intervals elicit visual and emotional responses rather than tastes. The dissonant tone intervals seem to induce unpleasant tastes, whereas the consonant intervals induce pleasant ones.

Minor second

Major second

Minor third

Major third

Mown grass


Pure water

Minor sixth

Major sixth
Low-fat cream

Minor seventh

Major seventh

No taste


Anonymous said...

What I find interesting about this is that the tastes that she associates with the intervals make sense to me even though I don't experience a taste sensation like she does. It would be interesting to find a person who felt that they didn't make sense - such as a person who would feel that 'bitter' would go better with a perfect fifth than 'pure water' would.

David Carlos Valdez said...

I guess clams taste like clams......