Swiss musician has a taste for music

How Sulser sees the first beats of Bach's cantata Unto Thee, O Lord, do I lift up my soul. Sulser

Swiss researchers say they are astounded by the case of a musician who can taste notes as distinct flavours that include sweet, sour and cream.

This content was published on March 4, 2005

The Swiss woman said she was proud of her abilities, but the sudden media interest made her feel like a circus attraction.

In an article published in the British science journal Nature, the team from Zurich University says the woman can also see music in different colours.

The 27-year-old woman, identified only as E.S. in the report, is a synaesthete, someone who can experience sensations in more than one sense from the same stimulation, said researchers.

Zurich University neuropsychologists were so intrigued by E.S. – a full-time professional musician – that they decided to study her for a year.

"This is a special case of a musician who, when she hears tone intervals, has the perception of a taste of a tone," said co-author Michaela Esslen from Zurich University.

"She doesn’t imagine the taste, she really tastes it," she added.

This means according to the tone, the recorder player gets a sour, bitter, salty or sweet taste on her tongue.

Low fat or full fat cream?

Other tastes are pure water, cream – either full or low fat according to the note – "disgust" and mown grass.

E.S. also sees notes as colours. An F sharp is defined as violet and a C makes her, quite literally, see red.

Scientists believe the case, reported in last week’s edition of Nature, is exceptional because seeing letters or digits in a certain colour is more common in synaesthesia. It may also involve seeing a musical tone as a colour.

"Of the different types of synaesthesia, most have colour as the concurrent perception, with concurrent perception of smell or taste being rare," said the team in its report.

Zurich University researchers, led by Lutz Jäncke, tested the musician’s ability to link taste and music by applying solutions tasting sour, bitter, salty or sweet to her tongue and asking her to identify the tone intervals, a difficult task normally requiring musical training.

When the applied tastes corresponded with the intervals she was able to identify them faster than other musicians.

"We found that E.S.’s tone-interval identification was perfect," said the researchers.

Blue raindrops

The woman has been identified in the Swiss media as Elisabeth Sulser, a professional musician who lives in Zurich.

She told the mass-selling tabloid Blick that she discovered her extraordinary abilities at the age of 16, while out for a walk in the rain.

"Suddenly it was clear to me that the rain sounded blue," she said.

Sulser said that her talent took some getting used to a first, but in the end decided to use it to her advantage. She became more interested in music and decided to study the recorder at the Music Academy in Basel.

She is now proud of her abilities and says she finds it strange when people can’t see colours or taste music as she can.

Although the sudden interest by the media has left a bitter taste in her mouth.

"I sometimes feel like the cloned sheep Dolly," she told the Bern-based Der Bund newspaper.

Synaesthesia affects an estimated one in 2,000 people. The condition has been known to science for some time, but the Zurich University team believes that Sulser could be unique.


In brief

Synaesthesia means experiencing sensations in more than one sense from the same stimulation.

Colour is normally the most common concurrent perception, with taste or smell being much more rare.

It is estimated to affect one in 2,000 people, although some say that the number could be as high as one in 500.

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