Synesthesia and the colour of music


Our brain is a fascinating blob which holds the key to so many miraculous abilities, and, no, by that I do not mean your ability to quote every line from the Matrix movie. In fact what I am referring to in this case is synesthesia and its fascinating relationship with music. What does that peculiar word mean, you ask? Well, get comfortable – I am about to explain.

Hello, synesthesia, it’s me

A few years ago I took part in a weird test for a friend of mine who was studying psychology. They asked me to ascribe colours to letters and numbers. It took ages to complete and the results showed that I have this condition (the name of which it took me three months to remember) – synesthesia. I excitedly called my mother to tell her the great news and, of course, she was worried I was brain damaged.

Thankfully, I wasn’t, as synesthesia is in fact a neurological condition in which a person’s senses are mixed together – the stimulation of one sense can lead to the activation of another. For example, when you hear a piece of music or sound you can see a particular color in your mind, or have a smell come up, or even have a taste in your mouth as a response. Weird, huh? It gets weirder. In my particular case I see days of the week, months, letters and numbers in particular colours. Okay, fine, I know – this is the world’s least exciting super power. I guess there will be no superhero movie about me.

Synesthesia and science

As scientists are currently working really hard on figuring this synesthesia thing out, not much is known about how it develops. In the 90’s, with the help of the MRI, scientists first managed to prove that the condition in fact exists. They observed how in some people, when exposed to music, the blood rushes not only to the part of their brain that processes sound, but also to the one that is responsible for sight. This was great, as I suspect many people with synesthesia got the same reaction from others as I did from my parents. I told them I see colours when I hear someone mention a month and what I got was: “Are you sure you are not making this up?”.

Synesthesia is also said to be more common in women and people who are left-handed. It is also believed to be genetically presupposed.

It turns out that around 4% of the population retain this gift, which scientists claim we are all born with but most of us lose after our first eight months. There are many different types of synesthesia as basically any two or more senses can mix together to make you a weirdo like me. To name a few: mirror-touch synesthesia (when you feel you are being touched only by looking at someone else being touched); lexical-gustatory synesthesia (certain words correspond to certain tastes); auditory-tactile synesthesia (when certain sounds induce sensations somewhere in your body); grapheme-color synesthesia (when letters are perceived to have a particular colour), and many, many more.

Also, it appears I have gotten really good at typing the word “synesthesia”.

This TED video talks a bit more about what synesthesia is and goes into greater details about the different types. Check it out:

The colour of music

The musicians who have it

If you do a quick search you might find out that a great number of musicians have claimed to be possessed by the powers of synesthesia. Good for them I say, as many stress that without synesthesia they don’t know if they would be able to make music. One such example is Pharell, who credits his synesthesia as the gift that is allowing him to create music. His third album with N.E.R.D is even entitled “Seeing Sounds”.

Pharell has said that one of his most famous songs “Happy” is drenched in colour. He sees the verses as yellow. The harmonies in the chorus each have colours from the red spectrum that overlap and create a new colour that is not primary. Can you imagine what he is seeing when listening to the song?

Try it:

Did you see the hints of yellow throughout the song? Well, I don’t know if they are there on purpose, but… maybe.

Another famous synesthete – Billy Joel, has said that he is reluctant to explore the condition in detail, as he fears it might take away from its magic. But he did share that for him his softer, intimate songs, like ‘Vienna’, are in the colours blue or green, while the ones with a strong beat and faster rhythm, like ‘We didn’t start the fire’ are painted in red, orange or gold. Just by seeing the colour Billy Joel already knows what type of melody and rhythmic patterns will emerge alongside it.

Are you in the mood for some fiery red and gold tunes?

Other famous musicians with synesthesia include Kanye West, Tori Amos, Leonard Bernstein, Lorde, Ed Sheeran, Mary J Blige, Jimmi Hendrix, Duke Ellington, Marilyn Monroe (if you can call her a musician) and many others.

It is not certain that having synesthesia will turn you into the creative genius of the century but the abundance of colours everywhere might tickle your creative side. Of course, for some it can be just another thing on their list of “conditions”.

The artists who draws it

Melissa McCracken is a very fascinating artist. She sees sounds and uses her synesthesia as inspiration to create amazing art based on particular songs. Her approach allows others to get a glimpse of the condition and the magic it can trigger. On her website Melissa shares that up until she was 15 she thought everyone experienced the world as she did – an explosion of colour everywhere she looked. She notes that “the most wonderful ‘brain malfunction’ of all is seeing the music” that she hears – something we can all agree on after being exposed to her art.

If you are looking to find out if you too have been blessed by the power of blended sensory experience you can take а test here. But I suspect that after reading this article you will have a pretty good idea if you already have it, as it is kind of hard to miss.

Don’t forget to connect with musicians on Drooble. Here is a great conversation starter – Do you have synesthesia and are you using it to create music? So, do you?


1 Comment

  1. Jack Kurasik

    How do synesthetes perceive one particular note? For example the note C is green according to the visible light spectrum Do other people see it in different colour?

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *