Have you ever thought to yourself, “This song reminds me of purple velvet,” or “I wish this sounded more pink!” You tell your friends, only to be met with blank stares. Nobody knows what you’re talking about. If you’ve experienced this, you are not alone. If you haven’t, you’re not alone either.
THE BLENDING OF SENSES
Only two to four percent of people experience synesthesia, a perception phenomenon where two (or more) of their senses are connected, resulting in them seeing and feeling things differently. Synesthesia is more apparent in women than men, and to date, over 60 types of synesthesia have been identified. The most common form of synesthesia is chromesthesia.
WHAT IS CHROMESTHESIA?
It is a type of synesthesia, where sound can evoke an experience of colour. It could be everyday things, for instance: the sizzle of bacon on a hot pan (red), the trickle of water from a jug into a glass (blue), or even the tinkling of coins in your pocket (gold).
Chromesthesia can also be something more technical, when a major or minor key evokes the image of different colours, as will specific notes like C (red), G (orange), D (yellow) and so on. However, there is no fixed sound-to-colour association and these combinations vary from person to person.
Rhett and Link from the YouTube channel Good Mythical Morning explore the topic with examples of what synesthetes see. Give it a try to find out if you also see or think in colour.
THE EARLY DAYS
Russian composer and pianist Alexander Scriabin was known as one of the earlier pracitionists of chromesthesia. In the early 1900s, Scriabin became one of the most innovative (but also most controversial) composers of his time. Late into his career, he became influenced by synesthesia, which led him to develop his own colour system based on the circle of fifths.
Scriabin also invented the clavier à lumières (keyboard with lights) for his work, Prometheus: Poem of Fire. This keyboard was decorated in the colours from his colour wheel, with each note corresponding to a specific shade. While only one keyboard was made and many doubted that Scriabin could indeed hear in colour, it inspired the creation of modern-day music software, like Virtuoso 3.0, which allows users to play songs based on colour-coded keys to optimize harmonization.
Up until his death in 1915, Scriabin was also working on Mysterium, a week-long event that, according to him, would combine the senses of smell, touch and hearing. He wrote, “There will not be a single spectator. All will be participants. The work requires special people, special artists and a completely new culture. The cast for performers includes an orchestra, a large mixed choir, an instrument with visual effects, dancers, a procession, incense, and rhythymic textural articulation. The cathedral in which it will take place will not be of one single type of stone but will continually change with the atmosphere and motion of the Mysterium. This will be done with the aid of mists and lights, which will modify the architectural contours.”
While this might have been unheard of (and maybe even blasphemous) more than a century ago, it really does sound like Scriabin was ahead of his time as his description of Mysterium is incredibly similar to that of the fully immersive events we experience today.
MAKING COLOURFUL MUSIC
For artists and creators, the ability to bridge the gap between sound and colour is a gift that elevates their craft. The condition of chromesthesia stretches as far back as piano virtuoso Frank Lizst’s era, when it was said that he saw colours where there were only tones, thereby confusing his orchestra players. Often times, the great musician would request for the orchestra to play “a little bluer”, “deep violet”, or “not so rose”.
As awareness towards chromesthesia becomes more widely known, many musicians from the likes of Frank Ocean to Tori Amos to Billie Eilish have revealed that they experience some form of synesthesia, which helps them experience things more vividly, therefore contributing to their creative process. Billy Joel is one of these uniquely gifted individuals, often linking his ballads and rock songs with different hues. “When I think of different types of melodies which are slower or softer like “Lullaby (Goodnight My Angel)”, “And So It Goes” and “Vienna”, I think in terms of blues or greens,” he explained in an interview with Psychology Today. And when he thinks of strong melodic or rhythmic patterns, it’s usually vivid reds, oranges or golds, like in “We Didn’t Start the Fire”.
Pharrell Williams also talks about being a synesthete: “For every colour, there is a sound, a vibration, a part of the human body, a number, a musical note... I think there is a correlation to synesthesia: there are seven basic colours – red, orange, yellow, green, blue, indigo and violet. And those correspond with musical notes. White, believe it or not, gives you an octave that is the blending of all the colours.”
Marina Diamandis from Marina and the Diamonds is equally vocal about her chromesthesia. She explains, “People think it’s like this amazing thing where rainbows are popping out of your eyeballs, but no. For me, it’s more of an added sensitivity to colour, so I associate a lot of different colours to musical notes, or days of the week. That’s how I experience it, but maybe it’s different for other people.”
For professional violinist and neuroscentist Kaitlyn Hova, finding out about her condition came as a surprise. Back in college, while taking a music theory course, Hova’s professor shared an interesting tidbit of information: that some people could physically see sounds. Naturally, Hova was unimpressed, having grown up seeing flashes of shapes or colours every time she heard a musical note. However, the realization that this did not happen to everyone else caught her by surprise. As a musician, she uses her synesthesia to learn songs, correlating the landscape with musical colours.
Hova and her husband also created The Synesthesia Network, a platform that brings together researchers and synesthetes to exchange knowledge and experiences. Here, you can connect with like-minded people who hear in colour, and see in sound. Not to be perceived as a disease, more in-depth studies on synesthesia will help us understand how the brain processes information, presenting an opportunity for us to see the world through different-coloured lenses.
Cover Credit: Lucas Sankey/Unsplash
Writer | Michelle Tan
Lover of all things bizarre, Michelle has a soft spot for dinosaurs, animal videos and a strong G&T. Her lifelong dream is to become an urban hermit.