Seeing and Feeling Music

For almost all of my life that I can remember, music has not only been an auditory experience, but a visual and tactile experience, too. As a child, I thought everyone saw swirls of varying colors when they heard music, or felt the hairs all over their bodies raise up like a standing ovation when a particularly beautiful chord was struck. To my utter surprise, when I tried to describe this to other people, they had no idea what I was talking about…and a good deal of them probably thought I was a bit off my rocker.

The Reason for the Swirling Colors of Sound: Synesthesia

It was not until I joined Facebook in late 2005 and saw a group called “We See Sound, Taste Shapes, and Smell Colors” that I finally found out what was at the core of my strange and wonderful experiences when listening to music. Synesthesia is a very interesting brain condition in which synapses in two or three different senses “leak” into each other; when one sense is stimulated, it triggers a response in the other sense. For me, every time I hear music or sound, the stimulated synapses in my temporal lobes (located just above my ears) “leak” into my visual cortex (at the back of my head), producing a veil of colors across my vision in response to the sound. (I have begun to wonder if the temporal lobes also leak somewhat into my sense of touch as well, since I experience tingling and hair-lifting in response to exceptionally beautiful music.)

Being a sound-color synesthete (and possibly a sound-touch synesthete as well) means that my experience of the world around me is very different from other people’s experiences. Every sound generates a color; the honking of a particularly grating car horn registers as a vomit-green flash at the corners of my vision, for instance. My boyfriend’s voice is the color of the eastern sky at sunset, a lovely, muted medium blue. And every musical key has a color associated with it, seen in the diagram I made for the synesthesia Facebook group below:

My First Experience of Synesthesia

One of my first and most startling episodes with sound-color synesthesia happened when I was a little girl (probably about 3 or 4 years old), playing with my Barbies in the living room while my father played a piece called “Music Box Dancer” by Frank Mills (see following video):

I had requested this piece because I was then infatuated with becoming a ballerina, and I made one of my Barbies dance along with the song as Dad played the merry little tune in C major. As you see in my diagram of musical colors above, C is a warm golden-yellow, the color of late summer afternoons in the South, and I luxuriated in this familiar, kid-friendly key.

When the song came to an end, Dad started it over again, except this time, he transposed it up a half-step, to C-sharp major. As the first notes were struck, I dropped my Barbie doll to the floor, my hands, arms, and scalp tingling–the explosion of deep midnight-violet in my mind was absolutely breathtaking! C major had made the notes feel like the kicks and strokes of a swimmer in a warm and languid pool, but C-sharp major transformed them into tinkling silver crystals, sparkling against a background like that of a clear moonlit night. I could hear the difference because of my perfect pitch (which I did not know I had yet), and I could actually see the difference between the keys in my mind, too. (This began my deep love and appreciation for the key of C-sharp, whether major or minor–it is my favorite key to hear music in.)

Every time after that, when Dad sat down and played “Music Box Dancer,” usually in C major, I would come up and say, “Play it up, Daddy, play it up”–I wanted to hear it in C-sharp major again. He understood what I was asking for after the first couple of times I requested this, and this, he related years later, was when he first started to wonder if I had perfect pitch. (My experience of synesthesia and perfect pitch are so intertwined that I nearly have to talk about them in context with each other; I have written more about how chords appear as multiple colors blended together in my mind in this blog post.)

Synesthesia in Everyday Life

I’ve had similar experiences with music and sound all throughout my life, and it’s an everyday joy for me. Singing in choral festivals and concerts, with all those varying voices joined in harmonies, creates the sense of a hovering structure in mid-air, silvery-gold and delicate like a thinning soap bubble; the chords we create feel as if they reverberate along my nerves, and every hair applauds. Even the sound of a plane engine flying overhead, the Doppler effect making the pitch go down as it recedes from me, generates a swirl of black and deep green in my peripheral vision. I can say it’s truly fun to be a synesthete–it certainly makes the world much more interesting!

11 thoughts on “Seeing and Feeling Music”

  1. Hello,
    I have thoroughly enjoyed reading your article.
    What do you see when you hear micro-tones – for example, the note(s) between C and C#?
    I’d love to know, as I have heard of it as a spectrum, although it doesn’t seem the case here.
    Also, do you think there is a relation in colours as you move through the keys in 5ths?
    Thanks, I look forward to hearing from you.

  2. Micro-tones appear to me as “gradients” between the two pitches–notes between C and C# are varying degrees of violet or gold depending on whether they are closer to C or closer to C#. (Microtones between F and F# are very, very annoying for me to tell apart visually because the two colors are so similar, but I can still tell by the audio tone which ones are lower and which ones are higher.)

    Some of the chord colors seem related to each other (at least they look harmonious together)–for instance, E major (pink, dark blue, lavender) and B minor (lavender, sky blue, blue-green). Then you get weirdness like E-flat major (red-orange, red, bright teal) and F minor (green, dark blue, golden yellow). There seems to be no rhyme or reason to how the colors match up with pitches in my head, though I suspect it has some basis in childhood music experiences somehow. Other sound-color synesthetes I’ve met usually perceive totally different schemes of colors for pitches, whether they have perfect pitch or not. It’s definitely a weirdly awesome phenomenon, however it happens! 🙂

  3. You have an extremely beautiful mind and I would give anything to experience music the way you do! When you see these colors, like when you’re driving for example, do they obstruct your view? or do they appear more in your mind and you can somewhat see through them if that makes sense?

  4. Thank you for the awesome question! The musical colors appear more as an overlay in my vision rather than something opaque that would block my sight (thankfully). It functions almost like seeing something in peripheral vision; I can ignore it if I need to, or I can focus attention on it if I need to.

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