Chord Colors: Perfect Pitch and Synesthesia

Last year, I referred to colors and music as being completely intertwined in my head–it’s a positive condition known as synesthesia, or as I like to refer to it, my “brain feature.” Every time I listen to music, my inner sight explodes in colors; it has always been this way, even when I was a very little girl and wasn’t as involved with the production of music as I am these days.

Though I’ve shared this particular picture with you before, here is my complete, colored piano scale, created by my combination of perfect pitch and synesthesia:

This pitch-color connection is an instantaneous response to music, something I don’t have to think about to “see;” it’s just there. And today, I thought I’d share some of that experience, in the form of created images capturing the colors of various musical chords.

(Before we begin, please excuse the relatively low artistic quality of these images; I can’t quite seem to recapture exactly how each chord “looks” to me when it is played, but I have done my best. :P)

B-flat Major

To me, B-flat, whether major or minor, has always had a little shade of darkness to it on the “left” side of the pitch; it’s not sad or evil darkness, just kind of shaded. Here, the B-flat major chord is described, with shadowy teal, light blue, and bright green (B-flat, D, and F, respectively).

B Minor

The 80s called and said they want their pastel palette back. LOL! This is how B minor looks in my head–a wash of lilac and white in the background (the note of B, with the lightness of the major chord), with a little light blue (D) and deep blue-green (F-sharp) mixed in. It’s a gracefully beautiful key, but also somewhat reserved and icy-feeling.

C Major

C major has always appeared bright and colorful in my head–almost too colorful! The golden-yellow C, the pale pink E, and the bright red G are a bit jarring together; this color combination is probably why I associate C major with childhood, especially toys. But you can’t say C major isn’t cheerful enough! 😛

C Minor

In stark contrast to the brightness of C major, C minor has always seemed broodingly dark, even a little slinky, especially with the red of G combined with the red-orange of E-flat and the gold-to-black gradient in the background. (The added darkness in the background is nearly always present in my head when minor chords are played, excepting B minor.)

C-Sharp Major

This is the only key for which very bright silver sparkles appear scattered across the background; I’ve done a poor imitation here, but this gives some idea. The bright green of F and the rich blue of A-flat do not overpower the deep violet and silvery shimmer of the background, which is possibly one reason this is my favorite key to hear music in.

C-Sharp Minor

I love both the major and minor keys of C-sharp, and with good reason–the tones are beautiful, as are the color combinations in my head. In its minor form, C-sharp’s violet is darker, with less emphasis on the sparkles in the background, and the light-pink E adds a more monochromatic dimension to the chord color. I can become wrapped in the chord very easily…it’s melancholy and yet beautiful.

F Major

F major, like C major, is very bright and happy, with the off-white A and deep golden C accenting the vibrant green F. It feels festive and unapologetic, which might be one reason I’ve always associated the key of F major with celebrations and lots of people.

G Major

Can’t miss G major! :O What an explosion of nearly-patriotic colors, with the powerful red G, soft lavender B, and bright blue D. This key feels energetic and powerful, even when it’s used for an easygoing song–I guess it’s all that red. xD (Odd fact: as American as this particular chord palette looks, it’s interesting to note that our national anthem is usually sung in A-flat major instead of G major. Oh well, there’s no accounting for my brain’s sound-color associations!)

To Learn More About Synesthesia

Synesthesia @
Mixed Signals–for synesthetes and non-synesthetes alike
American Synesthesia Association
The Synesthesia Battery of Tests–find out if you’re a synesthete, too!

12 thoughts on “Chord Colors: Perfect Pitch and Synesthesia”

  1. What an interesting concept! I know that we tend to associate colours and smells with our brain but its one of those things I’ve never really paid attention to. Its just there, if you get what I mean. I love how much detail you went into about how the colour and the chord and how you associate it with your thoughts. Its a really interesting read!

  2. Wow, I’m beyond surprised that someone has something almost exactly the same as me. I also have perfect pitch and sound->color synethesia. The actual colors I see, however, are different. You see a neon green for “F”, while I see a light sky blue. And you see an icy blue for “D”, while I see this deep crimson red. But other than the actual colors being different, almost everything else is the same.

  3. @Zara: Great to hear from a fellow perfect pitch synesthete! 😀 I’ve often wondered if the color associations come from emotional responses to music that are set well back in childhood–that might account for pitches having different mental colors depending on who you ask. 🙂

  4. @Robin:
    You’re probably right. I have a vivid memory from when I was in kindergarten. I was always a fan of violent video-games, even as a 5-6 year old girl. My parents bought me “Yoshi’s Story” for the Nintendo 64, a very cute, adorable, cartoon game that was an age-appropriate adventure game. Everything was good until I killed the Yoshi I was playing as in the middle of a level. Right when the Yoshi died, there was a D doric chord that played, then there was a clarinet that played a dismal melody in A minor, though the base note of the melody was D.

    I remember seeing a bright bloody red that almost blinded me, immediately when the chord struck (it was loud and staccato), then as the clarinet played, it slowly turned into a deep crimson. I remember being deathly terrified of the color I saw. I pretty much cried in the corner for the rest of the day, and never touched that game again for over 15 years. I recently tried playing it again, but it’s difficult for me to complete the game without killing a Yoshi….which inevitably still causes the crazy sensation. I remember my parents dismissing it as my overactive imagination, and I was able to move on, since I never had a hardcore experience like that ever since then.

  5. I have the form of synesthesia where I see colors for words, letters, numbers, sounds. Mostly it’s textures and even sound wave looking things for sounds, but I can pry the color I see from my brain occasionally. My band teacher (first year in band) was greatly thrilled when I told him of my synesthetic experiences and thinks I may have perfect pitch. As stated, you have perfect pitch? Would you give any advice as to fine tuning that ability? My band teacher thinks I should have a coach work with me, but Im not a people person honestly, so any help would be greatly appreciated!

  6. Not sure how helpful this will be for you, but one of the ways I self-discovered that I had perfect pitch as a young girl was to learn the musical keys of songs I already knew really well. Then, when I listened to a song I did not know the key of, I would mentally compare the pitches I was hearing to the songs I already knew the keys of. “Hmm, these notes sound a lot like that song in F minor that we’re doing in middle school chorus,” I would think, for instance. “Wonder if this one is in F minor, too?” (I was already in musical training, learning to play the piano and sing as well as to read sheet music–having musical training really helps this ability, I find.)

    I didn’t have Internet at home (not many people did around here in 1997), so I couldn’t “check my answers” online, but I could check with my dad, who also has perfect pitch. He affirmed that I was hearing correctly, and after doing a couple of pitch tests (me covering my eyes, him hitting a note on the piano and asking what note I believed it was), we discovered that I did indeed have perfect pitch.

    You could try the “song-memorizing” trick that I inadvertently did, since you’re in band and have access to sheet music so you can check the keys of the songs you are learning in there. Or, if you’ve got a piano/keyboard, you can play a song on your stereo or computer and try to play the melody along with the musical track to try to get a “feel” for what each key sounds like. (I’ve written some musical theory posts recently that can help you with labeling the piano keys if you’re not familiar with piano keyboards.) If all else fails, you can also listen to songs, write down what you think the key of the song is, and then try to find the correct key online to see how close you are. It can be tricky to check song keys online, though, since sometimes people put up transposed versions of songs or create sheet music that isn’t for the version you’ve been listening to.

    I hope these tips help you as they’ve helped me–and remember, that synesthetic response can be VERY helpful as you learn! Note the textures/sound wave patterns that consistently appear for each key, and soon you’ll have another sense helping you out. 🙂

  7. Oh that is amazing! I see what you mean about the fireplace–it’s green as well! I wonder if there’s more than just a personal interpretive connection between certain keys and certain colors, since I’ve heard several synesthetes agree with me that D is blue to them.

  8. Interesting! Fellow absolute pitch & sound > color synesthete. My color scale is completely different! The only one we come close on is C# where I hear purple as well but it’s lighter than the one in your image. The thing for me is that I believe I associate full chords / key signatures to colors more than individual tones to colors. But it’s very fascinating seeing your depiction of chords as a gradient of colors derived from the colors of those notes.

  9. Awesome!! Glad to hear you enjoyed this post and really connect with it! (YAY absolute pitch *high-five*)

    I’m wondering now how our brains “select” the colors and particulars for each sound–whether it all has to do with specific childhood imagery/sound impressions, or whether it’s just a quirk of our own personalities, etc. (I’ve had several people say that D is blue for them as well, for instance, but I’ve never matched C# with anybody before :D)

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