Tag Archives: music

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!

Confront the Giant in Song

As a piano/vocal songwriter from the age of 12, I’ve written songs about the things I see in life that make me happy or catch my interest. But more often, my songs are about things that bother me; expressing my sadness or frustration in song has been one of the key ways I vented. I am definitely not alone in that, either, since many songwriters use music to talk about important social and political issues. Writing music about problems–confronting our problematic “giants” within the context of a melody–seems to be human nature.

Why Write Songs About Problems? Because It Helps

Songs are a great way to work out problems, as I found out at an early age.  I could sing and bang the piano keys about my problems more readily than I could even talk to somebody about what was going on.  Through music, I could put it more eloquently…and I found out through performances that other people identified with what I was singing about, even if it was sad.

Within a song, somehow, it seems easier to deliver a message that people will readily listen to. Even if the message is controversial, it seems less so when wrapped in melody and rhyme. And often, such a song can be the instigator of positive change, as it raises awareness about the problem–one such song is Jesus, Friend of Sinners by Casting Crowns, available through the video below:

The “Problem Song” Writing Process

In the act of writing a song about a problem, it forces me to condense my message and really “get to the bottom” of what I’m trying to talk about.  It makes me dig around in my conscious and subconscious mind–why does this problem bug me so much? Once I start trying to explain my point of view as if speaking to someone else, I finally find the little nugget of truth hiding underneath the layers of my own thoughts, and that truth becomes the basis of my song.  Then I write about how I see that truth, how that truth affects me, and the song begins to emerge.

Self-discovery and expression collide and combine once I finally sit down to the keyboard (either to type or to play).  As I write the words, sometimes I find myself adding the melody with it; as I hum the melody, sometimes I find myself adding the words where they best fit.  Either way, I am changing the word choice and rhythms to flow better together.  This is a highly instinctive process of addition, deletion, and rapid editing until I find the “right” way the song is supposed to work, how it’s supposed to deliver its message.

Once I feel that the song is done “right,” I perform it for myself, in many rehearsals.  Generally, the way I know that a song is good enough is if it either raises the hairs on my arms, or it makes me cry. (Yay for built-in quality control!)


The most challenging part of the whole “problem song” process, for me, is the first performance of the song for anybody.  I am challenged to deliver my message as if I am a keynote speaker, and in a way, I am.  I need to keep their interest, sing clearly, and express the nugget of truth with emotion and description, to help someone else understand how much this means to me.  My song should go out to the audience and travel straight from their ears to their hearts, giving them the message in a way that makes them think without being hostile to the idea in my music.

How Can You Confront Your Own Giants with a Song?

I find that writing a bullet list, outline, or even just random notes about things that concern you is a great starting point toward writing your own songs (or poems, if you aren’t musically inclined).  Amid the detritus that you will inevitably produce (as everyone does), there will likely be a phrase or sentence you write that will point you in the direction of your own nugget of truth.

From there, try to dig into it, to completely explain that nugget of truth as you see it.  Your own poem or song will emerge from your pen or your keyboard–and you just might be surprised at what you’ve come up with!

Joining My Voice With Others

Choirs have been a major part of my life since childhood, and I have loved every rehearsal and performance of it. Even though performing with any group, be it a dance troupe, an acting company, a band, or a large choir, is a commitment that takes dedication, it has helped anchor my life in many ways. The interdependency of a performance group is one reason I love choir–you become a family of sorts, understanding how each other operates, helping each other learn, working together for the common goal of producing beautiful music.

And yet, I would have never known my future interest in choir if I hadn’t taken a risk in 7th grade…and I wouldn’t have known just how important it was to me until I couldn’t be in a choir for a while.

My Personal Experience in School Choirs

Though I sang with my elementary school choir in 5th grade, I never really thought I had much of a singing voice until 7th grade, when I joined the choir “just to see if I liked it.” If I didn’t like choir, I reasoned, I could always go to band the next year.

I started out the year singing as I had always done: very softly, because I wasn’t sure if I was doing it right. But my choir teacher kept urging us to “sing from the diaphragm”–take deeper breaths and somehow push a louder sound out. I couldn’t wrap my head around what she wanted, so for a few weeks I continued singing very, very softly.

Finally, one morning she was fairly exasperated with us because we weren’t really trying much that day–most of the class wasn’t paying much attention. Right in the middle of her instructions on how to produce bigger sound, a knock came at the door, breaking her concentration. “All right, I’m going to say this one more time,” she said quickly, as she went toward the door. “Take a deep breath–don’t move your shoulders–tighten your stomach, and produce the sound!” Then she opened the door and talked to whoever was outside.

In the 30 seconds it took for her to talk to the person, understanding suddenly flashed in my head. Tighten the stomach? OH! THAT’S what I was supposed to do! I thought, “Well, is that all? Heck, I can do that.” When she came back into the room and took up her position at the music stand again, I was ready to sing, with my deep breath and tightened tummy.

From the expression on her face as we sang through one or two measures, she was not ready for the explosion of sound that came from the alto section. She motioned for us to stop singing, and in this shocked voice, she whispered, “Who was THAT?” It felt like every finger in the alto section pointed to me, and I wasn’t sure if her reaction was a good thing or a bad thing at first. 😀 But the big smile that dawned on her face let me know I had done at least something right.

From that day, I became one of the strongest altos in the section, and I never did make it to band. Finally, after nearly seven years of feeling like I had no place at school and that I would never do anything of consequence, I had found a place for myself, a place to be useful to other people. Many of the other altos were, like me before, still too shy to sing, so I produced tons of sound…which, I found out later, helped some of the other girls become more comfortable with the idea of singing with every rehearsal. The rest of seventh and eighth grade passed in this way–and, by the end of eighth grade, most of the altos I sang with had found their confidence as well. We thus had a strong corps of ladies ready to move on into high school choir.

I made it from the freshman Glee Club to the highest-level Chamber Choir in tenth grade, as one of only three ladies to be promoted immediately from Glee Club to Chamber Choir that year. Three successful years of Chamber Choir followed, under the direction of our high school choir teacher, who worked with us just as hard to shape our sound. (Some days I was worried he was going to have a stroke in front of us, he worked so hard!) But I did learn how to produce the tall vowels and enunciated sounds he consistently looked for in performance and rehearsals.

I carried this experience and knowledge into my college career, with one year of singing with the Women’s Glee Club and three years of singing with the Women’s Choir. My knowledge of choral music and my ability to adapt to different song styles grew as I sang in college, and by the time I’d graduated with my undergrad degree, I had sung in at least 13 different languages, traveled to sing in New York and England, and met a number of wonderful musicians who enriched me just by singing beside them.

The Break from Choir

Unfortunately, when I got into my graduate degree program, I had to largely quit choir to pay more attention to my studies in Middle-Grades Education. Other than my church choir, which I got to sing with only on Sundays I came home from college (and even then, not as often as I liked), I was out of the organized singing groups I had been used to singing with for nearly 10 years.

This break from choir, oddly enough, helped me realize what I loved about singing, and what I missed about it. I missed the camaraderie formed by trying to learn songs together (and often missing notes, lol); I loved performing with my fellow altos, keeping our line strong and helping the other three parts to stay on target. Though I did get to sing on occasion, I missed the constancy of rehearsals more than once a week, learning many different pieces, building up to a huge performance. I honestly felt lost without a group to perform with, and I think it contributed to my sinking heart and low state of mind.

A Joyous Return

But a serendipitous meeting with an old choir buddy (at Walmart, of all places) let me know of a new opportunity–the local Choral Society, a group of all levels of singers, was looking for altos. That was the impetus for me to attend a rehearsal, which led me to join up within the week. It was an electric experience after having been out of regular choir for so long. I snapped back into place like a long-lost puzzle piece, and I haven’t even entertained the idea of dropping out since.

My Current Choir Experience

I’m now involved in Choral Society as well as my church choir, and both choirs fulfill me musically, but in different ways. Church choir is a time for me to praise God for the ability to sing and the ability to make music; it’s not so much about the technical perfection of the music, but about the feelings and meanings that propel that music along. Choral Society, by contrast, is a time for me to sing with other choral musicians who enjoy rehearsing and learning challenging and lovely music–striving for technical perfection is part of the enjoyment (even if you don’t quite get there in one rehearsal, LOL!).

I enjoy singing with others much more than singing alone, though singing alone is cool; there’s just something about hearing your voice meld with others’, hearing it build in intensity, hearing it recede and return like audible ocean waves. It’s almost an animal in and of itself, moving, growing, and changing moment by moment…it’s awesome. It may not be a powerful soloist’s career, but for me, it’s a powerful experience. I’m so glad I took the chance to “see whether I liked choir”–it led to a lifelong love.

Melodies from Dreams

I often dream music, or at least melodies. Many a night I’ve woken up and charged sleepily to the piano keyboard, to bang out a quick melody so I don’t forget it before the morning really comes. (Many a night I’ve also rolled over and gone back to sleep on a melody, thinking “Oh, this is too cool, I won’t forget it!”, only to struggle to recall even the smallest rhythm later that morning. Fail!) Either way it happens, it’s a wonderful way to wake up, with your brain bathing in song!

Once I wake up for the day, especially if the melody is still very fresh, I’ll usually end up putting chords or words with it so that I can more easily remember the melody. If I’m struggling to recall the melody, I’ll muse around at the keyboard instead, playing as much of it as I can remember until something triggers my brain to remember the rest of it. (Occasionally I’ve had the same melody appear twice in dreams, or a snippet of a dream will remind me of the melody–always a blessing!) And once I have the melody, or at least as much as I remember of it, I can then begin to craft more of the piece of music, sometimes weaving in other chord progressions I’ve created while awake, or sometimes pulling in other dreamed melodies as appropriate.

I find that the music I dream of, whether it becomes a fully-fledged piece of music immediately or remains an itty-bitty melody for a few weeks, is often more ethereal and beautiful than stuff I come up with while awake. I like to think my brain explores my dreams while I’m asleep and brings back a shred of those dreamed realms, in snatches of melody that float back with me as I wake. Or maybe that’s just my random imaginings… But wherever they come from, they are delightful inspiration, all too rare these days.

What about you, fellow musicians? Have you ever dreamed of a piece of music, or a melody?

Studying the Songcraft of Others

As a singer-songwriter myself, one would think that I’d thoroughly enjoy listening to others writing and performing their own music as well. But oddly enough, when I listen to other singer-songwriters (like listening to 90% of my boyfriend’s collection of music), I end up feeling a little competitive instead, even though I like the music.

Here’s a small sample of what ends up running through my head:

  • “Hmm, how would I have written these lyrics/this chord progression/this melody differently?”
  • “Ooh, nifty turn of phrase! I like it!”
  • “I think the song could use another verse or two to tell the story…”
  • “The use of the minor chord there really heightens the musical tension!”

Singer-songwriter music is definitely not something I can sit and chill out to like he does–I’m too caught up in thinking about it academically rather than experiencing it. To be honest, I used to think I just didn’t “enjoy” this kind of music the way I enjoy faster-paced, musically dense songs.

And yet, my academic appreciation of music is in itself a form of enjoyment. I can’t really turn off my “Music Major Mode” that makes me dissect songs like this, but I can use it to observe how others write songs…which, in turn, can make me a better songwriter. I can study others’ combinations of melody and chord to set a musical mood, or think over how the choice of words in the lyrics tells the story completely and concisely.

This, I think, is extremely important for anyone who writes music–you HAVE to be willing to listen to what other musicians are doing in your chosen genre, and listen critically, observing what they have done and learning from it so you can make your own original music. (This also helps ward off plagiarism–once you’ve heard what other people have done, you can go and do something different with your own music.) Researching and studying how others write music like yours doesn’t have to be boring–in fact, it can be really rewarding and inspiring!

Phases of Songcraft

As a composer and songwriter, I had not thought much about how my works have changed over time, until I began to review and play back through my older songs. Then, I realized that my composing style has shifted, not once, but many times throughout my musical life already.

Shifting from Instrumental to Vocal/Instrumental

For instance, I’m just coming out of a weird phase where I haven’t been writing a lot of instrumental music (piano solos). Piano solos used to be all I did–I’d go to the keyboard and produce these six-minute-long wordless poems, full of soaring melodies and cool chord progressions. Nowadays, though, I find myself focusing on lyric and melody together, much more than I used to do. It used to be that I fought to combine words and melodies together into something that didn’t sound trite and stupid…now, I’m interested in my relationship to God and my personal faith journey, and the songs just keep writing themselves in my head.

This Phase Shift is Normal!

I had worried that perhaps I had “lost my touch” for writing piano solos or purely instrumental music. But I’ve talked to a few of my musician friends about how songcraft seems to come and go in phases–sometimes you feel like writing instrumental music, and sometimes vocal music or combined vocal/instrumental. All have agreed so far that it’s almost like a shifting mood thing, rather than an inability to do it anymore.

So if you’re writing music and find yourself writing in a new style of music, or moving away from an old favorite style, don’t worry–allow your music to grow with you as you explore new territory. Don’t trap yourself into one set way of composing, and you might just find a new favorite style!