I went back and polished up this post about sound-color synesthesia, adding in a video and several links for further information. If you’ve never heard of synesthesia and wonder how someone could “see” and “feel” music, click the link and discover my real-life visual and tactile musical experiences!
I’ve written quite a bit on my blog about my synesthesia, and how musical notes generate color in my head (back in June 2011 and more recently in August 2012). However, it recently occurred to me that my experience of choral music, in particular, is pretty different from just perceiving specific notes and note colors.
How different, you might ask? Take a look at the following illustration, which is but a poor visual representation of what I see when I hear individual voice parts singing.
I’ve been tacitly aware of this as long as I’ve been singing in choirs (late childhood). When I listened to or sung in choirs, for instance, I would see these various metallic colors as if superimposed on my vision when the sopranos would sing alone, or when the tenors would practice their part, etc. When a group of like voices sings together, my synesthetic experience does not reflect the individual pitches they hit; instead, the single metallic color seems to represent an overall “sense” of the harmony line they are building.
Hearing an entire choir together, however, is a much different experience from hearing each voice part separately. A piece of choral music is like a sculpture being built in mid-air out of mere threads of metal, always twisting, twining, and shaping into something glittering and light. Adding my voice to this lovely object, which only exists as a flickering in my imagination and looks thin enough to pop like a soap bubble, is an amazing feeling–my voice becomes one of those thin strands of metal winding into the choral sculpture.
I haven’t tested this very often with bands or orchestras, but it seems as though this is specific to choral music. Perhaps the human voice lends a special timbre to the harmony lines, which creates this awesome mental artwork in my head. (Unfortunately, I cannot produce this artwork with my hands and do it any justice, but I can at least help others imagine it with my words.)
Does anyone else experience synesthetic events like this when listening to large ensembles of voices (or instruments, for that matter)? Tell me in the comments!
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)
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).
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 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! 😛
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.)
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.
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, 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.
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
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!