Synesthesia and Sounds, the Color of Music - Music and Medicine Week


An example how a synesthetic person might associate a color to letters and numbers.

While music can act as a medicine and evoke healing properties, one of the most interesting lights in which to look at music is through the scientific lens. To that end, a very perplexing phenomena comes in the form of a condition called auditory synesthesia, so that when a synesthete hears sound they see color or taste flavor. This way of perceiving the world can occur many ways- letters, numbers and time having color. Tastes can have a shape. It is a cross firing of synapses in the brain that causes an interpretation of one piece of information many ways. When a person with this condition (the numbers vary greatly but is anywhere from 1 in 200 to 1 in 2500) tastes chicken, it might feel round. When a synesthete looks at a calendar, every day is a different color – each week, month, and times within the day. Music works in a similar way for people with synethesia, as they listen to music they see colors and shapes dancing across their mind’s eye.

This rare condition is possibly something all people are born with. One theory suggests that as infants our brains have not yet developed enough to categorize what our different senses perceive. That cross firing is actually quite normal but for some babies the ability to perceive information in this way never escapes them. Leading synesthesia researcher Ed Hubbard has found that  synesthetes are 8 times more likely to work in the creative fields, and  it’s easy to understand how their brains might be more inclined to creativity.

Some famous examples of synesthetes are Jerry Garcia, Billy Joel, composer Franz Listz, painter David Hockney and a handful of other recognizable names. While she’s not gone down in the history books yet, author Patricia Lynne Duffy is helping the world learn more about this perception condition. As a synesthete herself, she saw a blatant gap in the research that could only be filled by a scientist who not only studied synesthesia but experienced it. Duffy was the first to step up to the plate to study the condition as a scientist with naturally occurring synethesia and not an in induced form caused by use of hallucinogenic drugs or extreme meditation (both of which are reported to induce synesthesia).

Her book, Blue Cats and Chartruese Kittens, explores Duffy’s experiences as well as a multitude of other synesthetes. The book aims to explain their way of perceiving and open the door to appreciating neural diversity. As an example, she elaborated on how she thinks when she’s making plans:

“Yesterday I said we would meet Thursday, on a blue day. Wednesday is a mustard colored day,  so any time I’m talking to someone about when we’re going to do something, this landscape will pop up and I’m on the colored sidewalk that is the week for me. Yesterday,  I was on the mustard color looking ahead to the blue day and 7:30pm, which is green, popped up on the upper part of the blue Thursday square. It’s automatic, I cant even say its an act of imagination because I can’t control it. Synesthesia is something like the quality of a dream. It’s  when you’re awake, but its very vivid. I wouldn’t be surprised if we find a connection between dreams and this.”

Other synesthetes have different experiences, like Laura Rosser, a pianist who hears in color and even sometimes sees the notes and keys become physically colored while she’s deep enough in her art. In an NPR morning broadcast she explained how she felt color dissonance in her life; like a yellow room with a red chair. In order to figure out why she was feeling this discomfort, she had to translate the problem to musical terms. The hue of the room and chair might create a minor chord or an unpleasant sound and by righting the chord, so to say, she could fix the uncomfortable feelings evoked from the colors.

The combination of color and music has never been an uncommon association.  Duffy noted how the interest in and research for synesthesia has grown over the years, from an outlook of not being certain of its existence to an internationally studied cerebral phenomenon. And now, even non-synesthetes are challenging their brains and eyes to perceive in this same manner. There are several videos by people both with and without synesthesia that express their color association set, which is a part of what Duffy calls personal coding, in accompaniment with music.

One very successful campaign is by composer and inventor Stephen Malinowski. He had an idea in the early 1970s to create a way for everyone to visualize music, and eventually came to animate musical scores with lines and dots representing where they stood on the scale and their length. As technology quickly developed, Malinowski’s Music Animation Machine came to life through computer upgrades, adding color pallets and varieties, creating more spatial depth, and interpreting different compositions different ways. Though this invention was never directly related to synesthesia, the concepts obviously overlap and Malinowski has found it interesting to draw inspiration from synesthetes based on what they see. Now, people are even composing music to have visually appealing elements when they go through the MAM.

For synesthetes and non-synesthetes alike, the visualization of music is an intriguing and fascinating concept. For people to whom this occurs naturally, understanding life without it is nearly impossible. Thanks to Duffy, Malinowski, and many others, the door has been opened to understanding the capacities of the human brain, the endless possibilities of this massive muscle, and even the option to question the nature of reality.