Synesthesia - Seeing color when hearing music

February 10, 2012 at 07:52 PM · This student is 5. His Mom told me about some comments he makes. She thought he was bonkers. When I told her about synesthesia she researched and found information that put all the pieces together and why her son acts as he does. In particular - he loves painting while listening. He's also developed pitch memory and has a color for each pitch. Being that he's young, and, what he is experiencing is his version of "normal" - I'm sure I'm not fully comprehending his experience. I'm looking for other violin players with synesthesia to guide me.

Replies (21)

February 10, 2012 at 08:53 PM · I envy this kiddo of yours - what a gift to have such a rich experience of reality! Sound and light are both made up of vibrations - perhaps we're deficient if we don't experience things that way.

That said, I have read that the experience infants have for the first 6 months or longer is a synaesthetic one. Kids develop at different rates, so these pathways may not have differentiated yet for him and his experience may change or it may not.

There's a great book by Diane Ackerman called "a brief history of the senses" in which she talks at length about her experience as a syaesthete, perhaps it would interest his mom, and you to read this?

Apparently Elvin Jones, Miles Davis, and Itzhak Perlman (though he denies it) are/were synaesthetes. Pretty lofty company for your student!

February 10, 2012 at 09:23 PM · Count me in.

I have strong pitch memory and can tell pitches and keys apart in much the same way I tell colors apart. With me, the synesthesia kicks in faster with keys and chords than individual tones. The key of C, to me, is red; Db is red-orange; D is orange or gold; Eb is orange-yellow; E is pale yellow; F is green.

So far, this roughly parallels the progression of the visible spectrum from longest to shortest wavelengths. But in me, it breaks off there. G, A, and B should be blue, blue-violet, and violet, respectively; but to me, they are gold, bright-pale red, and violet.

One reason, I'm sure, that I associate B with violet is that some significant music I've heard in that key has a dusky, end-of-day, sort of "taps" feel to me:

- Final section of Tchaikovsky 6, 1st movement, starting with clarinet solo at m. 325.

- Final section of Richard Strauss's symphonic poem Also Sprach Zarathustra.

- Final duet in Act V of Giuseppe Verdi's Don Carlo: "Ma lassù ci vedremo in un mondo migliore" (But, there above, we shall meet in a better world).

February 10, 2012 at 09:32 PM · How freaky to see this subject brought up today. Just yesterday, my husband forwarded me a link, an article from The Economist, talking about the very subject in regards to music. Interesting article:

February 10, 2012 at 09:32 PM · There are very likely several sensory (kinesthetic-neurological-psychological) responses that music triggers in any given individual. Most of them are probably very subtle, and it is likely we don't even have names that can allow us to slap labels on them.

To me, as a psychologist and life-long music lover and musician (albeit amateur), it has always seemed that some of the emotional reactions many of us have to music have a physiological component, in that many of our "emotional" reactions are powerful because we actually have almost physical reactions.

Synesthesia is one of the few such reactions that has been identified because it so dramatic and so obviously cross-sensory.

Interesting discussion.



February 10, 2012 at 10:01 PM · Count me in, too.

For me also it is keys more than individual tones, so that a whole passage will have a certain colour, which changes when the tonality modulates. Interestingly, not all are as clear as others, and it matters whether they are sharps or flats. Do sharps and flats make a difference for you too, Jim?

For examples, D major is spring green, and F major is and always has been (in my mind) an orange-ish red. C# is silvery, but Db is non-distinct and fuzzy, not really any color. I have no idea why this is the case! It's interesting that Jim and I associate the colors differently - his sounds way more logical, to me!

February 10, 2012 at 10:38 PM · This is an interview with a local violinist who experiences synesthesia.

February 11, 2012 at 01:50 AM · You might want to check out Oliver Sacks "Musicophilia" which has some fascinating info about synesthesia...and other cool brain/music stuff!

February 11, 2012 at 05:29 AM · What suggestions would you make for me to teach him, guide him, make the most of his experience?

Smiles! Diane

February 11, 2012 at 05:48 AM · My daughter has it. When she was studying piano, there were certain note combinations that she hated because of the way they "looked" and she'd refuse to play them. I mentioned this to her teacher who said she didn't want to say anything to encourage my daughter because she thought it got in the way of my daughter progressing. One of the musicians interviewed in the "documentary" on the Philadelphia Orchestra, "Music from the Inside Out" had it, and she painted as a hobby to incorporate synesthesia into her creations. You might encourage your student to use it in some creative endeavor such as composing (my daughter's teacher encouraged all her students to compose) or painting/coloring.

February 14, 2012 at 12:54 PM · Yea I can tell you from the color point of view that the opening of Sibelius' FINLANDIA is one of the most horrifying looking pieces I've ever seen with regards to color. (And I'm an adult). For a long while, I didn't want to play it. The notes are a deep navy blue with black tinges around them, and they are literally torn off around the edges.

The first time I ever saw that piece the hair raised up on my arms and neck.

---Ann Marie

February 14, 2012 at 02:52 PM · Last night my student's Mom brought him to our orchestra rehearsal. He was so busy drawing that he broke off all his color pencil tips!!!

Smiles! Diane

February 14, 2012 at 04:48 PM · Lynae, you asked if sharps and flats make a difference for me. Now that I think of it, they do somewhat -- in keys, that is. For instance, the sharp keys -- like A, D, G -- seem brighter and stronger; whereas flat keys -- like Bb, Eb, Ab -- are more muted, less intense, maybe more pastel.

One case in point: the keys of A and Ab. To me, A is a very bright key -- I have the feeling of being out in full sunlight at mid-day or very early afternoon. On the other hand, Ab gives me a feeling of just as much sunlight on the scene but a little later in the afternoon -- 2:30 instead of 1:30 -- and a sense of viewing the sunlit scene from a quiet shady spot.

February 14, 2012 at 07:06 PM · Wow Jim that's creepy...that's how I see A and Ab. For me, F is orange. F# is more the color of a creamsicle.

---Ann Marie

February 14, 2012 at 08:24 PM · My son's teacher asked him to play something once and make it sound red -- then green, then blue. I thought she was bonkers.

February 16, 2012 at 12:25 AM · Here's an interesting article from BBC in connection with synesthesia:

This man can't see color, so he wears a device that allows him to "hear" it. It's kind of the reverse of what we've been talking about.

February 16, 2012 at 01:40 PM · I've read a bit about synesthesia but wonder why this is the only sensory link that is discussed. Are there people who get tactile sensations (other than with the violin of course) while playing - or smells or tastes? Excuse me being a scientist for a moment (my thought is not salacious) about erotic ones?

Perhaps there are. If not the fairly common experience of synesthesia (colour) would seem to indicate a close relationship between these sensory modalities in the brain. What then of the colour blind person (male or female)? Do they lack a means of musical sensation enjoyed by the norm? Or maybe they are subject to not colour but pattern (which colour blind people are particularly sensitive to) synesthesia?

Questions, questions...

February 16, 2012 at 08:52 PM · Maybe I'm getting the wrong idea when people tell me my playing stinks.

February 16, 2012 at 09:29 PM · Exactly my point (above). And permit me to repeat:

"There are very likely several sensory (kinesthetic-neurological-psychological) responses that music triggers in any given individual. Most of them are probably very subtle, and it is likely we don't even have names that can allow us to slap labels on them.

To me, as a psychologist and life-long music lover and musician (albeit amateur), it has always seemed that some of the emotional reactions many of us have to music have a physiological component, in that many of our "emotional" reactions are powerful because we actually have almost physical reactions.

Synesthesia is one of the few such reactions that has been identified because it so dramatic and so obviously cross-sensory."

February 16, 2012 at 11:41 PM · Thanks to you all for keeping the conversation going. My student's Mom and I are really soaking it all in.

Today she told me that 2 weeks ago she played a piece of music for her son and he drew while listening. She then waited and this week played the song again. Sure enough he used the exact same colors to draw his picture.

I have read about the other senses being paired. Probably the person who first coined the phrase "your sound stinks" had synesthesia!

Smiles! Diane

February 17, 2012 at 03:55 AM · One of my daughters has a strong "case" of synesthesia. I used to think she was making it up until I read Oliver Sack's book and realized that her description of her sensations were a so-called textbook case. She began playing violin before age 3 and became a fairly advanced violist. As a kid, and even into her teens when she was playing advanced literature and chamber music, she had difficulty sight-reading because of the visual interference. She is now working on a BFA in glass art and incorporates synesthetic concepts into her more conceptual art.

As for how to help your student, my daughter did develop a method to teach herself to sightread rhythms which incorporated her whole body (this was based on some ideas from an understanding chamber music coach.) She used Hawaiian poi balls, among other techniques.

Although she was naturally musically gifted, the reading part of music came to her with such a struggle that it helped her to become a more patient and inventive teacher (she teaches glass flame working to adults and to children as young as ten.)

She says that the way she perceived music (which she did not realize was unusual until she was nearly a teenager) has created challenges, but is also a sensory gift; she would not exchange this richness. Personally, I'd like to be able to sample perception in this added or intermingled dimension, if only for a few minutes.

February 17, 2012 at 09:48 AM · Tonight, I played with an amateur pit orchestra that failed to tune properly before the show. I felt like people were cutting me and rubbing me with lemon juice. All night long. It's three hours later, and I'm still trying to find some sort of salve to alleviate the pain. I go to bed, and these bad memories of misplaced pitches assult my brain and taint my sense of calm well-being.

I don't know if you could call this "synethsesia", but I despise labels, and like to view individuals for their own unique scope. Some people are very aware of the color and flavor of pitches and pitch combinations. It's both a gift and a curse.

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