Chromesthesia: Listening to Music in Colour
Do you see letters and numbers in colours only visible to you; for instance, is your “S” a cerulean blue or is it more of a watermelon pink? Maybe a rockmelon orange? Can you actually taste pennies on the tip of your tongue when you hear the word “blood,” or is it just the word “croissant” that seems to coat your mouth with butter? Are the days of the week spatially organised in your mind, with Tuesday floating all the way to the top and Sunday drifting lazily to the side? Well, then, you just may be part of the teeny, tiny human population that has been blessed (or cursed, if you see it that way) with the neurological phenomenon, known simply as synaesthesia.
Synaesthesia is basically the jumbling of the senses; grapheme-to-colour synesthetes view letters and numbers in a colourful shade (or even a tinge or surrounded by an aura), lexical-gustatory synesthestes can actually taste words (it’s the Harry Potter Bertie Botts Beans come to life), and spatial sequence synesthetes perceive months, dates, and/or numbers as points in space. These types of synaesthesia may seem bonkers to you, but, for those who know they have it, it’s not as crazy as one may think. Trust me, I would know. But, would you believe me if I told you chromesthesia is apparent in our world-famous musicians, from Maggie Rogers and Kanye West to Duke Ellington and Billy Joel? Chromesthesia is the neurological phenomenon of seeing colours through sound.
Whose to know what Maggie Rogers saw in creating “Alaska,” or what Billy Joel colourfully imagined when bringing to life “Uptown Girl”? The world may never know, but it’s worth learning about chromesthesia and how some listen to music in a rainbow of colour!
Keep in mind that professionally crafted music is not the only source that triggers chromesthesia. The mere slamming of a door, people talking, and a car alarm blaring are enough to induce chromesthesia. According to Dr. Richard Cytowic, a neurologist, chromesthesia is “something like fireworks”: a bombardment of voice, music, and assorted environmental sounds that set off coloured shapes that arise, move around, and then fade when the sound ends. Cytowic isn’t wrong; this is his own perception of chromesthesia.
But, he isn’t right either. For Deni Simon, music generates waving lines “like oscilloscope configurations – lines moving in colour, often metallic with height, width and, most importantly, depth. [Their] favorite music has lines that extend horizontally beyond the ‘screen’ area.”
Truthfully, the world of synaesthesia, especially in regards to chromesthesia, is a world of fantasia. France Musique paints how chromesthesia “results in specific sounds, pitches and timbres generating corresponding colours and textures in the field of vision (or, as some describe it, in the ‘mind’s eye’).” How the condition manifests is entirely personal, a private embodiment of how that person’s mind reacts to the senses of sound and sight; the colours differ from person to person: the sound a B flat key makes could be a line green or a canary yellow.
Once again, France Musique reports that “whereas Ligeti saw major chords as a shade of red and pink, and minor chords a shade of green and brown, Rimsky-Korsakov saw major chords such as C Major as white, and B Major a dark metallic blue. As for Duke Ellington, chords on the note D evoked a dark blue burlap and, on the note G, he had a glimpse of a light-blue satin.” And, continuing on that note (no pun intended), musical genius didn’t just stop with classical artists: “When Pharrell Williams listened to Earth, Wind & Fire as a kid, he saw burgundy or baby blue. For Kanye West, pianos are blue, snares are white, and basslines are dark brown and purple. Orange is a big one for Frank Ocean.”
But, anyone can be diagnosed with chromesthesia, not just artists. I, a fellow synesthete with grapheme-to-colour, spatial sequence, and ordinal linguistic personification, never imagined I had synaesthesia – until two years ago. I turned up the volume on my Volkswagen’s radio to listen to the “throwback” tunes being played; The Cure’s “Friday I’m in Love” rang through the speakers, and the first beats I perceived were a rainbow of blue spirals, purple blobs, and pink fireworks. I was fully immersed in the world of music and colour while sat in my car, my emotions (mostly incredulity) getting the best of me.
So, maybe, give that task a try: sit in your car and mess with the radio until a song pops up. You might find your favourite song evokes multiple shades and hues, or it could just be that you can’t imagine any such colours; but, at least you now know about the hush-hush community of synesthetes that see the world a bit differently than most.
If you want to read more about the neurological phenomenon that is synaesthesia, you can read about it here. And, if you’re up for the challenge, you can discover if you have chromesthesia through this Nautilus test.
I hope you’ll see the world as colourful as I (and a handful of celebrities) do.