Synesthesia and the Musical Experience

Written by: Darren Johnson

What does the number seven smell like? Can you taste purple? Despite what you might think, I’m not talking about the result of some out of class *cough* “research” that you may have done in college; I’m referring to a phenomenon known as synesthesia. This is a rare neurological condition in which a person experiences a cross-wiring of two or more senses during their daily lives. For example, the most common form is people associating numbers and months with colors. Is the number five red to you? Is August green? If so, you may experience synesthesia.

Image1Some defining characteristics of this condition are that your crossings are consistent, and they can’t be turned off. If you see August as green, it’s always green and trying to imagine it as yellow feels terribly wrong. Unlike people without synesthesia who may be able to imagine August as green, people with this condition automatically see August as green; to them the two are intrinsically linked. People with synesthesia (called synesthetes) might have different experiences among one another. A synesthete who sees a green August could get in a heated debate with somebody who sees a yellow one. The people reported to have synesthesia are few (around 1 in 10,000) and if you have one form of it, you’re likely to have others as well.

I first learned about synesthesia around a month ago, when I was talking to a friend of mine about how a 6/8 time signature has a different “shape” than a 4/4 time signature. His response was along the lines of: “Dude, I have no idea what you’re talking about.” After a while of asking questions and tapping out beats on a table (boom boom tap, ba doom ba doom tap… “You don’t see that?”) I realized that I was identifying with sounds differently. I did a quick Google search of “Sounds have shapes,” and boom… the vast and interesting topic of synesthesia came to my attention. After 21 years of being alive, I discovered that it’s not ordinary to see shapes when you hear music.

Pharrell is musician with color-sound synesthesia.

Pharrell is musician with color-sound synesthesia.

How does this connect to musicians? Well, synesthetes are known to make metaphorical connections to abstractions, the basis for creativity. In fact, synesthesia is expected to be eight times more common in the artist population. An example of a musician who had synesthesia is Jimi Hendrix, who related harmonies and melodies to colors. He would refer to his classic E7#9 chord as “the purple chord.” Another is Pharrell Williams, who sees music as a moving set of various colors. He describes his hit song “Happy” as “Yellow, red, a little pink, a little rainbowy…”

Something I’ve learned from this topic is that we all have very different perceptions of reality. A song that I love may be a song that you hate and vice versa, and that’s because two people can experience the same piece of art in completely different ways. What’s wonderful about this is that it shows us how every artist has a big contribution to make. No matter what you create, there is somebody out there who will love it and feel that it relates to them in a strong way. So have fun, keep creating and playing!

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If you think you may be a synesthete, you can do an initial test at this site: http://www.synesthete.org.

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One thought on “Synesthesia and the Musical Experience

  1. Darren – Great article! I’m a “synthie”, too – sound, motion, touch. Would love to talk with you about your experiences sometime, if you’re interested. (Located on the Central Coast, as well.) mjreep yahoo.

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