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< Reflections on Aaron Copland's "Lincoln Portrait" | Main | Two *very* different Poulenc vids >

Seeing music -- synesthesia

Posted at 5:53 PM on February 15, 2009 by Fred Child (11 Comments)


For some synesthetes, months have color. For others, numbers have shapes. Others taste words.

So...what is synesthesia?

Here's what Richard Cytowic says:

"Synesthesia is an involuntary joining in which the real information of one sense is accompanied by a perception in another sense. In addition to being involuntary, this additional perception is regarded by the synesthete as real, often outside the body, instead of imagined in the mind's eye."
(R. Cytowic, "Synesthesia: A Union of the Senses.")


On Monday's show, we're devoting a full hour to synesthesia...in particular, to people who see colors when they hear music.

Curiously, the experience is different for every synesthete. This diagram shows the connections that Russian composer Alexander Scriabin had between musical keys and colors. (Click on the diagram to see a bigger version.) For him, D Major was yellow.

But that was only Scriabin's experience. American composer Michael Torke told me about his experience: D Major is blue, G Major is yellow. (To hear my entire conversation with Torke, check out the PT synesthesia page. This page also has my entire conversation with Dr. Oliver Sacks, and links to much more info about synesthesia.)

Think you might have synesthesia? Test yourself here.

If letters, numbers, or words trigger colors for you, these Canadian researchers would like to hear from you.

A researcher at Cal Tech stumbled across this...apparently about 3% of people hear sounds when watching these moving dots.

If you hear things when watching that video, these folks at Cal Tech might like to hear from you.

Here's an entertaining video from the Discovery Channel. Sean Day likes to eat chicken with ice cream and orange sauce -- not for the flavor, but for the floating blue cloud he sees.

If you'd like to spend the rest of your day on synesthesia, check out the links here.

I'm afraid my senses are discreet...I don't have this experience at all. If you do, leave a comment, I'm *SO* curious about this. After reading up on it in preparation for Monday's show, and after talking to a couple of people who have it, I feel inferior. Or at least...deprived.

Comments ( 11 )

Dear Fred,
Surely music, with its inherent prime attributes of melody and rhythm fosters moods rather than colors. Perhaps syncopated sounds like those of Torke (sp ?) which you played this morning evoke images of color for those who prefer unmelodic 'music'.
Hope you may keep the modernist sounds to your Friday sessions - in a sense complementing casual Fridays - as there is so little really fine music broadcast on NPR affiliates at other times. In particular, the vocal repertoire is so overlooked, and hardly in balance with instrumental offerings anywhere.
Would appreciate hearing why NPR / American Public Media are so taken with Copeland as the representative American composer. Feel that Williams or Glass or Rogers for that matter are more representative.
My favorite NPR affiliate is WDAV in Davidson, NC by Charlotte which I support.
Truly yours,
Don Paterson
Taylors, SC

Posted by Don Paterson | February 16, 2009 10:59 AM

Dear Fred,
I very much enjoyed your program today and it sparks a couple of questions:
1) I've heard that for some synesthetes, numbers and letters can have individual colors. It seems that the synesthete can have an advantage in games such as "find the hidden word" because they can not only search for the letter, but also by the color of the letters! So, might a synesthete possibly see musical notation in color?
2) I've heard that some synethetes have stronger powers of recall because they have a whole additional "index" against which to store and retrieve information. So, could a musical synesthete use this to his advantage in memorizing and performing?
BTW, What about mentally "seeing" numbers, arranged in ranks, such that when doing simple addition and subtraction, on can say add 12 by advancing a rank and shifting two places?
Just curious,
Trip Clarke
Richmond, VA

Posted by Trip Clarke | February 16, 2009 7:06 PM

@ Trip Clarke -

If you're interested, check out Fred's full interview with Oliver Sacks on the Synesthesia page - Sacks addresses the advantage that synesthestes have in distinguishing 5s from Ss, for example. He uses it as one method (among many) for testing for synesthesia.


Also, Michael Torke addresses the relationship between his perfect pitch and his synesthesia - just as you describe, as an additional index by which he can distinguish keys.

You can listen to the interviews or check out the transcripts

Posted by Alex Coppock | February 17, 2009 11:34 AM

What is the source for the Scriabin diagram? I'm learning one of his preludes and am curious about what color E minor was for him.

Laura Friedman

Posted by Laura Friedman | February 17, 2009 6:23 PM


That diagram comes from a 2001 article in the journal "Leonardo," published by the MIT Press. Actually, that entire edition of Leonardo was devoted to the subject of synesthesia...you can order a copy here:

http://www.mitpressjournals.org/doi/abs/10.1162/00240940152549357 .

The authors suggest that Scriabin was not a true synesthete, that his connection between keys and colors wasn't immediate and involuntary, but more metaphorical.

And...hmmm...now that you mention it, that diagram only mentions major keys. Does that mean e minor was orange for Scriabin, like the relative major, G Major?

Posted by Fred Child | February 18, 2009 10:50 AM


To answer your first question...yes indeed "grapheme-color" synesthesia is the condition of seeing letters and/or numbers in color. Here's an interesting interview with someone who has it: http://www.colourlovers.com/blog/2009/01/06/seeing-colors-grapheme-color-synesthesia . Never heard of someone seeing music notation in color, but...let's put the question out there! And the same with your second question...I'm curious to hear from our synesthetic friends.


Posted by Fred Child Author Profile Page | February 18, 2009 11:20 AM


"Surely music, with its inherent prime attributes of melody and rhythm fosters moods rather than colors." For most of us, yes. But true music-color synesthetes don't have a choice in the matter: when they hear music, they see colors. It's not an act of choice or will, it just happens.

Not sure I'd say Copland is "the representative American composer." He's a great one, and I love much of his work. But as you note, there are so many others...! We try to give them all their due on Performance Today. (As we do with vocal music -- we play significantly more vocal music than many public radio music shows.)


Posted by Fred Child Author Profile Page | February 18, 2009 11:25 AM

To all the friends of PT: given the response we've gotten to our synesthesia show, we will re-broadcast the entire hour this coming Monday, the 23rd. Thanks for all your emails and phone calls!


Posted by Fred Child Author Profile Page | February 18, 2009 11:27 AM

Great show on an incredible subject.

Do college experiences with Pink Floyd count? Just wondering.

Fascinating subject. Great job.

Jim Lange

Posted by Jim Lange | February 23, 2009 9:27 AM

Dear Fred,

I can answer one of the listener questions you read on your show today. Synesthesia with pitches doesn't mean perfect pitch! My images are mostly lighter for high notes and darker for low notes. The differences between notes even a whole step apart are small, I can't necessarily remember the exact shade of a previous note, the timbre affects the lightness and darkness, and I can't "look closely". I'm very far from having perfect pitch.

In fact, the synesthesia may interfere. I'm particularly bad at matching my voice to a piano or tuning a guitar to a piano because the colors, shapes, and textures are so different.

Not to jump to any conclusions about experiences with Pink Floyd (a favorite of mine), but I believe there are artificial means of experiencing synesthesia, though the results aren't consistent the way innate synesthesia is.

On another subject, I've noticed that you play more vocal music than most classical shows and I'm grateful, but I agree with Don Paterson in wishing you would play still more--as much as piano or violin music, maybe. (Caruso and Pavarotti were golden brown, yellow in the high notes. Domingo is almost as blackish as a bass.)

Posted by Jerry Friedman | February 26, 2009 5:15 PM

Hi, Fred,

My awareness of synesthesia links back to when I began reading and writing prior to attending school. Letters and numbers always appeared to me in color. As a pianist with absolute pitch, I loved the additional dimension synesthesia provided my experience. While playing I could "see" weaving of colored threads representing pitches and harmonies. Like fiber art, an image holds many textures reflecting the composer's rhythmic and articulative uses.

Now, because of a repetitive stress injury linked to an auto immune disorder, I no longer play. But when I turn pages for visiting pianists at our performing arts center, I see color both on the page and surrounding us on stage. Listening to opera is especially stimulating. Synesthesia has softened the loss of being able to perform.

I'm so glad you brought this topic and Dr. Sacks' perspective to a wide audience. Musicophilia was a wonderful supplement I used when teaching a continuing ed course on Chopin to non-musicians last year. And learning in the past three or four years that others share experiences similar to my own has deepened my gratitude for our global community.

Marj McKinty

Posted by Marj McKinty | February 27, 2009 12:08 PM

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