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Seeing music -- Synesthesia

Posted at 9:46 AM on February 23, 2009 by Fred Child (4 Comments)

We originally broadcast our synesthesia show on President's Day. That was a holiday, so we're re-broadcasting the show this Monday, on a regular weekday.

(Comments and my responses from last week here.)



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 ( 4 )

As a watercolorist I'm fascinated. I wonder. Does a synesthete composer (like Bernstein) have to be careful about the colors of music he combines?

For example, in painting, mixing complementary colors (opposites on the color wheel, i.e., blue & orange)can result in a muddy neutral color. what happens in music? It's an intriguing idea.

Posted by Ann Higgins | February 23, 2009 1:03 PM

Fred --- I love your show.

It brings so much peace and happiness into my daily life. I can only compare its effect with the effect that meditating on the Christian Bible has me or in reading great literature. Well done. You have created a great oasis in the desert of the modern world.

Posted by Peter Muer | February 25, 2009 12:12 PM

Since this ability / condition of linking colors and music is, by

your admission, rare haven't you spent enough time exploring

this on air? Enough already.

Posted by Max Young | February 26, 2009 9:49 AM

For people interested in music and the senses,I would recommend the following book:
Musicophilia:Tales of Music and the Brain
by Oliver Sacks.

Posted by R.W.Brustjr,M.D. | February 26, 2009 6:32 PM

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