Seeing sounds, hearing colors, part IV

We are in a holiday season during which many of us will eat too much, so I have been quite delighted to discover that for one synesthete, a major sixth tastes like low-fat cream – as opposed to a minor sixth that tastes like regular cream, or a major third that tastes sweet.  Don’t you love the idea of a low-fat musical interval!

This is an actual documented case of music – taste synesthesia, although it appears to be the only one of its kind (and if you want the reference, contact me).  Music usually triggers color in synesthesia and comes under the category of sound-color synesthesia (also called colored hearing or chromesthesia.   But many people with sound – color synesthesia have triggers other than music, such as a barking dog, or an ambulance siren, or the howling wind.  We know that about 4% of the population experiences synesthesia (one or more of the 152 kinds).  I haven’t found any consistent figures for the percentage of synesthetes whose experience involves music and color as opposed to general sounds and color; one study says 18% (of the 4%),  another 51%, so the jury is still out on that one.

And for those individuals who do experience music – color synesthesia, their experiences are vastly different from one another.  For some music-color synesthetes, color is triggered by the sounding pitch (A 440 is red, for example); for others by the pitch class (all A’s are red); sometimes by the key of the music (A major), or timbre, chords, kind of melody, instruments, emotion of the music, etc.

Researchers and authors who write about music-color synesthesia invariably talk about composers, and many of them mention nineteenth-century composers Nikolai color musicRimsky-Korsakov (1844-1908), who saw colors for musical keys, and Franz Liszt (1811-1886), who famously told the orchestra when he first began conducting at Weimar that they should make the music “a little bluer,” or a “deep violet.”  They thought at first that he was joking, but came to realize that he actually saw colors in the music.

Probably more is known about Olivier Messiaen’s (1908 – 1992) synesthesia than about that of any other composer because he spoke about it in interviews, he wrote about it – both in prefaces to compositions and in other writings, and he added color labels to specific sonorities in some of the scores.

In the preface to his The Technique of My Musical Language, Messiaen lists some of the sources for his music, including “birds, Russian music, Debussy’s Pelléas et Mélisande, plainchant, Hindu rhythmics, the mountains of Dauphiné, and, finally, all that evokes stain-glass window and rainbow.”  We look at that list and think it’s a very “colorful” list of musical sources.  But in spite of his synesthesia and his many references to it, Messiaen actually used color as a determinant of the structure in very few works.  Theorist Jonathan Bernard, now at the University of Washington, wrote a fascinating paper in the mid 1980s when he was at Yale detailing the correlations between sound and color in these works – which use the four of the seven modes of limited transposition that had specific color associations for Messiaen.*

Oliver Sacks has written in Musicophilia about Michael Torke, a present-day composer with synesthesia.  Torke (b. 1961) sees particular colors for different keys, meaning the key of D Major has a different color than D minor, and he can’t imagine having the kind of synesthesia he has without also having absolute pitch, which he also has.  He doesn’t see colors with isolated pitches or notes, but needs to hear either a chord or enough notes to indicate a key signature.  He doesn’t have synesthesia related to instruments, textures, mood, etc., but does have grapheme-color synesthesia (letters and numbers).  According to Sacks, when asked if synesthesia has made a difference in his life as a professional musician, Torke says no.  After his earliest orchestral music, which did have an explicit connection between color and key, he has not again made explicit use of his synesthesia in his compositions, and he says that having synesthesia is just normal for him.

Researchers don’t seem to discuss synesthete performers very much, although Wikipedia’s article entitled “List of people with synesthesia” mentions  Duke Ellington, Tori Amos, Hélène Grimaud, Billy Joel, Marian McPartland, and Ithzhak Perlman – all performers with various forms of music-color synesthesia (and all well-documented in the article).  What about the student performers that we met in the last post – Tom, Anissa, and Kelly?   All three have synesthesia related to music, but each experiences it in a different way, and like most synesthetes, they each have more than one form of synesthesia.

Kelly has grapheme-color synesthesia (sees colors with letters and numbers) and personality-color synesthesia (much more rare than sound-color).  Every letter of the alphabet has a color (“o” is black, “i” and ‘l” are light blue; “b” is purple).  She sees all of the individual colors in a word and compares seeing a word to seeing a kitchen that is painted in red, blue, and yellow.  You see the individual colors in the kitchen, but you still see the kitchen as a whole, and while she sees individual colors in a word, she still sees the word as a whole.   For Kelly, individual musical pitches have a color because they have a letter name; the F major scale is orange because “f” is orange.  Kelly plays the piano and the clarinet, and she likes to improvise because chord progressions have a color – not the chords themselves, but the progression.

Soprano Anissa, Kelly’s cousin, also has grapheme-color synesthesia – letters and numbers have colors, as do personalities (To Anissa, I am apparently light blue with periwinkle; when she told me that a mutual friend is purple, I understood perfectly why that friend would be purple to my blue – even though I don’t see the colors.) For Anissa, “a” is always pink, “i” is always yellow, but the color of “b” changes according to the context.  Singing and speaking voices have color for Anissa, as do instrumental timbres. I find it particularly interesting that Anissa likes classical music as opposed to country or rock because it is more colorful to her due to the complex mix of instrumental timbres.

Tom sees colors related to musical textures, to instruments, to voices.  A tenor himself, Tom sees Luciano Pavarotti’s voice as a bright, bright yellow, Placido Domingo’s voice as maroon, and Rockwell Blake’s as gold.  Tom speculates as to whether the color influences the fact that he prefers Blake’s voice.  Although certain instruments have colors (French horns are maroon; flutes are bluish), the color of the orchestra is not related to the individual instruments, but to the overall emotion, texture and timbre.   Tom says that one difficulty of synesthesia for him is that voice teachers often speak in terms of lighter or darker voices when they would like him to achieve a particular effect, but Tom actually sees a color and it doesn’t always coincide with someone else’s view of light or dark.

Michael Torke says he can’t imagine the kind of synesthesia he has without having absolute pitch.  Tom, Anissa, and Kelly do not have absolute pitch.  Is there a relationship between absolute pitch and synesthesia?

Researchers in the Department of Neurology at Beth Israel Medical Center and Harvard Medical School published a study in 2012 that suggests that AP and synesthesia may be two sides of the same coin.  In an fMRI study that looked at areas of the brain that were activated during music listening by some subjects with AP, and by others with synesthesia, they discovered that there were both shared and distinct neural areas in AP and synesthesia.  They seem to share neural mechanisms (that are in addition to those found in non-APs and non-synesthetes) in the early stages of sensory processing.  Then in the higher stages of processing, there is a leftward asymmetry in AP and rightward asymmetry in synesthetes.  For those inclined to go to the source, the citation is given below.**

If you prefer more general reading, however, I can suggest two books.  Oliver Sacks’s Musicophilia has an excellent chapter, “The Key of Clear Green,” about music-color synesthesia.  V.S. Ramachandran’s book The Tell-Tale Brain has a wonderful chapter about synesthesia titled “Loud Colors and Hot Babes.”  He doesn’t talk much about music-color synesthesia, but he takes the reader through his own process of discovering synesthesia, gives case-studies of individuals who possess synesthesia, and talks about his development of the now-standard tests for synesthesia.  Because Ramachandran seems, at heart, to be a philosopher, he also leads the reader to the suggestion that the study of synesthesia may be a crack in the door to the larger mystery of consciousness and the self.

Happy reading!

And wonderful wishes for a New Year filled with music and peace!

I’ll be back in 2014!

More reading:
*Bernard, J. W. (Fall, 1986). Messiaen’s synaesthesia:  the correspondence between color and sound structure in his music.  Music Perception 4(1), 41 – 68.

**Loui, P., Zamm, A., & Schlaug, G. (2012). Absolute pitch and synesthesia:  two sides of the same coin?  Shared and distinct neural substrates of music listening.  ICMPC, 2012, 618-623.


2 responses to “Seeing sounds, hearing colors, part IV”

  1. Avatar

    Wonderful post, Lois, and a wonderful Season for you and Peter, as well.

    1. Lois Avatar

      Thanks, Loren. And happy holidays to you and Jane as well!