Imagine seeing sounds, hearing colours, or tasting words. It is not something that everyone will experience in their life, but this is called saynesthesia, which is experienced by only about four percent of the world’s population – myself included.
What is synesthesia? It is a “sensation produced in one modality when a stimulus is applied to another modality, as when the hearing of a certain sound induces the visualization of a certain colour.” (Dictionary.com). In layman’s terms, it is an involuntary experience of one sense that is triggered by the stimulation of another.
There are two main forms of synesthesia: projective and associative. People who project see actual colors, forms, or shapes when stimulated, while associators “feel” a connection between the senses being triggered. There are, of course, also those who experience both forms, depending on the stimuli.
The most common form of synesthesia is Grapheme-Colour; where individual letters and numbers have its own color or shade. Another common form, and the one that I experience, is referred to as Chromesthesia and is the association of sounds with colors. There is a form of synesthesia for every combination of the senses that you can imagine, and not all have to do with seeing colours, but that is what we are going to focus on.
Living with Chromesthesia is different for each person. Some describe it as silent fireworks, some as lines of living color. For me, it has always been a little of both and is something that, until three or four years ago, I thought everyone experienced. Music has always triggered color for me; be it singing, instrumental, etc. Not every Synesthete (person with synesthesia) experiences the same sound and color combinations, either. For example, the key of D minor is to me a deep forest green, whereas to my former college professor, it is a shade of opaque yellow (I don’t want to say he is wrong, but he’s wrong. It’s green. Sorry, Doc.).
When I experience music – regardless of whether I am playing or listening – I both see and feel a color association. I once described “Can’t Stop the Feeling” by Justin Timberlake as “walking through a warm rainbow” because that is the only description for what the song feels like to me. It is a very colorful song, filled with warm shades of greens and blues and reds and yellows and it is nearly impossible for me to not be happy when I hear/see it.
Vivaldi’s Four Seasons is a flurry of deep oranges and reds, while “Nocturne op. 9 No. 2” by Chopin is a pond of periwinkle blue ripples. “Moonlight Sonata” by Beethoven is five different shades of round purple things, and Glen Miller’s “Moonlight Serenade” is cotton grey.
Music that is very dissonant (harsh, clashing, etc.) can be unpleasant. Say there are two horn players, each playing a middle C. Now, have horn 1 stay on middle C and horn 2 move up a half step to C sharp. This is now a minor second, a dissonant chord that is going to sound rather jarring, and is going to look the same. The notes are only a half step away from each other, and in my mind resembles two similarly (but differently) shaded gears, trying to mesh together and being close, but not quite making it. Even if horn 2 then went back down to middle C, their tone quality has now been compromised, and they are going to be playing an overtone – so the two brown gears are now painfully close to being one, but are still pulling apart and making me twitchy.
As a performing musician, sometimes playing with an ensemble can be difficult; the colors can be so vibrant that it is difficult to see through, or can be physically painful if there is not a clean tone. With every sound having its own color, louder sounds tend to dominate my visual field which can be incredibly overwhelming. The loud, shrill sound of a fire alarm is not only incredibly unpleasant to listen to, but it has almost always obscured part – if not all – of my vision. There were times in school when I actually remember having troubles exiting the building during a fire drill because I could barely see.
Illness impacts my other senses as well. If you have ever had a high fever, you know that the temperature can cause an altered perception of reality. Daily activities can become more difficult, as everything looks and feels off. A bad ear infection makes it more difficult to hear what is happening, causing the affected person to feel somewhat deafened. Having sound-color synesthesia and an ear infection results in me not only losing my hearing temporarily, but my colors are then altered for the duration of the infection, which can be both confusing and physically handicapping.
In the mix of colors I see in my day to day life, there are a few shades that I don’t see very often. Not a lot of things are beige – which maybe is a good thing? – and not a lot of things are white or black. There is a deep shade of blue that I can only recall seeing associated with three things – and it’s certainly my favorite. It is both projective and associative and has almost always resulted in a sensory overload (in a good way!) of warmth and euphoria.
On the flip side of things, I have noticed with electronic music (EDM, techno, whatever you want to call it) I see more combinations of colors, but they are dimmer, and not as vibrant, which is the complete opposite from my friend Sam’s experience, where EDM is bright and crazy, “like an intense acid trip” (not that he knows what that’s like, of course).
Synesthesia is wonderful. It can also be awful at times. But mostly, it is the only way I know things, and I can not imagine a life of not hearing in color.
For your colorful viewing pleasure, I give you “Rhapsody in Blue”: https://youtu.be/qWJ-kGuOA_Q