Update: 22 November, 2021 — I have a podcast that is devoted to the subject of synesthesia and includes a conversation with Lisa Hickman (a fellow synesthete). You can find it at this link: “Comparing Notes on Synesthesia.”
7 July 2020
Yes, I have synesthesia: a neurological condition in which stimuli experienced in one sensory pathway (such as sight) triggers an involuntary response through a different cognitive or sensory pathway (such as sound or smell). More specifically, I have chromesthesia: one of the most common forms of synesthesia in which sound evokes very distinct images of color. I also have auditory-tactile synesthesia, which means that I associate sounds with specific textures. This is one of the rarest forms of synesthesia. In addition, I experience spatial-sequence synesthesia, through which numbers occupy geometrically shaped 3-D spaces in my mind. For me these are always in motion, as if they are floating in zero gravity. Musically, I find myself inside the shape, so I’m surrounded by it and sensing it more than I’m seeing it; far more subjective than objective.
My color and texture response is always interconnected. Every color I hear has an unmistakable texture, although these textures can vary within a single color, for instance blue isn’t always a smooth tile surface — it can also feel like tree bark to me, or tread on a tennis shoe.
My students can tell you that I often describe tone in terms of color. I frequently ask them to “add a little more navy blue” to their sound, or I show them two books on my shelf and say “this is the color I hear from you now, but this is the color I want you to shoot for.” I refer to color or texture very naturally when describing sound, and sometimes forget this isn’t a common (or even logical) perception for most people. I feel as if I’m always learning to navigate and translate between my world and “the norm.” My students, friends, and family are used to this from me, but I have to be especially mindful when I’m working as a guest artist or clinician somewhere.
Weirdos at School
Not surprisingly, synesthesia is associated with high intelligence, although most synesthetes struggle to learn basic concepts in the traditional manner. Hence, we tend to feel pretty stupid a lot of the time. It’s like saying something over and over, but no one understands you. My concept of numbers is deeply associated with 3 dimensional images, which is why geometry was much easier for me to learn than algebra. I could solve algebra problems in my head, but I struggled with the “correct” process of showing my work. With regard to music, I was in middle/junior high school when I began to realize that other people weren’t hearing/seeing/feeling what I was hearing/seeing/feeling, and it was quite a strange and isolating experience. My brother heard color as well, and we began to discover this was an anomaly at about the same time. Until then, we thought our experience was normal because we hadn’t really tried to discuss music with anyone except each other. Once we were in public school music classes and expected to describe what we heard, we realized our language was gibberish to the rest of the world. Gary and I were always close, but once we realized our experience was unique, our bond became even stronger. There was always this pervasive feeling that we were different — and that’s pretty unsettling for adolescents. It would have been comforting to know there were others like us, and that what we experienced was really a gift.
For many years, I reluctantly learned everyone else’s music vocabulary. It made sense to me, but it seemed quite inefficient. Why should I have to describe tonal centers and chord qualities in terms of numbers, letters, and labels when it would be just as easy to call it a “brick red triangle” or “canary yellow sphere?” I don’t really compose from a music theory perspective. It is all color and texture in my head so, I basically transcribe that into notation on staff paper. I ended up being a theory wiz-kid through both graduate degrees, but the path would have been much more agreeable for me had I understood early on just how my brain was functioning.
The “Aha” Moment
While completing my doctorate in conducting, I developed a system for marking my scores that involved color. The primary reason for this was my failing eyesight. I struggled to see the instrument markings on the page, so it seemed a logical solution to mark cues in the colors I had long associated with instrument families in my brain. The photo at the top of this page shows the score coloring system I have used for over 25 years: blue = voices, orange = woodwinds, purple = brass, yellow = percussion, and green = strings. I now understand that this system is also very efficient for me. If I read instrument names, there’s a quick translation that has to happen before my brain registers what the instrument sounds like. For a split second, I translate that word into a color. But, by coloring my scores at the outset, I bypass the translation because the color immediately triggers the right instrument group in my head.
As recently as 2015, I was helping my daughter, Abby with a research project on the paintings of Wassily Kandinsky. She showed me his treatise describing the sound-to-color associations he experienced while listening to music. I was astounded to find that this early 20th Century artist heard music the same way I did! Not only was he hearing color, but his instrument associations to color were almost identical to my own. Abby clued me in on some of what she had learned about synesthetes and I realized I fit the description. She asked me to create a composition based on his magnum opus titled “Several Circles” using the color associations from his treatise. It began as an experiment to see if I could help people hear Kandinsky’s painting the way he did. For me, this was easy because I had been composing this way for decades. Now, I just had to transcribe/compose someone else’s images instead of my own. I finished and fully orchestrated the piece in a day, and enjoyed the process so much that I asked Abby to select two more Kandinsky works for me to compose so I could create an entire orchestral suite based on his works. If you’re curious, follow this link to my page about the Kandinsky Suite. I have also composed a piano duo that directly explores some of my own sound-to-color concepts. You can read about it and hear the piece at this page: Tapestry.
Since then, I’ve studied a lot about synesthesia and so many things are now clear about the way my brain processes sound and numbers. It is a great relief to know there’s a reason I’ve felt so misunderstood most of my life and that there are others like me. In fact, most chromesthetes are composers and visual artists. I have recently begun learning how I connect numbers to my physical environment and the way I perceive what I see in front of me. Subconsciously, this has played an important role in my stage directing for years, and is partly why I have always been fascinated by numerology and dance. The really cool thing I’m beginning to discover is how my spatial-sequence association intersects with my musical perception. While I hear things like instrumental timbres and tonal centers as ribbons or flashes of color and texture, I also hear musical intervals, meters, and rhythmic gestures as geometric shapes. Somehow my mind marries all these elements together happily. With so much stimuli in my brain, is it any wonder that I am constantly seeking new musical experiences? People are often baffled (and sometimes frustrated) that I seem so singularly focused on music, sometimes to the exclusion of all else. In a way, music is like a drug for me, so I have to intentionally pull myself away to prep for classes, grade exams, spend time with family, sleep, or even eat.
How rare is synesthesia? Four percent of humans are synesthetes and interestingly, most are female. Most synesthetes experience multiple forms of the condition. Neurologists suspect the percentage of synesthetes is higher among persons on the autism spectrum, although communication delays among autistics make reliable data difficult (if not impossible) to collect. I have a daughter with autism, so I understand how this is likely. Synesthesia is also thought to be an inherited condition. Interestingly, my brother Gary was color-blind, and heard color much more vividly than he could see it.
Do You See What I Hear?
All synesthetes experience stimuli a little differently. My brother’s experience was very pitch specific, meaning every pitch had a distinct color. Looking back at what he described to me, the shades or brilliance of each color was dictated by the frequency (or register) of the pitch as well as the instrument producing the sound. His color associations seemed to have a very specific vertical hierarchy. For me, music is more linear, like a tapestry of interwoven colored threads. While most timbres have a consistent base color for me, there are a vast array of hues, tints, and gradients that come into play. Much of this depends upon the other colors that are present in a given moment, because they blend together or reflect off one another constantly. Texture of sound plays a key role. Some surfaces are porous while others are hard and reflective, or even more liquid than solid. This all occurs within the context of geometric shapes that intersect with one another (sort of like rooms connected by doorways or corridors, but less segmented) and are defined by numeric elements such as intervals, rhythms, meters, and tonal centers.
Finally, for those who want to understand more about what I see and feel when I listen to music, the list below might help. I have a composer friend with whom I exchange new compositions pretty regularly. Below are a few of my stream-of-consciousness synesthetic reactions to a concerto he shared with me just a few days ago. My message to him wasn’t entirely in this language — but, these color/texture-specific excerpts offer a glimpse of what happens in my mind as I’m listening. My friend is not a synesthete, but he understands that I am.
Please feel free to comment here if you have questions, or would like to share your own encounters with synesthetes or synesthesia.