Synesthesia: Seeing Sound

Posted by AJ Harbison at 3:14 am

I found a news link on CNN.com last week about synesthesia, a mental disorder that mixes sensory experiences. The most common form and the easiest to diagnose is when someone hears music or sounds and simultaneously sees colors. The article’s opening paragraph says this: “When Julian Asher listens to an orchestra, he doesn’t just hear music; he also sees it. The sounds of a violin make him see a rich burgundy color, shiny and fluid like a red wine, while a cello’s music flows like honey in a golden yellow hue.”

“Seeing color in sounds has genetic link”

Vladimir Nabokov, the author of “Lolita,” famously had this condition, which the study in the article has linked to genetics. There have also been a number of famous composers who had the disorder, notably Franz Lizst, Olivier Messiaen, György Ligeti, and (particularly) Alexander Scriabin. The linked Wikipedia article sheds doubt on the fact that Scriabin actually had the disorder, although he is known for associating colors with notes and keys. In his work Prometheus: The Poem Of Fire, composed in 1910, he actually wrote a part for a “color organ” which projected colors during the performance.

Since I was young, I’ve associated colors with keys as well (although I certainly don’t have synesthesia), but my associations are completely different from Scriabin’s. The Wikipedia article mentions a conversation between Scriabin and Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov: “Both maintained that the key of D major was golden-brown; but Scriabin linked E-flat major with red-purple, while Rimsky-Korsakov favored blue.” These all sound foreign to my color sense. This is how I’ve always thought:

C major: yellow (the color of light)
D major and D minor: deep blue
E-flat major: orange
E major and E minor: orange
F major: green
G major: light blue
A-flat major: red
A major and A minor: red

(Obviously it’s an incomplete list. I’ve never taken the time or had the inclination to sit down and work out a system, the way Scriabin did; these are just the particular keys that have always struck me in particular ways.)

Thus you may see the connection in the bridal processional I wrote for my wedding, where C major represented purity and innocence and A major represented passion.

It’s certainly an interesting topic. Any readers out there with synesthesia that would care to weigh in?



  1. Gravatar

    Desha on 02.24.2009

    I must be severely dissynesthetic because I have NEVER gotten color impressions in the slightest from music. I’ve tried from time to time to start associating colors to keys or tones because I’ve heard of other composers or musicians that think that way, but it just doesn’t compute for me.

    I did see a very interesting documentary on a gentleman who has a related condition. When he does math in his head he doesn’t see numbers, he sees shapes. He does highly complex math in his head. For example, he can recite Pi to the 22,000th digit (took several hours to recite it). He thinks of Pi and his mind sees shapes, and he then recites the numbers associated with those shapes.

    Freaky. Crazy. Amazing. Frecrazing.

    Congratulations on the nuptials, btw!

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    Idhrendur on 02.25.2009

    If I do anything of this sort at all, it’s with spatial relationships. I tend to think in 3D space (without color, or often, exact form, just position) rather well. And my primary instruments are the keyboard percussion instruments (xylo, vibes, bells, etc). When I figure out a musical line, I do so by mentally mapping it to the positions of the keys on a keyboard. As to what extent that’s my familiarity with the instruments, and to what extent my predisposition towards spatial thought, who knows?

  3. Gravatar

    Rauta Tanwënya on 02.26.2009

    I can't believe with all the ranting you do about your lovely girlfriend/fiancée that you didn't mention THE DAY AFTER that you just got married! Crazy man.

    As far as seeing sounds, it sounds like it would be an interesting experience… until someone listening to R&B or Trans pulls up next to me when I'm driving and I start seeing strobe lights. That would really stink. Perhaps in controlled conditions.

    I don't know if you've heard of organizations that transcribe music into lights to be performed for the Hard of Hearing and Deaf. I wonder if the study of synesthesia has influenced that at all?

    It's all so interesting.

    -your newly cousin

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