Imagine if every time you listened to music in high octaves, you immediately saw pale lavender. Or while listening to lower octaves, you saw deep blue, and rapid major chord sequences elicited rapid flashes of colors. These are symptoms of one specific form of synesthesia—chromesthesia. Synesthesia is a neurological condition in which stimulation of one sense triggers another. In chromesthesia, sounds heard automatically and involuntarily evoke color experiences. Chromesthesia occurs in only about 1 in 3,000 people, including a remarkable number of famous painters and musicians, such as Pharrell Williams (1973—), Leonard Bernstein (1918—1990), Duke Ellington (1899—1974), Vincent Van Gogh (1853—1890), and Wassily Kandinsky (1866—1944), who used Wagner’s Lohengrin to help create wild, crazy lines of color. Pharrell Williams views his chromesthesia as an indispensable gift and the secret behind his music, fundamental to his creative processes.
The same categories of synesthetes who see alphanumerical figures in color exist for those who hear in color: projectors are people who perceive color in the external space and associators are persons who perceive color in their minds. Some individuals with chromesthesia find it to be much more than just perceptual. Some have chromesthesia with any kind of sound; others have it with specific types of sound only. Musicians and those with musical training have more distinct colors for specific notes if they are chromesthetes. And each individual experiences his or her own unique color connection, which explains why we all do not have Pharrell Williams’s talent. People with chromesthesia have higher creativity and sound memory but at the same time are more likely to have difficulty with numbers. Levels of concentration, fatigue, emotions, sleep habits, fever, and consumption of caffeine, alcohol, or hallucinogens can contribute to the perception of sound as color. They can also alter how chromesthetes experience colors in response to sound.
When synesthesia was first discovered in the 19th century, it was traced back to the eyes until it was discovered that the same phenomenon could be experienced with the eyes closed, confirming a neurological basis. Signals from the five senses originate in different anatomical regions of the brain. Why then do auditory and visual experiences interact with each other? The main reason is that these interactions enable the human brain to make sense of sensory information that corresponds to the same event; for example, the ears register the sound of a lightbulb shattering as it hits the floor at the same time as the eyes register the sight of it hitting the floor. Sensory cross-modal connections help the brain integrate and make sense of the constant complex multisensory inputs we experience. Synesthesia is a part of this cross-modal connections, often the result of unusual connections.
Many nonsynesthetes have music-to-color associations similar to those of chromesthetes. Music with lively tempos in a major key elicit dominate yellow hues that are bright and vivid. Slower melodic music in a minor key elicits more dark blues to grays. High-energy rock music with prominent drums and fast, loud guitar riffs elicit colors that are predominantly reds, blacks, and other dark colors, as opposed to laid-back, easy-listening music and simple piano melodies that bring out blues, purples, and cool, muted colors. Distortion, volume, keys, tempo, pitch, energy, complexity, and harmonic and melodic content all play a part in determining the colors chosen by chromesthetes and nonchromesthetes. In addition, the emotional qualities of the music correlate to the colors elicited. Lively music in a major key sounds strong and happy; slower melodic music or music in a minor key sounds weak and sad; rock music can sound angry and aggressive; and easy-listening music can sound calm and introspective.
Colors and music have very few sensory similarities in common. Color is visual, music is auditory; color has the properties of hue, lightness, and vividness; music has the properties of pitch, timber, tempo, and rhythm—but both share aspects of emotion. Happy emotion is correlated with bright yellows (sunshine), anger with red (red faces and bloodshed from violence), and depression with grays and darker colors (under a cloud or a rainy day). For most people, whether they are chromesthetes or not, music tends to elicit an emotional response.
Carolyn Johnson Atwater
See also: Auditory System; Grapheme-Color Synesthesia; Synesthesia
Dutton, Jack. (2015). The surprising world of synaesthesia. British Psychological Society, 28, 106—109. Retrieved from https://thepsychologist.bps.org.uk/volume-28/february-2015/surprising-world-synaesthesia
Palmer, Stephen E. (2015). What color is this song? Retrieved from http://nautil.us/issue/26/color/what-color-is-this-song