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In hearing about sound-to-color synesthesia, or rather Chromesthesia1, I have always been rather jealous, and wanted to experience this unexplainable phenomenon for myself. I have read up a little bit about it, and from what I hear, it sounds like a good thing to have. However, I am still very uncertain as to what it actually is...

Image from wikipedia link on chromesthesia

enter image description here

That's pretty much the best I can picture it as ; 'thinking' different colors for different notes.

My questions in regards to musical performance/practice:

  1. Does chromesthesia help when trying to find a certain note? Does it help in attaining absolute/perfect pitch?
  2. Does it make it easy to tell whether notes are in tune or not?

Regarding musical composition:

  1. Would chromesthesia make one more creative in composing? Would seeing a mix of colors in ones head help in writing music?
  2. Or, would chromesthesia make this a hard process, constricting natural musical ideas.

I don't know about you, but I can just picture someone coming up with a beautiful melody and deleting it because it uses a color they don't like... :)

Does anyone here have this ability? If so, could you then explain to me how you find sound-to-color synesthesia to be useful, and more specifically, in the settings I imagined?

If you don't happen to have this ability, please think very carefully before answering, and include many credible sources... I'm not sure how much I trust you... :)

1 Throughout this question, I am assuming that this "condition" really exists. As many people claim to have it, I don't see why it should be assumed otherwise. Also, as jjmusicnotes noted: "synesthesia not only affects my own compositional process, but has also affected historically significant composers as well. Thus this subject falls under "musical practice" which I interpret to include pedagogy - underwhich this subject may be included." Please take this into consideration before voting to close, like a few have already done...

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This question should be edited to be more general, but I will answer it as it is written currently. I will also answer in a general sense. –  jjmusicnotes Oct 17 '13 at 3:38
As to who ever voted to close this, I personally do not see this as being very opinion based. In the research I have done on this, most subjects who had chromesthesia heard mostly the same colors, and agreed on other things. I thought the answer would be sort of universal. –  SuperMusicman Oct 17 '13 at 4:26
I do not see what this question has to do with musical practice and performance. Synesthesia is an unusual neurological condition that might even be described as a mental illness or aberration. If you don't already have it, you can't acquire it. It's my understanding that few medical professionals accept that such a condition really exists, labeling it a figment of certain peoples' overactive imagination. So what is the use of asking "Would chromesthesia make you more aware"? I cannot take this question seriously. –  Wheat Williams Oct 17 '13 at 6:30
@WheatWilliams Take a look at some of Oliver Sacks' writings. I'd say that synesthesia in general is quite well-established. Whether you treat it as an aberration or just part of a range of human brain operations is largely subjective. However, I fully agree that one type of audio synesthesia or another can help or can hurt musical ability, and certainly it's not something one can "choose" to have in any case. –  Carl Witthoft Oct 17 '13 at 11:54
@WheatWilliams - As I established in my answer, synesthesia not only affects my own compositional process, but has also affected historically significant composers as well. Thus this subject falls under "musical practice" which I interpret to include pedagogy - underwhich this subject may be included. –  jjmusicnotes Oct 17 '13 at 13:43

6 Answers 6

up vote 6 down vote accepted

I have absolute pitch and associate colors with specific keys. I have had this ability for as long as I can remember and only discovered in adolescence that others did not have it; the two are very much intertwined in terms of how I think about music. FWIW, absolute pitch runs in my family on both sides, with my mother possessing it and my paternal grandfather. Neither of them report any sort of synesthesia.

My major keys/colors map together as follows. The minor keys correspond to their major counterpart, but are without exception darker and greyer in my mind. Atonal music along the lines of Schoenberg or Stockhausen inevitably appears brilliant white; music that skirts along the edge of tonality, such as that of John Adams or Elliott Carter, varies.

  • C - brilliant red
  • C# - deep black-red (similar to the color of a blood clot)
  • D - golden brown
  • Eb - pale yellow-green
  • E - emerald green
  • F - yellow
  • F# - deep forest grey-green
  • G - gold
  • G# - greyish purple
  • A - royal blue
  • Bb - grey
  • B - brilliant purple

My synesthesia leads me to favor certain keys when I compose. For example, I have never written anything in the key of B-flat because I simply don't like it and the color is not as intense or beautiful as, say, C#, F#, C, or G, which I tend to favor. However, this leads to a chicken/egg question: do I like these keys more because the colors are stronger, or are the colors stronger because I like the keys more? I have no idea.

Synesthesia is also helpful when tuning instruments. When tuning my guitar, for example, I know there's a certain richness I associate with the golden color of G that just isn't there until I've gotten the G string just right. Also interesting is the fact that when I tune the A string, I know the color of the "proper" A440, but my ear prefers a sharper A442. The color is more vivid this way, even though it's technically "incorrect". When my guitar is flat, the color is still there but loses its vividness in my mind. It is not clear to me how having synesthesia would make absolute pitch easier to attain.

The biggest drawback I can think of to synesthesia/absolute pitch is the difficulty of transposing. It is virtually impossible for me to play a keyboard with the "transpose" setting on; playing middle C and hearing a B come out is jarring to the point of being completely disabling. A lesser problem is tunings on a guitar; I have to learn each tuning as a completely different instrument and takes me noticeably longer than someone without absolute pitch.

I hope this is helpful; if I can clarify anything, please let me know.

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Welcome to M.SE! This, in my opinion is a great answer, especially for a newcomer! You directly answered all my questions, unlike some of the other answers. Thank you! –  SuperMusicman Oct 18 '13 at 15:26
BTW, I have edited my question, but that was only because of peer pressure (though I disagreed with them). Your answer is still very applicable. –  SuperMusicman Oct 18 '13 at 15:42
I thought it was interesting about the transposing difficulty... I am interested in hearing from you, whether you think the pros of sound-to-color synesthesia greatly outnumber the cons. Or have you ever wished that you did not have it? –  SuperMusicman Oct 21 '13 at 20:23

There are many different types of synesthesia, and it is only recently that it has been taken seriously as psychological phenomena. For anyone who is unfamiliar (or too bored to click the links in the OP's question,) synesthesia is essentially where a person's brain is hard-wired to experience sensory stimulation in multiple, simultaneous ways.

For example, some people associate colors with letters and numbers, some people hear colors, and others taste colors - my grandfather tastes green beans whenever he hears the word "green" and experiences similar connections with other colors.

Not much is known exactly about synesthesia due to lack of knowledge about how the brain works and the limited amount of scholarly research undertaken, however, synesthesia typically runs in families (my grandfather, my mother, and myself, for example.) It is also inconsistent between people in terms of color association and degree of correlation (some people experience it more vividly than others.) In the present state of understanding, it is not considered for it to be possible to teach.

Notable composers such as Scriabin and Messiaen admitted to having synesthesia - the former even adamant about constructing what he called a "light organ" that would light up the corresponding colored lights with the appropriate notes so that everyone could see music the way he saw music.

To answer your questions:

Seeing as I like to 'compose' music, I was wondering how useful this would actually be when writing a song? Would it make me more imaginative and creative, or would it perhaps be more of a curse?

I personally use it / notice it the most when I'm improvising - especially on piano. Of all the keys I prefer f# minor because to me, it offers the most beautiful colors. Sometimes it influences my compositional choices, but rarely. If anything, it's actually made me more indifferent to pitch choice because as I experience writing the music, pitches all seem incidental.

The only thing that limits your ability to be creative is the type of experiences you've had and your willingness to find new solutions.

Would chromesthesia make you more aware as to if you are in tune or not? ('Oops, that was the wrong shade of green') Or even better, would it make perfect-pitch easy to attain?

To my knowledge, there is no known documented evidence of composers using synesthesia to differentiate between gradations of intonation. Some composers have incredibly, incredibly sensitive ears (able to hear if something is 1-2 cents out of tune!) but their sensitivity was not aided by synesthesia.

With respect to "perfect-pitch", I just want to clarify here that if you can match pitch (i.e. sing in tune,) then you have "perfect-pitch." What you're actually referring to is absolute pitch - the ability to recall or produce any pitch at will without prompting.

In my experience, no. There are "perfect-pitch" courses out there that train you to "hear colors" and for me, I found it confusing because I didn't agree on the color choices, so it was actually detrimental for me personally. Having absolute pitch doesn't make a good composer anymore than having a the best microphone or guitar make you the best vocalist or guitarist. True skill comes from relentless, dogged determination to master countless exercises in problem solving, self-discipline, and the unwavering focus of continual self-improvement.

Other than that, to me, your keyboard's colors are wrong.

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:) You should say "Wikipedia's keyboard". But, I wouldn't know... –  SuperMusicman Oct 17 '13 at 4:26
Wikipedia and my music encylopedia disagree: perfect == absolute, and "relative" refers to matching pitch. Otherwise, very well written response. –  Carl Witthoft Oct 17 '13 at 11:55
@CarlWitthoft - you know, in the early part of the 20th century, doctors advocated smoking because everyone thought it was either good for your or not harmful. We've had this discussion long ago in a different question. I can't take wikipedia as a seriously cited source, and your musical encyclopedia definitions need to be updated / edited. –  jjmusicnotes Oct 17 '13 at 13:49
@jjmusicnotes OK, then can you cite sources for your definitions? I'm happy to use them over wiki. –  Carl Witthoft Oct 17 '13 at 15:04
I edited my question, and the parts of my question you quoted no longer exists. However, since I just tried wording them differently, your answer is still very good. –  SuperMusicman Oct 18 '13 at 15:44

It was said that Hendrix experienced it but he wasn't born with it. apparently it was induced by lots of LSD, which probably isn't a good thing. the E7#9 chord was referred to as the purple chord, hence purple haze.

I remember reading about Synesthesia a couple of years back and its do do with the sensory connections in the brain, we tend to have different sections of the brain dedicated to different sensory activities. As far as i can gather, synesthesia is when two or more different sensory areas of the brain have inexplicably strong links and in turn, the two senses turn into one and the same.

there are reports of people hearing numbers, tasting names and seeing sounds, its all subjective and while some people might have the same type of synesthesia, they might experience coloured sounds differently.

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Interesting, but it doesn't attempt to answer my question very well... –  SuperMusicman Oct 20 '13 at 3:43

I have a mild form where I assign colors to numbers, letters, and combinations of those. I don't actually see every letter in a different color but if someone told me to paint a letter 'i' I would definitely go for white. A green 'i', for example, would look very wrong.

I mostly use it (usually subconsciously) as a memory aid. When performing, I can for example remember that the next chord is dark forest green, thus I have to play a F# minor chord. Or the next section is bright yellow and therefore in the key of E major. It has nothing to do with sound, though. For example E flat is a kind of yellow whereas D sharp is a kind of red. It's still pretty useful; for other things, too, like remembering dates.

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I do not have synesthesia, but how do you distinguish middle C or middle A or a Cb chord in the upper registry or a Drop 2 F#13 chord. If the F chord is Blue, is it Blue in all octaves and all forms of spellings? What about half diminished 7th chords which have different names for the same notes? Also the upper and lower harmonics of a note, 2 notes, 3 notes, 4 notes etc...and how they differ between instruments and people.

Synesthesia, mental illness, probably not. Is it proven in the musical sense to be a real enhancement? Not even close. The test are only gathering how many and how much almost like a threat assessment. No one loaded a computer program into their heads that says you will hear colors like Bruce Lee knows kung-fu. Like any ability or interest, it must be trained and practiced to see its potential.

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A guy who has done a lot of research into this can be found at www.vichyland.com
I occasionally have pupils who experience these phenomena, but it's very rare, and comes in many different forms. More often, something like a major chord evokes happy, whilst a minor one evokes sad. This is a more general thing, but you are asking about very specific things.

Sometimes there may be something of a memory throwback - A smell - perfume,maybe, reminds you of the red dress your partner wore the first time that perfume was used. Thus smell=colour.The whole thing is, in my opinion,very, very personal, and, as such, cannot be used to any great purpose, although it's fascinating, and can be harnessed as a teaching tool :" a major 7th sound makes me feel dreamy".

However, to me it's all black and white...

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Synesthesia has little to do with associations between stimulus and how they make you feel. Ol' factory senses are the strongest memory markers, so your brain naturally makes learned correlations. This is not synesthesia. Synesthesia is saying, "the letter "A" is red, "B" is black, "C" is white because you perceive those letters that way - and you are consistent with those colors every time because you can't change the way you perceive letters and numbers. –  jjmusicnotes Oct 17 '13 at 13:47
@jjm. Have you done the acid test, and had someone play a note, and you say, for example, it's red, so it's F#. Of course, if absolute pitch is available, it would muddy the waters. –  Tim Oct 17 '13 at 15:47
That particular test would not work for me as I do not experience sound in that way (although other synesthetes do.) If you were to ask me what color F major was, I would say "Blue" and if you asked me again in 10 years, I would still say "Blue." –  jjmusicnotes Oct 18 '13 at 0:39

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