- Big Al's Art Gallery - Synesthesia and the Color of Music


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synesthesia painting of a quartet in A minor

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Synesthesia
and the Color of Music

click on an image for a larger view...

synesthesia painting of a quartet in A minor   synesthesia painting of a concerto for cello and flute   synesthesia painting of a double stop played on the violin

For as long as I can remember, I've been obsessed with color. The first time I discovered sample paint chips in a hardware store, I painstakingly selected and aligned seven hues that best matched the colors of the days of my week. When I started to do the same for the letters of the alphabet, my father literally had to drag me away.

I have synesthesia. When I hear music, I see colors. Words, numbers, letters and musical notes all have a specific, involuntary color association for me. My Fridays are always the color of weathered terra cotta roof tiles. Sundays are pale yellow with a translucent, creamy white around the edges and throughout the center. The number seven is a dark, thickly textured pine needle green similar to the hue of my violin's G string. The difference between these two shades of green - the seven's core has a gradient running from chartreuse to milky white, and the G string's deep green is always affected by blends from the colors of the other notes I'm playing. The C string on my cello has the color and feel of concrete in a deserted industrial area during a late night rain. It has a metallic texture that sits on the tip of my tongue, and it's cold and damp, like winter. When I play the cello, I see the strings spread out like a soft-edged feather fan, and it feels like I'm playing them in a V formation.

Key signatures have individual color associations for me. All musical compositions, irregardless of key signature, contain unique modulations, accidentals, melody sequences, and dynamics, all of which evoke additional colors, textures, and shapes. But the color I associate with the tonic of the key signature is always floating and shifting around in the background like a distorted reflection in rippling water. If I'm listening to a multi-instrumental piece, such as a symphony, there is always much more going on colorwise than I would see if I were listening to a sonata.

These color associations never change, and they are not seen externally. I see them inside my head. The only way I'm able to describe this is that it's like having a second set of eyes facing inward into my mental field of vision. I'm always saying things to my husband like "the sign on that building is the exact color of B flat" or "that woman's dress looks like Sunday." It drives him nuts because he can't relate to what I'm saying, but I just can't help myself. This is the way the world looks to me.

One of my businesses involves web design. The color display for individual site pages comes from corresponding HTML hex codes consisting of six mixed numbers and letters that I choose in Photoshop. I'm always transposing the 8s and the As, because to me, they are the same color. The same is true for the 3s and the Es. (Come to think of it, this might be why I failed algebra twice.)

Right about now, you're either thinking 'This woman is crazy,' or 'Hey, I've got the same thing going on!' So what the heck IS this weird neurological condition with the strange-sounding name, and where does it come from? Synesthesia is a fairly common trait. Research has found that it tends to run in families, and is believed to be passed down from the father's X chromosome. In simple language, it's a cross-wiring of the brain in which the stimulation of one sense evokes an automatic and involuntary response from a secondary sense. Sensations that are normally experienced singularly, such as sound or taste, occur as a simultaneous blending when provoked by a particular stimulus. There are many different forms of synesthesia. Some synesthetes are able to taste colors or shapes; others experience specific color associations when tasting different foods, listening to music, or hearing, reading, speaking, or simply thinking of words.

For me, the strangest thing about all of this is that I lived for decades assuming this was perfectly normal; that everyone else also experienced color associations when speaking, reading or listening to music. I never heard the word 'synesthesia' until I read "Musicophilia," a book by Oliver Sacks that explores the relationship between music and the brain. The chapter entitled 'The Color of Clear Green' deals with synesthesia, and after reading it, I felt like the ground had shifted right out from under me. I called my sister to find out if she also experienced colored language and music, and her answer was yes...and so does my nephew. We talked quite awhile about this, and learned that we do not associate the same colors with the same words. Her Tuesdays are brown, mine are blue . Our father, also an artist and musician, had a heightened color awareness. Did he have synesthesia, too? Sadly, our parents have both passed on, so we will never know.

I began to wonder if I'd be able to paint the colors I was seeing while listening to music, and I decided to give it a try. Here are some of my efforts. The painting with the white background is of a double stop played on the violin. I'll be adding more music paintings to this gallery soon. If you would like to be notified when new paintings are added, please email me.

For more information about synesthesia, visit my LINKS page.


All images © Alison Whalen