Have you ever associated a piece of music with a specific memory? That feeling of putting in your headphones or placing the needle on the record, hitting play and instantly being whisked away to a particular time in your life that has stuck with you forever?
Most of you have, but now imagine replacing a memory with an actual physical manifestation. Something you can see with your own eyes. You may think this is an absurd skill reserved only for the writers of the next X-Men movie, but it is a real phenomenon and it has a name: chromesthesia.
Chromesthesia in its broadest term is the association of sound and colour.
Anything from people talking, to the sound of fireworks can trigger chromesthesia, although it is the connection with music that brings the most out of this particular ability. Imagine each individual note in a piece of music producing a burst of colour, resulting in your own personal rainbow unfolding during the playback of a riff or melody.
Chromesthesia is actually a specific form of synesthesia, which, for lack of a more concise description, refers to any kind of perceptual experience where thoughts and images merge together.
This phenomenon is often described as the experience of two or more senses acting simultaneously, though this terminology has at times been branded inaccurate. Over the years it has been difficult to pinpoint just how synesthesia occurs, the main issue being that it affects people differently: One person’s blue might be green to another person, for example.
One thing we can agree on though is that synesthesia remains an interesting experience to try and imagine.
Sure, most of us can attribute different noises with shades of colour – loud noises alluding to reds, and the sound of ocean waves making us think of blues and greens for instance, however, we do this by choice. For synesthetes this skill is inherent and occurs involuntarily. While synesthesia is an interesting topic I could talk for hours about, it’s chromesthesia that I’ll be going over, specifically musicians over the years that have expressed having experiences of this phenomenon.
The whole reason I even thought to write this article was reading a tweet from Lorde back in March describing her chromesthesia-led experience of writing “Green Light.”
& i remember my synesthesia was really blaring in the session, this swirling combo of high school and recent and private and public memories
— Lorde (@lorde) March 10, 2017
Lorde has gone on further to explain how chromesthesia affects the way she operates in the studio saying she “…Can see the finished song, even if it’s far off and foggy,” alluding to the act of colour-coding her songs and connecting certain themes in her music with different hues. She goes on to say that her aim is to precisely configure the chords and rhythms in her songs, by way of correcting the different colours until they align with how she first saw it.
It’s no surprise that a high percentage of people who regularly experience chromesthesia work in a creative medium, whether it’s as a musician or an artist. In the case of Lorde’s “Green Light” experience, it’s easy to figure out from the song’s title what kind of colours she was experiencing during the writing and recording process.
For others, the chromesthesia experience is more obscure.
For instance, Billy Joel has said he connects different colours with lyrics. Strong vowel endings such as -a, -e or -i evoke images of blues and greens, whereas hard sounding consonants like -t or -p are associated with vivid shades of red or gold. This particular phenomenon is called grapheme-colour synesthesia and basically describes the experience of seeing letters and numbers in shades of colour. As with most synesthesia experiences, these shades are not the same for everyone, although studies have shown certain letters evoke similar colours among synesthetes.
Fall Out Boy’s Patrick Stump has also shared his own experiences with grapheme-colour synesthesia.
Stump stated that most letters and numbers feel like a colour, and that it wasn’t until he opened up about his experiences in 2011 that he learned it was a more common phenomenon among other musicians than he first thought. Musicians and composers crafting songs based on how they imagine them in their head is one thing, but seeing each note, chord, and melody laid out in colour formmust be a joy to experience.
While synesthesia has sometimes been described as a disorder or medical condition, Pharrell Williams argues otherwise. He has often referred to it as an asset and a gift to make writing music easier. He has stated specifically that his own method of using chromesthesia helps identify whether something is in the right key based on if the colours match or not.
It’s easy to see how chromesthesia could benefit even someone that perhaps doesn’t have the keenest ear for music by being able to see music in its most abstract state.
Synesthesia has even been documented as far back as the 19th century, with Hungarian composer Franz Liszt reportedly using terminology like “a little bluer” and “not so rose” when speaking to his orchestra. Over time they accepted the fact that while they could only hear tones, Liszt was describing the colours he was seeing and feeling.
Another 19th composer, Amy Beach had extremely specific associations of colour due to her chromesthesia. According to Amy’s mother she would connect specific major notes with colours – F-sharp was black and a G would be red for instance.
In Beach’s case, her chromesthesia and inherent ability of having a perfect pitch went hand in hand and it’s mind-blowing to imagine just how well she could command and control music exactly the way she wanted to. Like an artist seeing a blank canvas and shade-perfectly re-creating an image from memory.
While synesthesia and its various branches are a long way from being fully researched, it remains an interesting experience to try and imagine.
Over the years, synesthetes have been known to excel in their chosen profession, whether it’s due to having an improved memory, seeing music as colour, or possessing more in tune cognitive skills. It’s easy to see how anyone in a creative capacity can benefit from this ability. For the other 96% of us mere mortals, it is an experience we can only dream of.