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A Brief History of Synaesthesia and Music

Synaesthesia is the general name for a related set of various cognitive states having in common that stimuli to one sense, such as smell, are involuntarily simultaneously perceived as if by one or more other senses, such as sight or / and hearing (see Cytowic 1989; Baron-Cohen & Harrison 1993). For example, the sounds of musical instruments might make you see certain colors, each color specific and consistent with the particular instrument playing; a piano, for example, might produces a sky-blue cloud, and a tenor saxophone produce an image of electric purple neon lights. One highly documented case of synaesthesia involved Michael O. Watson, who felt at or within his right hand different flavors — the flavor of spearmint, for example, felt like cool smooth glass columns (see Cytowic 1989, 1993).

Synaesthesia is additive; that is, it adds to the initial (primary) sensory perception, rather than replacing one perceptual mode for another. For example, with synaesthetically colored musical instruments, you both hear and “see” the sounds; the visual images do not replace the audial sensations. Both sensory perceptions may thus become affected and altered in the ways they function and integrate with other senses. Synaesthesia is generally “one-way”; that is, for example, for a given synaesthete, tastes may produce synaesthetic sounds, but sounds will not produce synaesthetic. However, there have been a few rare cases of «bi-directional» synaesthesia, in which, for example, music induces (synaesthetic) colors and seeing colors induces (synaesthetic) sounds — the correspondences, however, are not the same in both directions!

Synaesthesia may be divided into two general, somewhat overlapping types. The first, “synaesthesia proper”, is as described above, in which stimuli to a sensory input will also trigger sensations in one or more other sensory modes. With the second form of synaesthesia, certain sets of things which our individual cultures teach us to put together and categorize in some specific way — like letters, numbers, or people’s names — also get some kind of sensory addition, such as a smell, color or flavor. The most common forms of cognitive synaesthesia involve such things as colored written letter characters (graphemes), numbers, time units, and musical notes or keys. For example, the synaesthete might see, about a foot or two before her (the majority of synaesthetes – about 70% — are female), different colors for different spoken vowel and consonant sounds, or perceive numbers and letters, whether conceptualized or before her in print, as colored.

Let us now explore a little bit of the history of synesthesia in music:

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20 thoughts on “A Brief History of Synaesthesia and Music

  1. Nicole Collins
    Nicole Collins says:

    Thanks for an informative article. It has given me lot’s of names to follow up on.
    I am a painter and teach Colour and 2D Design at an art college and am researching for a section on synaesthesia for my classes. I’m really looking forward to exposing the students (and myself) to some experimental music to go along with the abstract painting that we will explore.
    Nicole Collins

    • marty quinn
      marty quinn says:


      I have just given a talk at the MET as part of the Art Beyond Sight Multimodal Approaches to Learning, Creativity and Communication on ArtMusic. I would be interested to hear what you think of my approach. You can view and listen to a number of art works as music at http://www.drsrl.com/artmusic.


      Marty Quinn

  2. Cecily s
    Cecily s says:

    I am a synesthesiac with perfect pitch, and I always see different notes as colours, not keys. For example, a C major chord consists of a C – red/yellow, E – pink, and a G – brown. When I hear this chord, I see all of these colours ina picture that I can’t describe. It has been very interesting to see how other people conceive things, and also how they can find it difficult to describe. I also see the texture of sounds; a c major chord played quite long on a stringed instrument reminds me of something in a very sticky substance, amber or resin, for example.

  3. lance h
    lance h says:

    i also experience notes and sounds as ‘textures’ and sometimes colors. Dm is a deep midnight blue, Dmaj more purple in hue. the ‘textures’ are akin to a ‘feeling on the skin’ but on some other skin that doesn’t exist – somehow outside of spatial dimension.

    the curious thing, for me, is that these effects generally only occur at high volume levels, or intensities. and they are not neccessarily ‘logical’ at all: the white needle of a test pattern whine is somehow also blunt and smooth and chrome and cool.

    somehow, somehow: this has led me to a love of noise music and experimental artists who work with high-volume soundscapes. i just hope i don’t go deaf anytime soon 😉

    • sam burrell
      sam burrell says:

      i dunno
      when i hear an individual note
      i see a flurry of colors that act in different ways
      a low E flat
      i see a flashing of lights
      and i feel weightless and extra heavy at the same time
      but as soon as i hear more notes together
      like in a song
      in my mind
      i see places
      these places are usually more vivid than the real world
      but i can’t help but wonder if i really have synesthesia
      or if i just have a wild imagination

  4. Phil Nyce
    Phil Nyce says:

    I can never pinpoint the exact color of the notes i hear and they usually mix with sort of image that is difficult to describe.

    When distortion or overdrive is added to guitars, i get this static or grainy type of image. this is the only somewhat describable image and it varies from degree of overdrive to degree.

    It’s not only color, but i “see” the sound or note. If something is played on a violin, i see the note drawn out and i usually see it in a tan color.

    Piano notes seem to have a more percussive and black and white image to them, like the keys.

    High to mid-range guitar notes are almost always yellow and the guitar screech from Jimi Hendrix’s “Foxy Lady” is very purple and grainy with overdrive.

    bass guitars have colors in the black to purple range, incorporating other dark yellow tones as well.

    This is the best description i can give. It’s really impossible to communicate the “sensation” or “image” that reflects the music but there’s definitely something weird about it.

    It makes music more interesting and adds “dimension”.

  5. Alice Crossroads
    Alice Crossroads says:

    I have just found out about this wonderful thing called synaesthesia and i think it is beautiful the way you picture songs colers places and things. I found out about this just yesterday and i am eager to learn more about it all. I read the book ” A Mango Shaped Place” and typed up synaethesia to learn more about it and came across this.

    i am speechless

  6. hani alrashdi
    hani alrashdi says:

    i can see all the write coloures of music.im sure i can see the music pictureill give u examples:piano:white/guitar:yellow/flute:pink and im sure there is blue and green and i can give you the colour of the sound exactly/and there is some sounds composed of 2 or 3 coloures and i can see the picture of the musical sentence clearely thats why i can play any musical sentence while i cant read the notes of music how can i help?i can differentiate between these coloures without any confusion in the degree of the colour for example i can find the pink colour degree not any pink which is in some instruments become darker in the higher octave in some instruments but the colour become lighter in the other instrument

    • Huw Clarke
      Huw Clarke says:

      Hey whats up!

      My name is Huw Clarke from Wales in the UK and I recently discovered that i have this version of synasthesia, I am doing a major creative project on it this year for my final year at university studying popular music. Could i ask for some peoples e-mail addresses cos i would absolutely find it so helpful if i could speak to some of you about your versions of it, the colours/textures you see so you could contribute to my work so to say.

      My address is hellchild_66618@hotmail.com if anyone wants to add me.

      Thank you


  7. Carl Bennett
    Carl Bennett says:

    Wow, it’s good to know I am no the only one.

    I developed a musical linked Synesthesia after an accident many years ago. It took me 15 years to realise it was not just me…. That was only three years ago. Never told anyone as I thought they would not understand until 3 years ago.

    I first realised it when I told a friend how good an LP looked???

    My Synesthesia turns on and off dependent on whether I open or shut my eyes. It is difficult to explain as “sight would be to explain to someone that cannot see”. Anyway…. I see a range of varying colours in soft and sharp shapes, but unlike some of you the colour and shape is determined by volume and depth of the music. For example, electric guitar is generally sharpe and bright in colour, such as yellow and a bass guitar deep purple and rounded.

    I cannot read music as the notes dance around when music is playing but I can learn to play instruments fairly easily.

    This may sound stupid, but does anyone think this makes them more “understanding” or “deeper thinking”?

    • Emily Bourke
      Emily Bourke says:

      I also have synesthesia, and I understand what you mean. Half the time I need to have my eyes closed to actually see the colours and patterns, but then other times I can also see it with my eyes open. If I can’t see it with my eyes open, I can generally ‘sense’ the colours around me and such. Does anyone else experience it like that?

      And sorry if this is messy, I am new to this forum thing and don’t know if this is how I reply to a post xD

    • Christopher Vlahos
      Christopher Vlahos says:

      I like the opening and shutting your eyes thing…. I wish mine was that way. When I play its happening always. It can be more prevalent when I close my eyes but as I mentioned before I “feel” the colors and much as hear them. Its a color that has a feeling and a texture…. make sense??

      On stage one summer night playing the Jones Beach Theater Long Island I hit a chord I gravitate to but added a 9th on the lower register. It had a tone that resonated my equipment and me. I saw 10,000 people illuminate like a bursting firework and I felt the heart Chakra release breath taking like emotion. The night sky turned indigo blue while my guitar felt like it was more fluid than solid. And NO I do not take any drugs….not even aspirin LOL!
      It was not a singled out experience. It has happened under less dynamic circumstances as well. The simple meeting of a person and their voice has caused similar events. Not very often, but it has happened. I met a woman whos voice and color upon meeting triggered a smell that I could not mistake. Fortunately it was a good aroma, and for me (as I keep mentioning) I could feel the smell and it resided in me with good emotion. Are you still with me? LMAO!

      All the best!

  8. Mark Helms
    Mark Helms says:

    Scale systems seem to have a second, latent tonal center

    If you graph where the various tones are in any given scale, most of them have a surprise in store for you. Their pattern of placement will nearly always be symmetrical, yet the axis of symmetry will seldom go through the tonic. It seems that most scales have, in essence, two tonics: one for each of the brain’s hemispheres. Erasmus Darwin seems to have been right on the cusp of discovering what lies at the heart of much of music’s affective power. His system of tone-color correspondence places Green at D, the note which is right on the axis of symmetry for the C major scale. And putting Green at the axis makes sense, as Green is right in the middle of the visible spectrum, perfectly placed for anchoring a symmetrical tone-color palette.

  9. Kate Morrow
    Kate Morrow says:

    Wow this is so interesting. I think I have a mild form of this. I have always associated written music notes with particular colours, which also correspond to the respective piano keys. I was stunned to read the reasons why D is green (it has always been green for me!) and I too see C as yellow, E as pink and G as brown! Incredible to discover others see it the same way.

    • Christopher Vlahos
      Christopher Vlahos says:

      LOVEY KATE! I dont see the same colors but thats common among Syneths…. As I mentioned in my writing above I see F as green… we could never write music because our color representation would be having us playing different chords and notes! LOLOL

      Do you still see the same color when its an octave higher? And what about harmonics? I begin to see a variegated gradient once we are outside standard tuning.


  10. john tucker
    john tucker says:

    i believe that i have this also , my first experience was about a year and a half ago maybe two. i was at my friends house and he and another friend were playing Tony hawks skate when i came over, i was just sitting there when i felt really weird and i couldnt be in the same room as them,and these are good friends of mine. i went into the other room and picked up a guitar then started playing. all of a sudden it just hit me as i was playing. i felt something that felt like the perfect pitch it sounded that way to not matter what i did, and the color red slowly filled my vision.
    i wasn’t looking down either or i would have tried to recreate what i was playing. but i was to distracted by this blast of color that filled my eyes.

    the only way i can portrey it is:

    take a mental picture of everything in your line of vision, and take in the periferals also, now let red slowly mix in that picture until you see nothing but the color of a bright neon red.

    my second experience was when i was talking to a counselor and as we conversed everything turned green. i just let it go and felt fine as we were talking, i thought it was just lack of sleep or something normal.

    i seem to be able to trigger the color black through silence aka static.

    does this mean that i am a synesthete?

    either way right now i am eightteen, trying to get money to go to school for music so that i can teach music or guitar. and move into music therapy in the future where i might be able to find the answers to synesthesia.

    i cant trigger it through music willingly, yet, but i hope to in the future so that every one and myself can experience this through my music.

    if your a researcher and interested in talking leave a comment ill be checking back to this.

    • Christopher Vlahos
      Christopher Vlahos says:

      There is a lot to be learned about this and I dont know if it just shows up in your life unless a traumatic accident has occurred. That we know is an invariable that causes or creates a lot of awakenings.
      I always has synesthesia. I see colors in music, letters and numbers and people and things. I also have an emotional attachments (feeling) that can occur with them. I never learned notes or any traditional means of musical education. I felt and saw colors ever since I could understand the enjoyment of sound. And all sound has a color feeling and flavor. Peoples voices, intruments, noise etc. Music is a cascading fireworks show and you move through gradients of color rapidly and with great emotion. (for me)
      I was a touring guitar player for 12 years and I wrote as well for many acts. I play by emotion and color not by notes and time, and I write by means of colors and feelings as well. For instance I dont play a G chord after the D because it musically is correct or sounds right, I play it because it feels correct as does the color. F is a key I like to use and the color in the lower harmonics is like an emerald green. Harmonics change colors for me, and I believe that the Fibonacci Sequence is somehow tied into the way synesthesia works in our brain. Thats a whole other level…LOL
      Im also paint and take photography on a pro level. Again, I use both the brush and the camera when I “feel” the picture or color, not see it. I dont choose a color on the palette I just paint and begin combining emotions until I like was my eyes feel…LOLOL. Its nuts I know… but I dont know another way.

      I also have the common cross wiring of seeing colors in numbers and letters…. A is red, 3 is black and equations equal a color not a numeric result ETC. Its something you need to understand and use to your advantage with help of others. Otherwise you can easily become a misfit in the world. Embrace it, learn about it, and express it. Art is the best means of creating something from what you have. MANY are artists or become one. I struggled for years, then found how music allowed me to be “normal” in my own skin. I evolved quickly and became something others could not due to my perception of how I approach things. My unique view and ability of creating gave me an unprecedented edge that I used to flourish not fail. Billy Joel has Synesthesia as well as many impressive artists in music, paint, poetry and more.

      Thanks for allowing me to share here. Be well all!

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