Sound and Vision
You tell someone you have "synesthesia" and chances are, they'll take a step back and ask if you're contagious. The first time I'd even heard this word was in my tenth grade advanced English class. Meaning "the blending of the senses," synesthesia referred to the literary phenomenon of combining two different sensory experiences into one -- a "blue note" or a "sour look," for instance.
While I had never heard this luxuriously fancy word before, this concept felt right at home to me. As a kid I was intensely interested in music, art, and language. My mother even tells me that I knew the correct order of the spectrum at 18 months old, according to some ancient crayon drawings. I chalk this one up to the pervasiveness of Polaroid video tape sleeves in our household. Even so, did this early exploration of art and color give me some sort of creative superpowers where I can "hear" colors, or "see" music?
I should give you a little bit of background on synesthesia based on some research I've done over the past few years. There are several documented types of synesthesia, but it seems that each occurrence can be very uniquely personal. While color/sound or color/music synesthesia is common (also called "chromesthesia"), there are several other pairings, like texture/taste (where a smooth, marble surface may elicit a minty taste), or typographical/color (where certain characters are specific colors, for instance).
Some research implies that synesthesia "develops during childhood at the time at which children are for the first time intensively engaged with abstract concepts. This... explains why the most common forms of synesthesia are grapheme-color, spatial sequence and number form: These are usually the first abstract concepts that educational systems require kids to learn." Early in a child's development, neural pathways are forged in the brain, making new connections. The more that these pathways are used, the stronger the connections become. I would argue that if a child were engaged in a number of different sensory activities at an early age, especially multisensory activities that encouraged the exploration of abstract ideas, that child could experience synesthesia. Music practice combines concepts of aural skills and mathematics; early piano lessons specifically add a pictorial element, often with musical notes or finger positions denoted by color-coding.
My dear friend Nicole, a beautifully gifted writer and all-around incredible human being, has a unique pairing where each letter seems to have a specific personality. "I associate gender strongly, then age, and sometimes colors with letters and numbers. I also do the geometric visual image of time that some people with synesthesia do," she says. In this way (as I understand it), some words just tend to "get along" better than others. Is it possible that her typographical/personality association influenced her writing career? Or that my particular brand of synesthesia, where musical tonalities (or keys) are accompanied by a specific color and mood, influenced my career as a musician and artist?
The first memory I can recall vividly experiencing the color/music connection was during my high school years. I had won tickets to hear a string quartet perform on the campus of the University of Alabama at Huntsville. I can't remember now what the program was, but I do remember how lush the harmonies were. The music was so mellow and expressive it just seemed to wash over me.
The American composer Aaron Copland, in his book What to Listen for in Music, describes three ways of listening to music: the sensuous plane, the expressive plane, and the musical plane:
As I leaned back in my comfy, ochre-colored seat, I sort of started to zone out. Not that my mind was wandering, but rather that my thoughts were very still; I was actively listening, and an active participant in the moment I was in. Gradually, I began to perceive waves of color, almost like an aurora undulating and shifting in front of my field of vision. The wispy shapes of translucent color seemed to change with the character of the music; the whole experience was something like a lucid dream. When the piece finished, the shifting layers of color lingered and faded a bit, and then vanished as the audience roared with applause.
What. Was. That.
I figured it was a daydream. Maybe I was experiencing music on another level? It wasn't until I was in college that I began understand what was going on.
I was in aural skills class, my favorite course that semester. My friends thought I was a freak because basically everyone hates aural skills. It involves sight-singing, ear-training (learning to identify chords and intervals purely by ear), and dictation (writing down music that is played). Due to the intangible nature of the concepts studied, it can be a fairly stressful class. My teacher Dr. Hardin, being the funny guy that he was, liked to play to the general terror of the class. One morning he stood behind the tall upright piano at the front of the room, slammed down on a random chord and said "Pop quiz! What key is this?"
He chuckled as the class was agape at this stupidly impossible little test. Being a bit of a smart ass, I shouted out "B-flat major!"
His face dropped. "Did you say B-flat?"
"Ummmm... yeah?" He played another one.
"G major?" And another one. "D-flat." And another. "A major!"
He played each chord so quickly, and it seemed so absurd to even attempt a guess, I just blurted out the first thing that came to mind. At this point, I realized that the whole room was staring at me like I had E.S.P. What was going on?
My classmates assumed I had perfect pitch. I really don't think that is true (although it would be a convenient party trick). I certainly wasn't clever enough to "count" up or down in my head that quickly to try to figure out what key the chords were in, there just wasn't enough time. The only explanation I have is color.
To illustrate what I'm getting at, imagine biting into a fresh, ripe apple. What senses are associated with this? The brilliant, shiny red hue of the apple skin; the cold smooth texture; the crisp, cracking sound it makes when you bite into it; the sweet, slightly drippy flavor of the apple flesh: all these senses are so distinct and so different, but each one equally valid.
Now imagine if a musical chord or note could elicit an equally strong but different sensation, just like the apple tasting tart and hearing the crack of biting into it. That is what was happening. D-flat Major was a ripe and juicy, deep purple... like a plum. F Major was vivid and spritely, the color of a "Jungle Green" crayon. B Major and F-sharp Major were pale, almost metallic kinds of colors: silvery titanium and translucent lilac, respectively.
This isn't to say that I necessarily saw those colors like a hallucination, but that they resonated with me. Just like biting into an apple, and tasting how crisp and tart it is. Imagine how jarring it would be to bite into an apple, and instead it was juicy and tasted like an orange! With each chord played on the piano, I had an instantaneous revelation of the key... as obvious as if he had held up a giant piece of different colored paper for each one. It was just D-flat Major, because D-flat Major is purple and that's what it was.
A few days after describing the event in another class, a fellow classmate Aurelia thoughtfully presented me with a small stack of papers: well over thirty pages of info all about synesthesia. It seemed like we had a few things in common, and I couldn't wait to dig through this new resource.
Flipping through the pages, I was amazed by the number of revolutionary musicians throughout history who claimed to have synesthesia: Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov, Amy Beach, Jean Sibelius, and Duke Ellington, just to name a few. There were lists that detailed which colors were linked to each key or note. The lists were startlingly different, and varied by how complete they were. Many even related keys to lightness and darkness, and some related color to "tone color" or "timbre" (i.e. the same tone played on contrasting instruments). Naturally, I started comparing my perceptions with those written in front of me.
I've tried to come up with a color that goes with each major key, but sometimes it's difficult to express color and mood in one image. For instance, A Major is a warm, almost dusty color, like an old violin, or morning rays of sunlight streaming through a window onto a hardwood floor. E-flat Major is blue and round, like a pure water droplet splashing into a still pool in a crystal cavern. B Major has an iridescent shimmer, while B-flat Major has a deeper, satiny luster. C Major is red, like Italian "red sauce": hearty and well-balanced, but not too serious -- all-purpose and adaptable. G Major is a little more outgoing, sort of citrusy like a tangerine, while D Major had a gentler, calmer warmth -- like the sun breaking through clouds at sunrise, or the glowing, smoking embers of a campfire at dawn. To me, each key seems to be its own little universe; each one has its own personality. Sure, music played D Major can be dark or brooding, but it really seems to "resonate" more for me as a warmer, brighter feeling.
After years of exploring the overlap between color and music, I have only come up with more questions and possibilities. My first was whether there was a general theme in other synesthetics' interpretations. Although the color schemes were very different, there seemed to be a general consensus that higher notes were brighter, and lower notes were darker. In addition, most musicians also included additional descriptors other than just pure chroma; For Rimsky-Korsakov, certain keys were "clear" or translucent (A Major was "clear, pink" while F Major was "clear, color of greenery") and others hardly had any chroma information at all (D-flat was "darkish and warm" and B-flat was simply "darkish").
Although it seemed that color systems were very different from person to person, I wondered if there was some other overarching, unexplored reason why certain colors would resonate strongly with specific tonalities. I noticed that my color scheme had some significant overlaps with the visual spectrum, starting with a C Major scale. C was red, D was orangish, E was a bright yellow (with a tinge of chartreuse), F was vivid green. Was this merely an artifact from my own knowledge of the spectrum (similar to the bouba/kiki effect), lined up with middle C functioning as a convenient starting position? Why, then, did the similarity stop after that? G Major should have been blue, and A Major purple.
Every high school student knows that sound moves in a waveform (at least they should), and that the electromagnetic spectrum contains everything from radio waves up to gamma rays, including the visible light spectrum. I knew that the standard tuning pitch is A440, which means that the A above middle C is tuned to exactly 440 Hz. An octave above that would be A880 (it is doubled), and an octave below that would be A220. Musical tone, therefore, was essentially just a soundwave that vibrated, or "resonated", at a specific frequency. (The video below excellently visualizes how different frequencies affect resonance patterns in a material) If a musical tone's frequency could be proportionally intensified until it reached the energy in the visual spectrum, what would the resulting color be? Is this even possible, are these different types of waves?
Aside from scientific speculation, there are even similarities in terminology in music and art. Some of the fundamental principles of art are harmony and rhythm. And in the music world, the term "chromatic scale" (meaning a scale with twelve notes, each one a half-step above or below the next) has the root word chroma, meaning "purity or intensity of color". Do we connect music and color simply because they have long been described this way? The term "color" even dates back in usage to the medieval era!
I would one day love to take part in research that investigates some of these questions in greater detail. I would like to explore an idea that composer Alexander Scriabin developed: the Clavier à lumières, or "keyboard with lights". In Scriabin's invention, each musical note is represented by a specific color. The color scheme was based largely on Sir Isaac Newton's Optics, as it is doubted that Scriabin was himself synesthetic. Using MIDI technology, I would be fascinated to develop an instrument that would display a color representation of the music played via projection. A computer program would analyze the notes played and place them in a key, with higher pitches represented as lighter colors and lower pitches as darker colors. Volume would be interpreted by brightness or intensity of hue. Still, there would be several theoretical problems to work out. For instance, what would happen if two different chords were played at the same time? Would the colors be mixed together, like two colors of paint? Would they simply exist side by side, like two pieces of colored paper?
Regardless of whether you perceive music with the addition of color, Aaron Copland encourages all people to actively engage themselves in the act of listening. Whether you understand the intricate inner-workings of music theory or simply love music because of how it makes you feel, music is fundamentally an artistic expression -- an intellectual, emotional, and spiritual expression of something that is greater than us all, connecting us all.
This evening I leave you with one of my favorite videos, Beck's creative reimagining of a David Bowie classic Sound and Vision. Please enjoy, and until next time, stay squirrelly.