sounds of colour

“the sound of colors is so definite that it would be hard to find anyone who would express bright yellow with bass notes or dark lake with treble.” – Wassily Kandinsky

If you had to choose, would you say the taste of a lemon rang at a high pitch, or rumbling basso profundo?

Would you describe the kiki as a sharp shape, and the bouba round and blobby? How about music? G major, blue and iridescent? A cello, warm chocolate and mauve? Ravel’s Ondine? Lilac and silvery grey? Friday – what colour is that. Magenta? (Which it is. Obviously).

This neurological phenomenon is called synaesthesia, from “syn” and “aesthesis” meaning “together” and “sense”; if you don’t have it, it sounds strange, like an overactive imagination. But if you’re part of the estimated 4% of the population who are synaesthetes, such descriptions are as obvious and natural as the sky being blue and the grass being green. One sensory experience occurs involuntarily, and consistently, prompts another, like a union of the senses.

The condition stems from  the  stimulation of one of the various senses and results in  an automatic and involuntary stimulation of a second sense (colour from sound, taste from words, colour from numbers…). From tasting the time to smelling a symphony, there are over 80 different kinds of synaesthetic experience – although the most common involve colour, known as chromesthesia.

This results in specific sounds, pitches and timbres generating corresponding colours and textures in the field of vision (or, as some describe it, in the “mind’s eye”).

I have chromesthesia, or grapheme-colour synaethesia. Numbers, days, months, names and letters (and by extension, words) have their own very distinct shades. L could only ever be yellow, for example. This is the most common form of synaesthesia, and it wasn’t until I was in my late teens that I realised not everyone sees the world this way – indeed, the assertion that words have a certain colour can be met with raised eyebrows. But I simply know that Wednesday is pale green – it always has and always will be. Talk to another synaesthete, however, and they’ll often disagree with you vehemently about the colour, or even the precise shade.

One friend has tastes and textures as well as colours for words. While I find my synaesthesia has little impact on my day to day life, for her, it’s a curse as much as a blessing. There are words she can’t say without physically cringing. For others, however, synaesthesia can be a bonus, aiding their creativity.

Research on synaesthesia is not as extensive as you might expect: it was disregarded as a phenomenon until the advent  of  MRI  scans in the late 1980s, proving that corresponding areas of the brain really do light up in synaesthetes. The phenomenon is also cross- cultural, in one study, participants from both Mexico and the United States reported similar colour responses when played Mozart, Beethoven and Brahms. It is also thought it may be more common in artists, and though difficult to prove, many renowned artists are confirmed synaesthetes, or likely to be or have been: Baudelaire, Rimbaud, Matisse, Nabokov, Van Gogh, Stevie Wonder, Billy Joel, Duke Ellington, Eddie Van Halen, Pharell Williams, and Kanye West. Several classical composers and musicians have also confirmed or evoked symptoms of synaesthesia, in some cases unknowingly revealing their condition through their writings – Alexander Scriabin, Franz Liszt, Jean Sibelius, György Ligeti, Nikolai Rimsky- Korsakov, Itzakh Perlman, Olivier Messiaen, and Leonard Bernstein, to name but a few.

Acknowledgement of the existence of synaesthesia goes back to the late 17th century, though it was not until the 19th century that scientists began examining it in   a concrete way. This scientific interest arose from a broader fascination for multi-sensory experiences, combining the senses in the search for more powerful and emotionally engaging artistic creations (as in the case of Wagner’s 19th-century Gesamtkunstwerk: an all-encompassing, multi-disciplinary ‘total art work’).

Music itself has long been linked to colour in intangible ways: music is even often described as being “bright”, “light” or “dark”; Sir Isaac Newton hypothesised that sounds and colours shared corresponding frequencies. Colours are often used to describe certain musical works and even genres, such as Gershwin’s Rhapsody in Blue (and the blues genre in general). Even in music theory, terminology is often derived from the realm of colour, such as the chromatic scale, from the Greek khrōma meaning colour…

Ligeti saw major chords as a shade of red and pink, and minor chords a shade of green and brown, while Rimsky-Korsakov saw major chords such as C Major as white, and B Major a dark metallic blue. As for Duke Ellington, chords on the note D evoked a dark blue burlap and, on the note G, Ellington had a glimpse of a light-blue satin. Leonard Bernstein once claimed that “a composer of symphonies has all the notes in the rainbow before him”. During a rehearsal in 1842 Franz Liszt asked the Weimar orchestra to perform “a little bluer, if you please” and “not so rose” – probably to the confusion of some of the musicians… Richard Wagner, another suspected synaesthete, is said to have once abruptly walked out on a rehearsal of “Tristan und Isolde”, claiming that the colours were simply “wrong”.

Whereas certain composers kept their synaesthesia at bay from their music, for  others the condition became essential to their artistic identity. Olivier Messiaen saw colours when listening to birdsong, an element that fascinated the French composer; interestingly, the colours evoked by his condition upon hearing birds would  often  correspond  with the colours of the plumage. As the composer himself so perfectly put it in conversation with Claude Samuel, “I do indeed try to translate colours into music”. He even used colours as indications in his music, in the hopes of transmitting his own internal sensations.

Another artist believed to have a strong synaesthetic sensibility, the British musician Arthur Bliss, wrote a ‘Colour Symphony’, each movement devoted to a different hue. Alexander  Scriabin   was   also   preoccupied with creating meaningful colour  associations.  He even developed a colour organ he called Tastiera per Luce (‘keyboard of lights’), designed  solely  to   accompany   a   work visually and  emit  specific  lights  and  hues which characterised the narrative. His work Prometheus: The Poem of Fire, featured the Luce keyboard, and Scriabin believed that “colour underlines tonality; it  makes  the tonality more evident”.

Exploring the links between sounds and colours is not the exclusive domain of composers and musicians. Painters were equally fascinated by such sensations, and none more so than the Russian Wassily Kandinsky. The painter and  cellist  is  said to have been a synaesthete, allegedly discovering his condition whilst at a performance of Wagner’s Lohengrin in Moscow. Synaesthete or not, he undoubtedly exhibited a relentless fascination for the meeting point between these two sensory experiences, trying to capture musical elements in his paintings, naming his works “Compositions”, “Improvisations”, and “Impressions”. Amidst numerous  examples, his work Impression III (1911) displays this fascination perfectly, painted after the artist attended a concert of Arnold Schoenberg in Munich. Abstract art meets music head on.

in this issue…

Taonga Puoro


Creative New Zealand | Toi Aotearoa