The Color of Music

Graphic by Aster Samuels

When he was 11 years old, senior Matt Hodges was listening to jazz music at his home. The song was a 1976 recording of Charlie Parker’s “Donna Lee” performed by jazz bassist Jaco Pastorius.

“(At that point), all of a sudden, my head was just filled with greens and browns and yellows, swirling around,” Hodges said.

Hodges associates colors with numbers and letters in much the same way as senior Joey Miller does, who said he sees the music notes A as red, B as blue and F as a shade of yellow-brown.

When Miller sees numbers and letters, he said he automatically associates them with a specific color in his head, regardless of what color the characters actually are.

“The colors exist behind my eyes. They aren’t exactly in my head but they aren’t in front of me either,” Hodges said.

What do the two have in common?

Both Hodges and Miller have a neurological condition known as synesthesia. Synesthesia is defined as a neurological condition that causes a blending of the senses. It occurs when certain stimuli, such as words, sounds or smells, cause a variety of sensory experiences not usually associated with that stimulus.

“Synesthesia is an extraordinary way of experiencing the world,” Dr. Andy Mealor, research fellow of psychology at the University of Sussex in Brighton, UK, said via email. “It involves a ‘cross talk’ of the senses, so that experiencing, or thinking, about one thing automatically triggers an experience of another.”

According to an April article in The Guardian, approximately 4.4 percent of adults experience a variety of types of synesthesia, including touch-color synesthesia, in which a tactile sensation against the skin can trigger the perception of color, and lexical gustatory synesthesia, in which the affected person would experience specific tastes in reaction to specific words.

“All kinds of combinations are possible,” Mealor said. “There are over 60 documented types.”

“Synesthesia is an extraordinary way of experiencing the world. It involves a ‘cross talk’ of the senses, so that experiencing, or thinking, about one thing automatically triggers an experience of another,” Dr. Andy Mealor, research fellow of psychology at the University of Sussex in Brighton, UK, said via email.

Mealor also pointed out that the definition of what is considered synesthesia can vary from study to study.

“Some researchers also consider certain types of purely conceptual associations as synesthesia, such as personification, where numbers may be ascribed personalities,” he said.

According to The Guardian article, this type can be classified as sequence-personality synesthesia and can involve the personification of everyday objects or sequences, such as letters or numbers. 

Hodges said numbers in his mind are assigned personalities, and this association helps him with math.

According to research at the University of Sussex, one of the most common types of synesthesia involving one of the traditional five senses is associating days and months with color. Perceiving calendars in a spatial form, such as lines or circles, occurs in an even larger segment of the population, around 20 percent, than those considered synesthetes.

Mealor said he has seen this kind of synesthesia, known as spacial-sequence synesthesia, and it occurs often in people with other forms of synesthesia.

Hodges said he experiences both of these kinds of synesthesia, along with his grapheme-color synesthesia, his association of numbers and letters with color and his music-color synesthesia—the association of different musical timbres or notes with color.

“My calendar is 12 different colored circles going from August to July. When I think a specific month, say March, I get a green-yellow circle between a purple circle and a light blue circle and that is all I got for March,” he said.

Miller also said he experiences colors with days, not on the day itself, but rather the idea of the day.

“My colored days pertain to thinking of the concept of that day, or when I’m visualizing my week, like thinking about what is going on that week,” he said.

Photo by Nivedha Meyyappan

As The Guardian article points out, certain types of synesthesia, particularly spacial-sequence synesthesia, can hinder certain mental capacities, such as mental arithmetic. 

Hodges said he has experienced this in different ways.

“Because of (my calendar), I never know what day of the month it is,” he said. “Also, I’m really bad with time, although I don’t know if that is related to synesthesia or not.”

Synesthetes are often thought of as being creatively inclined. Many musical figures, including singers Pharrell Williams and Mary J. Blige, as well as Finnish composer Jean Sibelius, are synesthetes.

However, this link is somewhat questionable, according to the University of Sussex research. It is more likely that grapheme-color synesthesia gives individuals motivation to create art, rather than special talents.

“What if synesthesia makes you more likely to seek out art because you’re having all these experiences and don’t know how to express them?” Dr. Veronica Gross, former graduate student and synesthesia researcher at Boston University, said via email. “Being good at something and doing something are different.”

Miller, a musician, said his synesthesia affects his creativity in a positive way.

“By forming the random relationships that it forms, I would say it makes things a little more interesting to write about,” he said.

Another question raised about synesthesia, one that has more research backing it, is whether or not people with synesthesia have better memory skills than people without it.

“It does seem that synesthetes have better memories for certain materials than non-synesthetes,” Mealor said.

Hodges, who is also a musician, said his synesthesia helps him in some capacity with memorizing music.

“It doesn’t help me play (a long solo) the first time I play it, but once I play it again, I memorize the flow of colors that accompany the sound,” he said.

Mealor also said there are several questions as to why this seems to occur.

“The current challenge for researchers is to find out why. Grapheme-color synesthetes have better verbal memory than control participants, presumably due to the additional color experience,” Mealor said. “Perhaps synesthetes use particular strategies to organize memory. One question which arises is if synesthetes naturally tend to use effective memory strategies, could we train others to ‘think like a synesthete’ and show a subsequent memory benefit?”

Other researchers have raised and tested the same question with some success, according to The Guardian article. Along with improving memory skills, many have suggested that synesthesia training could also combat decline in cognitive functions or even aid people recovering from brain injuries.

Photo by Nivedha Meyyappan

Mealor agreed the synesthetic tendencies are at least partly shaped by experience and can be acquired.

“Nobody is born with the concept of a red ‘A,’ so it must be learned to some extent,” he said. “In terms of my own research, (synesthesia) demonstrates whether we can apply what we’ve learned to those who have problems with memory and help them improve.”

Mealor added that current synesthesia research is highlighting the differences between the brains of synesthetes and non-synesthetes.

“Synesthetes tend to have more white matter between different regions in their brains, so this is a structural change which can help explain why these cross-modality sensations occur,” he said.

Mealor also said functional differences exist as well. For example, grapheme-color synesthetes have shown activation in color regions of the brain when looking at words.

Synesthesia is a phenomenon that, in the past, has struggled with awareness, most notably in the academic community.

“Until fairly recently, synesthesia was dismissed as a topic, but has seen a resurgence in the last 10 to 15 years,” Mealor said.

When Hodges first experienced colors while hearing sound, he had never heard of synesthesia before.

“My numbers and letters always had color, but I thought that was just normal, that everyone did that,” he said.

According to Hodges, he told a friend about the greens, browns and yellows he experiences, and his friend asked him if he had ever heard of synesthesia before.

“So I did what all scientists do, which is go home and Google it,” he said. “I looked it up and found that it was associated with my whole letters and numbers thing, too.”

Mealor said there is a strong possibility that many synesthetes learn about their own synesthesia in a similar way as Hodges.

“It’s certainly the case that many people don’t realize they have it until later in life, perhaps after coming across someone else’s report of theirs,” Mealor said. “Others may never realize they have it, as it is just part of their world.”

Mealor’s description matches Miller’s early awareness of synesthesia.

“I can’t pinpoint a specific time that I realized I had synesthesia,” he said. “It’s just always been a part of my life.”

Miller also said he has some uncertainty regarding his own unique synesthesia.

“I need to do a little more research on the subject because there are some things that I experience where I’m not sure if it’s synesthesia or not,” he said. “I don’t associate sound with color, but a song can associate with a feeling, and that feeling gets a color. It’s very weird.”

Above all, Mealor said he believes studying synesthesia is extremely important for researchers.

He said, “It gives us a better understanding of human experience, or how conscious experience of the world can vary so wildly between different people.”

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Grant Smith