Medical Mysteries of Music

What Colour is This Song? An Exploration of Synesthesia

I’ve always been fascinated by people with synesthesia, the neurological condition (ability?) to experience the world with the senses. With synesthetes, the senses overlap. For example, sounds such as musical notes and chords may also be experienced as colours. Try as I might to grasp this, I can’t. Meanwhile synesthetes have grown up thinking that they way they perceive the world is totally normal and aren’t even aware they have a special sense of perception until they read about it somewhere.

(A quick sidebar: Read about this doctor who knows exactly how you feel. Exactly.)

I’d love to be able to experience the visual nature of audio. What does that brand of synesthete see when they hear a song?

The correct term for this condition is “chromesthesia,” which is a “sound-to-colour” experience. Nautilus wants us help us explore the concept. Maybe–just maybe–us normal folk can see what this all about. No pun intended, of course.

Chromesthesia is relatively rare, occurring in only about 1 in 3,000 individuals. Nevertheless, a remarkable number of famous visual artists and musicians are members of this select group, including Vincent Van Gogh, Wassily Kandinsky, David Hockney, Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov, Leonard Bernstein, and Duke Ellington. Kandinsky actually used his chromesthesia in creating his paintings. A formative experience, he wrote, was hearing Wagner’s Lohengrin: “I saw all my colors in spirit, before my eyes. Wild, almost crazy lines were sketched in front of me.”

Most of us don’t experience colored light shows when we listen to music. But recent scientific evidence shows that many non-synesthetes do have music-to-color associations similar to the cross-modal experiences of chromesthetes. In my laboratory at the University of California, Berkeley, we have been seeking answers to questions about the nature of music-to-color correspondences in both synesthetes and non-synesthetes.2,3 Our results have been eye-opening. They are uncovering the remarkably associative power of the human brain, and perhaps above all, underscoring the centrality of emotion in our mental lives.

To see what I mean, let’s start with a mini-experiment. I invite you to listen to five different music clips and choose the three colors that you feel go best with each one. I won’t name the tunes yet because I don’t want that to influence the colors you choose.

Curious? Keep going.


Alan Cross

is an internationally known broadcaster, interviewer, writer, consultant, blogger and speaker. In his 40+ years in the music business, Alan has interviewed the biggest names in rock, from David Bowie and U2 to Pearl Jam and the Foo Fighters. He’s also known as a musicologist and documentarian through programs like The Ongoing History of New Music.

Alan Cross has 38151 posts and counting. See all posts by Alan Cross

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