Chromesthesia (Colored Hearing)

“According to Richard Cytowic, sound-color synesthesia, or chromesthesia is ‘something like fireworks’: voice, music, and assorted environmental sounds such as clattering dishes or dog barks trigger color and firework shapes that arise, move around, and then fade when the sound ends.”

“Something like fireworks” is a fairly good, if succinct, way to describe it.

Some sound-color synesthetes only see color when they hear music; some only when they hear very loud or unusual sounds. In my case, each and every sound I hear is in full color… and has shape and texture as well.

Although I have a bunch of different types of synesthesia, this is the one that comes up most frequently. It probably has something to do with my years at music school. I think in some ways, it’s also easier for others to understand; for instance, than the letter “L” is a light green very chill letter somewhere between male and female.

I’ve discussed “the colors” as they relate to music many times, often over beers or late at night after long recording sessions. In an effort to keep myself from rambling, I thought I might tackle some of the common questions right off the bat.

Frequently Asked Questions

Does every sound make a color/shape/etc.?

Yes. Every single sound.

So, like, blobs or fireworks or primary colors?

Nope. Well, sometimes. It totally depends on the sound. A fancy way of saying that would be “the colors/shapes/etc are exactly analogous to the sounds that make them.”

In normal words: every little change in a sound will change the way it looks.

Well then what does it look like?

Good question. For a long time I’ve been trying to draw or paint what stuff sounds like, but have never gotten very close. Lately I’ve been using a cool iPad app I found: I think I’m getting closer.

Here’s what some chords on a Fender Rhodes electric piano look like

Here’s some sine waves:

Here’s what it looks like when our heat turns off

Ok.. Nice pictures. But where do the colors show up? Where do you see them?

Just like my colored letters, my colored sound is projected to where I think it’s coming from. If I hear some rad cello music coming from some speakers, I’ll see a bunch of brown stuff sort of exploding from the speakers (not as nasty as it sounds). When my phone rings with an acoustic guitar ringtone, I literally see thin little swatches of yellow-white fly up out of the iPhone’s tiny speakers.

Wait, what? You literally see the colors?

Well yeah, I literally see them in the sense that they are not just in my “mind’s eye”- they are projected into the environment.

I don’t really see them in the sense that I know they aren’t real objects (most of the time) and can totally “see through” them. Just like you could picture a walrus sitting on your coffee table: You know he’s not there, and you can “see through” him. The difference is I have no control over the stuff I see, except for wearing earplugs or turning down the volume.

Or I just make my own sounds, which is what I generally prefer.

So.. you’re high all the time?

I’m definitely not high all the time.

However, certain drugs like LSD have been known to temporarily give otherwise normal folks synesthesia.

You got synesthesia from LSD? Wow.

Nope. Scientists don’t know exactly why some people have these connections in their brain, but for the most part people with synesthesia are born that way.

@Kevin Richardson – fellow synesthete (via Facebook): Are there any artists or groups that stimulate more colors than others?

For me, every sound has a color and shape, so there aren’t really types of music that have more or fewer colors (except really quiet/empty or really loud/busy music)… Classical orchestral music is pretty boring to me, as it’s almost 100% brown (from the strings). If the chords are cool, sometimes they can make things better to look at.

The first time I heard Messiaen I almost pooped my pants. The stuff he writes/wrote.. So interesting, timbre-ly and harmonically (I believe he was a synesthete as well). Lately I’ve been listening to some very weird glitch music (like Oval) which doesn’t necessarily have more color than other types of music, but looks very different from most.

What color is [trumpet/the wind/farting]?

I’ve thought about making a big list of all the different sounds I could think of and what colors/shapes/textures they are, but that would probably take a long time. That said, a few years ago I made an album where each track is (mostly) one color. It’s called “The Colors” and you can stream/download it here.

And these colors.. how do you decide which colors go with which sounds?

If there was any decision on my part, it either happened a very long time ago or way below my consciousness; There is no choosing the color of a Rhodes any more than you can choose the color of an apple.

That’s just what color it is.

There are some sounds that may be influenced by musical experience. For instance, the sound of a bass clarinet is very black, and most bass clarinets are painted black. Is this a coincidence, or did my brain at some point decide “that black instrument’s sound should be black”? On the other hand, there are plenty of sounds that don’t make any sense. A sine wave is red, but why?

There may be an answer, but I don’t know it any more than I know why the letter “p” is red.

The key here, and indeed something used to diagnose somebody with synesthesia, is that the colors are automatic and unchanging. If you played a certain sound to me today, it would have exactly the same color if you played it 10 years from now. I don’t know how the colors are “set,” but once they are, they’re locked in for life.

Does all this sound-color affect your music-making?

Yes: a whole lot. I rely on it to play musical instruments and read music. I also compose, record, produce, mix, and master primarily by color and shape. From what I gather, for me making music is a lot like painting/visual arts are for others. I don’t compose notes so much as I choose colors and shapes; I don’t mix the tracks so much as I move blobs and figures around the canvas.

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