Playing Musical Instruments

I’ve mentioned how my colored graphemes are projected onto whatever I’m reading; this, in general, is very useful. A similar phenomenon happens when I play musical instruments.

The Colored Piano Keyboard

Let’s take the piano, for instance. When I was a little kid, I knew what a piano was but hadn’t had any musical training. I remember discovering a piano at a cousin’s house and “writing” my first “song.” Instead of making a melody of notes, I just pounded the lowest notes on the keyboard, which filled the room with dark metallic streaks. I performed it for my family. “This song is called ‘Jailhouse Rock,'” I remember saying; Not because the notes sounded like a jail or rock, but because the colors of the sounds they made looked like iron bars on a jail cell.

Although sounds were in color, how I saw piano keys was similar to how anybody would see them: black and white.

After I’d been playing saxophone for a few years, I asked for a keyboard for Christmas. My hope was that by learning to play keyboard, I could attract more girls than with a measly old saxophone*. I asked somebody to show me where “C” was, and from that I figured out the rest of the notes.

  • This plan was not especially successful

Eventually I knew the note that each key made. I didn’t realize this until much later, but as I learned the notes, they were literally projected onto the keys. When I learned that first note, “C”, suddenly that key was a yellowish color when I looked at a keyboard. By the time I’d learned each of the 12 notes, each one had its own color- which was, of course, the same color as its corresponding letter… with some differences. Inexplicably, A flat is a strange shade of green, which makes no sense considering both the letter A and the word “flat” are yellowish.

This experience is the same as my other projected synesthetic experiences: I have no control over it (I can’t prevent it from happening) but unlike my color-sound, this was learned. Piano keys were black and white until I learned what notes they made. Now, whenever I look at a piano keyboard, it looks something like this:

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This happens whether I am looking at a keyboard in front of me, in a picture, or even thinking of a keyboard in my head. It’s in color.

Well jeez, that seems like an unfair advantage! You just look at the keys and the colors tell you which ones to play!

That’s true, but an important point is I learned the notes first, and only then did I start seeing them in color.

There’s no doubt in my mind that this greatly assisted in my learning of piano, especially since I effectively taught myself how to play with very little outside instruction. Of course my brain has to remember which keys made which notes, but that happens beneath the surface. The end result is I look at a keyboard and it is lit up with color.

The Saxophone

Before I learned the notes on a piano keyboard, I learned the notes on a saxophone. I started playing alto saxophone in fourth grade in the elementary school band. Due to a lack of proper education from the band teacher, my dad actually taught me which keys made which notes (he had played saxophone in his youth as well).

All of this was well before I had ever heard of synesthesia or thought that my experiences might be unusual, and yet the saxophone began to light up as I learned how to play it.

Unlike the piano keyboard which has a very visual layout, saxophone keys are a jumble of metal. The keys don’t look like much; Indeed, even after all these years I do not see any colors projected when I look at a saxophone.*

  • As long as nobody is playing the saxophone. If somebody is playing the saxophone, I see the colors/shapes/textures of the sounds they are making

However, I have a very strong mental map of the note/pitch layout of the saxophone. I started this explanation with a piano keyboard because that is, perhaps, less abstract than my map of saxophone keys. Looking at this picture I made, I can see it looks like abstract modern art of some kind- but there is nothing abstract about it. It is as close to literally what I see when I pick up a saxophone as anything I’ve ever seen.

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As with the piano keyboard, notes only gained color when I learned them. There are many notes on the saxophone I didn’t learn until much later, and consequently I didn’t have any color, shape, or location for them until I did. An example is the “high A” (altissimo) note on tenor saxophone, which is that set of 4 yellow circles near the top of my picture. That was not part of my original “map,” but was gradually added as I practiced that fingering.

The pitch directly below that “high A,” the “high A flat” (or as I think of it, “G sharp” – it’s more purple than yellow) interestingly does not have a very defined location in my map. I think there are a few reasons for this: I found that fingering difficult to learn for some reason, and even once I learned it, that particular note was difficult and inconsistent on my particular saxophone.

I can certainly play that note whenever I want, but its location and shape on my map are less defined than other, more established notes like “low D” (the big black blob near the bottom).

Other instruments

For a long time I exclusively focused on saxophone (and keyboard, but just to create backing tracks to practice at home) thinking that spending time on any other instrument would take away time that should be spent honing my saxophone skills. Eventually I decided that was bogus, that learning how to play more instruments would only enhance my musicianship in general. Not to mention all the different colors and shapes I could create by learning other instruments (saxophone is a fairly boring yellow color).

In grad school I bought an electric bass on eBay and taught myself how to play it.* At first, the fretboard was just that; no colors, no notes, just strings and inlays. But once I learned how to play a few notes, the fretboard started to light up.

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  • Well, YouTube and the internet actually taught me how to play it

I should mention that I’m not that proficient at the bass, so I don’t see these colors as quickly or vibrantly as I do for the saxophone or keyboard; but they are certainly there when I am playing bass.

That bass from eBay kicked off a hobby of learning new instruments; I started to purchase and hoard various instruments. Acoustic guitar, bass clarinet, various flutes; As I learned each, they all developed their own “map.” Guitar-like instruments always have a map similar to the bass; Flute-like instruments (clarinet, flute, etc.) have a map like my saxophone map. More unusual instruments like kalimba (thumb piano) have their own unique maps, complete with automatic color overlays.

Recently, as I spend my days thinking about synesthesia and attempting to examine my own experiences, I realize this “automatic sound-color-map” phenomenon happens more often and more quickly than I thought.

If I load drum sounds into a sampler and play them with my Akai MIDI drumpad, after a few minutes of exploration I start to see a map of the sounds on top of the pads. This is a little crazy- even to me- because it happens so quickly, and each sampler instrument I create has different sounds for each note.

Here’s an example of what this looks like; In this case, I loaded the sounds of a vintage analog drum machine (bass drum, snare, toms, hihat, etc):

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Color-shape-note maps in practice

So you have these fancy maps you use for playing notes.. but how does it work “in the field”?

Let’s say I’m playing saxophone and I want to play a G major arpeggio- basically a bunch of notes in a G chord (in this case, G, B, and D). As soon as I think of a G major chord, I think of purple-brown-black (because g b d).

Because I’ve probably played a G major arpeggio about a million times, the way that set of notes looks to me is well-ingrained in my color map. When I think of G major, the notes that belong to that chord sort of light up in my color-note map, a kind of “color by numbers.” This is particularly difficult to create a picture of, but I think this will do:

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The same thing happens for any other set of pitches/notes I’ve learned. If I think about the C harmonic minor scale, for instance, all the notes in that scale light up as if to say “play me! play me!”

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As you might guess, this comes in handy when improvising. While playing through a series of chord changes, the notes from that chord/scale “light up” as the chords change- assuming I either know the tune or can hear what the chords are (usually the latter). I certainly don’t have to play the notes that light up, but it is incredibly helpful to know which notes will work (and conversely, which ones will be “out” or outside the given chord/scale).

Conclusion

Does this give you an advantage in playing instruments?

Almost definitely.

I want to reiterate, however, that these maps and colors don’t appear until I actually learn the instrument, or at least part of the instrument. I can’t just pick up a completely new instrument and play a sonata, but as I’ve recently learned, the “color-shape-overlay-map” gets created very quickly. It doesn’t take long for me to find my way around an instrument, in a large part due to the colors.

The colors won’t “light up” until I’ve learned that particular scale or arpeggio. I wasn’t born with any musical training, but my brain makes it fairly easy to learn*.

  • Music comes easy to me, but other things- like math- are incredibly difficult, perhaps because I don’t have automatic maps created to help guide me through them. Why I have these maps for music and not other skills is a mystery. Maybe if I spent enough time developing my math chops, my colors would help, but so far that has never happened.

Additionally, just like every other musician, there is a very large component of muscle memory involved whenever I play an instrument. Those hours of practicing scales didn’t just solidify which color patterns I should play for which keys, they also taught my fingers where to go.

So you don’t really need the colors, they’re just helpful in music-making?

Conceivably I could play music through muscle memory even if my colors were “turned off,” but I have trouble picturing what that would be like.

I imagine it would be similar to driving a car while blindfolded. Surely you could still operate the pedals and the steering wheel, but you’d have no idea where you were or where you were going.

18 responses

  1. Andrew Oom- wow, that sounds like synesthesia to me. If the colors and shapes are always the same (i.e. G major is always the same color over the years) it’s probably synesthesia. The whole projection thing is not as common as association.
    By “almost everything” what do you mean? Letters, notes, keys, tastes, people, shapes, sounds, smells?

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  2. Wow, that’s awesome. Sounds like the answer is just to make music with your eyes closed!
    I find drinks taste more colorful than food, but I have a feeling it’s because there’s less to look at. When you eat a grapefruit, it’s hard not to be affected by the pink and yellow of it.. But when you drink an IPA with simcoe hops, all you have to look at is some pale brown water stuff. I find it easier to see the flavor when the food itself looks boring.

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  3. Absolutely! Of course your experiences are you unique to you, but likely it gives you insight that “normals” don’t have.. or at least gives you a slight advantage.
    I think I’m pretty good at tasting subtle flavors because I’m looking at the flavor.. like “that little bit of pointy-tasting rosemary is hiding over there behind those cumin bubbles over there”

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