Reading Music

Just as I read and write in color, I also read and write music in color. As with my colored instrument-note maps and colored piano keys these colors did not start appearing until I actually learned how to read music. Once that happened, they never stopped appearing.

The Basics

My musical note colors seem to have been decided almost exclusively from my colored letters, with some variations. In other words, the musical note “A” is the same color as the English letter “A”.

I remember learning to read music notation; As I learned what each line and space meant, the colors started to fill in. Eventually, each note had a color- the same color as its colored grapheme equivalent. This color is literally projected onto the page, just like my colored symbols.

It’s hard to say exactly how helpful this was to learning musical notation. This wasn’t really a shortcut; I still had to learn what each note actually represented before the colors were projected onto it. But once they were projected, all I had to do was glance at- or even think of- a staff filled with notes and they would be in color.

I want to point out now that this experience is completely separate (but related) to my experience of actually seeing the sound of particular notes. A g on the staff is purple, but if a Fender Rhodes electric piano plays that G, the sound will likely be blue.


My fist experiences making music revolved around jazz; my parents found me an amazing saxophone teacher- Dan Bowyer- who proceeded to introduce me to improvisation, blue scales, and other concepts that have informed my music making ever since.

Although I didn’t realize it at the time, a big part of learning to improvise is learning the intervals of notes and how they relate to each other. For instance, the interval of c to g is a fifth; between c and e is a major third. Each interval has a very particular sound.*

  • …And color, and gender, and personality; not to mention the gender and social relationships between the notes and intervals involved

Eventually, I began to think of the relationships between notes as more than just than yellow to purple; I started to think of the intervals as well. I don’t think this happened until much later, perhaps near the end of high school as my musical understanding developed.

Just as with the colors of the musical notes, the colors of intervals came from my colored graphemes.

Although these colors weren’t always projected onto the music I was reading (for them to appear, I’d need to know the intervals between all of the pitches) they were usually there when I was improvising. I definitely do not picture a musical staff when I’m improvising, but this image will suffice to illustrate my colored intervals.


  • The interval of “8” is actually “1” because there are really only 7 notes in music; The 8th note is an octave, which is when the series of notes starts over again. Higher intervals like 9ths and 11ths certainly have their own colors, but for the sake of simplicity I left them off this image

Things get complicated

Let’s recap: In musical notation, each pitch has its own color, as does each interval. I see colored pitches when reading music (and remembering music I’ve read) and I see colored intervals sometimes when reading music but almost always when improvising.

Although I have some control over which set of colors I’m focusing on, for the most part these colors are all happening at the same time. That is, it’s almost impossible for me to think of a series of pitches without thinking of their interval relationships.

For instance, a C major scale (c d e f g a b c) and the various intervals as they relate to the root (key) of that scale (1 2 3 4 5 6 7 1). These overlapping colors look sort of like this:


In “reality”*, the notes don’t really have halos like that; the two sets of colors sort of exist on two separate but concurrent layers. Not unlike layers in a graphics program like Photoshop.

  • In this case, reality means “my reality,” as the specific set of synesthetic associations for each synesthete – as far as science can tell- is completely unique

Confused yet? The note “D” (the black one near the left) is slightly colored yellow-ish because it is a major 2nd from the root note of C. The purple note g is influenced by a different yellow tinge because it is the 5th in the key of C.

In Practice*

  • Pun intended!

For me, musical thought and musical notation are extremely colorful. So far we’ve discussed my colored notes (which are really graphemes- a fancy name for symbols) and my colored intervals. When I read music, my colored notes are projected onto the page- literally- the same way they are when I read text.

My musical training started with jazz, and indeed the majority of my education revolved around it. A huge part of learning jazz is playing “tunes” and improvising over “changes.” Changes are series of chords that make up the background of a song; these chord changes are played through repeatedly to provide a structure for improvisation.

As it turns out, my colors make it fairly easy- and very fun and colorful- to “play changes” (that is, improvise new melodies over the series of cycling chord changes). Each pitch has a color, each interval has a color, and the chord names themselves exert a color over the time in which they happen.

What does all that mean? A fairly accurate way to represent what I’m thinking when I’m soloing over changes would be this:


Let’s break this down:

  • The big swatches of color (purple, blue, yellow) come from the roots of the chord changes
  • The colors of each note comes from… the colors of each note, of course
  • The other colors of each note comes from their interval in relation to the chord currently happening (in this case, g7, e7 or a-).

Additionally, if I’m improvising over a set of chord changes, as the chords move from one set of notes to another (that’s really what chords are, after all) my instrument-note-map changes accordingly. In other words, when I see a g7 chord on the page, all the notes that “work” in the g7 chord sort of light up.

Wow. That seems like cheating. You must have it easy! Just “solo by color!”

It’s hard for me to imagine how the hell anybody else improvises. Without the colors, how would you know which notes are going to sound good, and which ones will sound weird? The colors of the notes and intervals are so inseparable from the idea of notes and intervals, I doubt I’d be able to improvise if my synesthesia were suddenly turned off.

Again, it’s hard to guess what this experience is like for other people, but I find it extremely fun, beautiful, and satisfying. Whether I play a bunch of colors that match* the chord/colors perfectly or find notes that are contrasting colors, the act of improvising is incredibly enjoyable.

  • Of course I mean “match” literally. If a c major7 chord (which contains the notes c e g bis playing, I know that playing a certain set of notes (c e g b) is going to match and sound consonant. Alternatively, if I want to play something that doesn’t match, either for musical affect or simply because I think it will literally look interesting, I could choose notes like f# d c# ab.

Perhaps I have some advantage over folks who don’t have colored notes or chords, but it is not all roses.


By the time I started at the Western Michigan University School of Music, all of the colors and systems I’ve just described were well established. They happened automatically and immediately; I had absolutely no control over the colors, except that relationships only expressed themselves visually if I intellectually knew what they were. Of course I was no master of improvisation (I’m only as good as my musical understanding) but this system worked very well for me.

One of the music major requirements was a class called “Aural Comprehension.” It was a sort of skill development class that focused on two areas: The ability to recognize notes and chords simply by hearing them (“ear training” or “transcribing”) and the ability to sing musical passages on sight without any sort of preparation or practice (“sight singing”).

Thanks to my colored hearing and the extensive system of intervals I just described, the “ear training” portion of the class was a walk in the park for me. Generally, if I did not get 100% on any given transcription test, I was either not paying attention or I had skipped class. The “sight singing” portion, however, gave me serious issues.

The bass clef problem

Until my freshman year, there had never been any reason for me to concern myself with the mysterious bass clef. For this explanation, it’s not necessary for you to know why there are different clefs; All you need to know is the lines and spaces of the bass clef represent different notes than they do in the treble clef (the “normal” clef). For instance, a note in the bottom space of a treble clef is an “F,” while a note in the bottom space of a bass clef is an “A.”

To learn to read in bass clef, I effectively had to re-learn which colors went with which lines and spaces. This may not seem so difficult; After all, the colored notes for my treble clef appeared without any coaxing. As soon as I learned which line made “D,” notes there simply turned black. (Of course they were already black, but that’s neither here nor there.)

But it was difficult. Incredibly difficult. So difficult in fact, I consistently received low grades whenever the bass clef (or singing*) was involved. Part of it was certainly my laziness and disinterest (“why should I learn the stupid bass clef? I play saxophone [which uses the treble clef exclusively]”), but the main issue was the colors. Notes on the bass clef were “wrong;” I had to concentrate a great deal to override the treble clef colors that automatically burst onto the page whenever I looked at sheet music.

  • I was (and still am) pretty terrible at singing. I have trouble hitting pitches and singing in tune. Combined with my other difficulty in reading bass clef, it was a perfect storm of musical difficulties.

Here is bass clef looks like now with a C major scale (years after I finally learned how to read it):


If you look back to my drawing of the treble clef, you might notice it’s exactly the same- except all the notes/colors/intervals are shifted up. You wouldn’t think that this would be so difficult. “Just move your colors up a few steps!” But it’s not that easy. As I’ve mentioned, I have very little control over the colors; I certainly can’t stop them from appearing.

For the first time ever, I had to make a conscious effort to ignore my colors and really think about what I was actually seeing. When I looked at a bass clef I saw exactly the same thing as a treble clef, but it wasn’t the same!

There were some overlaps that helped. The note f occupied the lowest space on the treble clef, while the note a did so on the bass clef. I could remember “the lowest space is always a yellow color,” which helped me out of many confusing mornings in class.

Another overlap was the note b on the treble clef and d on the bass clef; they both occupied the middle line. Personally, b and d get along quite well*, even though they are different colors. b is a little more outgoing than d, but they always had plenty of time to hang out: Lots of chords put both of them together. Chords like G major (g b d), B minor (b d f#), and D minor 6 (d f a b).

  • This is a symptom of my grapheme-gender/personality synesthesia

These strange but effective relationships helped me tackle the previously “totally wrong-colored” bass clef.

The solfege problem

Just when I started to feel comfortable with the bass clef, using the social and gender relationships between pitches as cheat sheets, solfege happened.

from Wikipedia:

Solfege is a music education method used to teach pitch and sight singing. The technique of solfege involves assigning the notes of a scale a particular syllable, and then practicing by singing different note sequences using these syllables.
Solfege seemed to be very helpful for many music students. I can certainly understand how putting two kinds of information (like notes and color or in this case notes and words) can assist in learning.

However, the class requirement of learning- and using- solfege made an already difficult and confusing class even more difficult and confusing. I’ll explain why.

Learning an additional piece of color for each note in treble clef wasn’t so bad. If anything, it was annoying because I already had at least two different sets of color for each pitch (note and interval), but it certainly wasn’t impossible to add an additional one- even though it was completely constructed and not automatic (the way the rest of my colors were). It didn’t take me too terribly long to incorporate solfege onto my colored staff, at least to some extent.


But there was more. By this time in college, each note had a color. Each interval also had a color. I was slowly learning bass clef, where all the colors had strange alter-egos where they pretended to be other notes (b dressed up as d and so on).

With the addition of solfege, there was now another layer of color; an addition two or three characters that I was required to associate with each note- for a grade!

As I discussed in the post about my colored graphemes, each letter has a very specific color (not to mention a gender, personality, and social relationships, but that is information for a different post…). That meant each solfege syllable was adding an additional two or three new colors (one for each letter) on top of my existing framework of automatically-projecting colors.

This wasn’t so bad in treble clef, but it was downright disasterous in bass clef. Whenever I had to deal with bass clef and solfege, the layers of color I saw went something like this:

  • The color for each note’s pitch on treble clef, which I tried to ignore
  • The color for each note’s pitch on bass clef
  • The color for each note’s interval on treble clef (again, I tried to supress this)
  • The color for each note’s interval on bass clef
  • The color of each letter in each solfege syllable for each note’s pitch on treble clef (because I was still having trouble reading bass clef)
  • The color of each letter in each solfege syllable for each note’s pitch on bass clef

Obviously, that is a lot of stuff going on. Granted, I was used to dealing with many layers of color, and generally found all of them extremely useful. In this case, however, it was a neurological train wreck. Whether I looked at a bass clef on a page or thought of one in my mind’s eye, it was littered with layers of conflicting color information, all jumbled together as if the notes were having identity crises.

Although I was never able to really see all the layers at the same time (that sure would have been helpful) this is what it would have looked like had I been able to wrangle all of the conflicting color information:


That mess, coupled with my inability to sing, caused me a great deal of problems and stress in “Aural Comprehension.” I know it was strange to others as well: How is it possible you can do so well on ear training and so badly at sight singing?

The teacher actually asked that very question, although I think she put it into nicer words. Julie Evans Little is a great teacher, and she approached me about these issues in the most understanding way. I remember having a meeting in her office, and that she seemed so perplexed. Aside from my bad singing, she couldn’t figure out why I had so much trouble with solfege and bass clef.

I did my best to describe my synesthesia and how the layers of information were conflicting and confusing me, although I doubt I was able to articulate this in a way that made much sense. (Hopefully I’m doing a better job now.)

I seem to remember sight singing for her without using solfege, there in her office, in an effort to show her I knew intervals even though it appeared otherwise.

I don’t remember if she’d heard of synesthesia, but she was understanding of my mental blocks- whatever the source.

But she couldn’t make an exception for me; I would still have to learn solfege and sight-sing with it just like all the other students. I never expected her to say “don’t worry about solfege”- it was a class requirement after all. Julie’s compassion and understanding went a very long way to making me more comfortable in that class.

I continued to get low grades on sight singing and excellent grades on ear training and transcribing; In the end the average of those two grades worked out without any consequence to my GPA.

I remember the very last exam I took for that class: Sight singing in front of a panel of music faculty. Of course some of the selections were written in bass clef. That class- and that exam in particular- were some of the most difficult and frustrating parts of college, but I made it through. If it weren’t for Julie’s understanding, it certainly would have been even more challenging!


Upon reading how I improvise by color or how I see interval colors projected onto the page, perhaps it’s easy to think I have a musical magic bullet; That music comes easy to me because my brain just works that way.

To some extent, that’s true; It is impossible to overplay the importance of my colors in everything I do musically (and most non-musical things). As I’ve said before, I can’t imagine making music without them.

But they can cause issues. Just as I’m easily confused between numbers like 3 and 4 or 6 and 9, certain concepts cause a huge amount of confusion. I am positive my grades would have been significantly better in Aural Comprehension had I been allowed to disregard solfege, but I never really wanted an exception.

The colors are good to me; I’m incredibly lucky to have them, and although sometimes they may cause issues, I wouldn’t ever want to be without them.

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