Synesthesia and Music: The Art of Noise

When Frank Ocean first fell in love, he said, everything felt orange. Whilst when Pharrell Williams listened to Earth, Wind & Fire as a kid, he saw burgundy or baby blue. The pair are just some of the artists with the neurological condition, synaesthesia, in which senses that aren’t typically connected merge together. Through the lens of her own unique experience with chromesthesia, Amber Frost delves beneath this fascinating sensory phenomena.

Synesthesia is a neurological condition that leads the experiencer to respond to multiple stimuli and senses simultaneously. There are over eighty different types of synesthesia, from Misophonia and mirror-touch to Chromesthesia, which is, for example, the association between colour and sound. The most common type of synesthesia is Grapheme-Colour which essentially means that letters, and occasionally numbers, are experienced in colour. Most people experience this type of synesthesia without even realizing what it is, or without being aware that it’s a small segment of neurodivergence. One particular example in modern media is the scene in Pixar’s ‘Ratatouille’ where the main character, Remy, experiences colours and sounds when eating certain combinations of food.

There are many musicians who experience synesthesia when composing and writing music; American composer Duke Ellington, for example, saw the note ‘D’ as a dark blue burlap whilst ‘G’ was a light blue satin. Kanye West associates the timbre of instruments with colours also: pianos are blue, snare drums are white and bass is dark brown and purple. Each synesthete has their own unique palette with a unique set of triggers, and whilst there may be several who see the number ‘7’ as green, for example, each of these palettes is entirely inimitable. One particularly intriguing branch of synesthesia is Chromesthesia, as there are many artists who have physical artwork that details exactly what it is they see when they listen to music.

‘Many synesthete’s deliver groundbreaking virtuosity to their artforms and are able to overcome typical boundaries of style.’

Jack Coulter is an artist who is renowned for his abstract expressionist artworks. In an interview with Teen Vogue, he explains: “It’s always been difficult for me, explain to people my specific case of synesthesia, as I can hardly understand it myself… the intertwining segment of tetrachromacy (exponentially enhanced colour vision) leaves me experiencing changing colours of actual things. Like, if I’m looking at something even without sound, my colour spectrum shifts. A leaf can turn into shimmering gold, the roses in a field can change to violet then yellow, then arrive back at red. On top of this, I have sounds resonating colours… They pulsate in front of my eyes in response to the specific sounds I hear, then still linger on my iris.”

Coulter has created hundreds of pieces of artwork throughout his career, with some even belonging to musicians such as Mumford & Sons, Jack Garratt and Keith Richards who commissioned art from the young artist. Coulter has even collaborated with the London Chamber Orchestra, which marked his first time painting a live performance. In an event broadcasted by the Orchestra in 2018, the young artist painted live his response to Mendelssohn’s Violin Concerto, and the final outcome was a gloriously swirling mass of reds, pinks, and ambers.

Many synesthete’s deliver groundbreaking virtuosity to their artforms and are able to overcome the typical boundaries that their artform may present. Olivier Messiaen, a colourful composer in every sense, offers an example of how synesthesia enables oneself to transcend the boundaries presented within music. He once tried to describe his sensory skill: “I see colours when I hear sounds, but I don’t see colours with my eyes. I see colours intellectually, in my head.”

I myself have synesthesia and as a musician and composer, it can oftentimes help my own creative process. I have chromesthesia, which means I see shapes and colours when I hear certain timbres, similar to that which Kanye West experiences. When listening to Mahler’s 9th Symphony, the first movement, I see warm yellow tones interlocking with greens in a swirl like motion. Whilst I’m not an artist, I make attempts to document what it is I see but it can be hard to match it exactly.

‘Missouri-based artist Melissa McCracken is another synesthete who creates artwork that depicts particular songs and albums.’

Another way in which I experience synesthesia is with the unique timbres of different instruments: the timbre of a cello is a burnt orange shade, but depending on how it’s played and the other timbres it’s interacting with, it can also have a lilac hue. I also experience this with smell, I have a vast perfume collection due to this, so depending on the colour of my mood, I have a scent for each of these. The scent ‘Karma’ from Lush is orange with a splash of turquoise sea-green, so I find myself wearing this scent whenever it’s warm!

Missouri-based artist Melissa McCracken is another synesthete who creates artwork that depicts particular songs and albums. Her main medium is oil and acrylic paint and the result is always a polychromatic fanfare of colour. It’s incredible when looking at her artwork, as to me songs are linear and move from left to right, to be able to create a canvas of colour in a single square is quite breathtaking and I’ve listed a few song favourites to enlighten our reader’s minds.

‘Life on Mars’ – David Bowie
Ex-Factor – Lauryn Hill
‘Pink + White’ – Frank Ocean

It goes without saying that to have synesthesia is an incredible gift that allows the experiencer to view life through an entirely different lens. There is a small abundance of people, around 4%, who experience some form of the trait worldwide and each of these will experience it dramatically differently. Inspiring some unbelievable pieces of art and music, it is certainly a neurological condition that brightens up different artforms and enables one to live more creatively.

Written by: Amber Frost

Edited by: Olivia Stock


Featured and article images courtesy of @melissamccracken via Instagram.