Synesthesia in Music (What it is, Famous Musicians, Types)

The topic of Synesthesia comes up quite a lot among popular musicians. Some famous musicians claim it’s a major source of their creativity and inspiration. What exactly is it and what musicians have it?

Synesthesia is a cognitive phenomenon in which senses are intertwined. It is not a disease or a health condition, but simply a different perceptive experience. The term derives from the Ancient Greek, and its literal meaning is “union of the senses”.

With synesthesia, the stimulation of a sense can lead to the involuntary and parallel stimulation of another one. For example, when synesthetes hear a sound they might also see a color. This reaction is completely spontaneous and immediate.

Before we get into the explanation of synesthesia in more detail, let’s look at some popular musicians who experience it:

Popular Musicians with Synesthesia

Some popular musicians experience synesthesia, mostly in the chromesthesia form (sounds associated to colors and shapes).

Pharrell Williams, for example, explained how he links the basic rainbow colors to the seven notes.

Another great musician with synesthesia is Billy Joel, who reported a pleasant experience with his peculiar perceptive condition. He associates colors to genres and mood (for instance, ballads sound blue, while rock songs sound red). Joel is very fond of his chromesthesia, and he’s convinced it hugely helped him in terms of inspiration and creativity.

Experimental Techno/Ambient musician Aphex Twin, connects sounds to smells, not just to colors.

The electronic music genius Jon Hopkins described a childhood experience in which, while listening to a Beethoven symphony, he involuntarily associated the sound of French horns to a circular shape appearing in front of his eyes. He seems to connect different types of sounds spatially, which must work very well for his complex, layered and textured music.

Moreover, the Welsh pop-star Marina and the Diamonds also talked about her experience with synesthesia, describing how she associates musical notes and days of the week to colors.

What is Synesthesia

It is often difficult to identify this experience, but science has importantly progressed in the last few years, as more and more cases have been tested and recorded.

What is the actual experience behind this unusual, at trait fascinating, cognitive phenomenon?

Scientists observed and classified different types of synesthesia, as synesthetes can experience various intersections of the senses.

There are two main categories: with projective synesthesia, people associate a perception (for example a sound) with specific colors or shapes; with associative synesthesia, people involuntarily feel a strong connection between the stimulus and the sense triggered.

Within these broad categories, neuroscientists collocated plenty more forms of synesthesia.

The most common forms are the grapheme-color synesthesia, where synesthetes always perceive letters and/or numbers associated with a specific color, and chromesthesia, where sounds are associated with colors and shapes.

Chromesthesia is the most common kind of synesthesia among musicians, who can sometimes even benefit from this phenomenon, for example in the development of an absolute pitch. A specific key, in this case, can be associated with a specific color, becoming instantly recognizable (a very useful skill for musicians!).

Another form of synesthesia associated with sounds is the lesser common misophonia, where the perception of a sound can trigger a negative emotion or experience.

With auditory-tactile synesthesia, a person can perceive specific sensations in given parts of their body when they hear a sound. For example, when listening to a specific word, they might feel as if their skin is being touched. This form of synesthesia is not very common and there are very few recorded cases.

Some other forms of synesthesia are not associated with sounds or colors, but to self-built mental maps. In spatial-sequence synesthesia, for example, people perceive numbers or dates associated with specific locations in space. A certain number or year, for example, might be experienced as a point either far or close. In number form synesthesia, instead, synesthetes involuntarily perceive a clear mental map every time they think of or see a number.

There are plenty more categories, describing how the senses can be intertwined with each other. Scientists agree there can be at least eighty different forms of synesthesia.

What is the cause of Synesthesia?

While it isn’t easy to classify all the different possible forms of synesthesia, neuroscientists have found evidence of this perceiving phenomenon in MRI scans.

People with color synesthesia, who perceive specific colors when hearing certain words, had areas of their brain activated in a peculiar way. In particular, scientists observed an overlap in the activation of two different areas of the brain, which doesn’t happen in people not affected by synesthesia.

Some tests on subjects with grapheme-color synesthesia have shown that an excessive interconnection in the visual cortex of the brain might be the cause of the phenomenon. Some physicians believe this condition to be genetic and hereditary.

Are you a Synesthete?

Statistics suggest that one person out of 2000 regularly has experiences that match the symptoms of synesthesia. Doctors have come up with a series of tests to understand whether a person has this perceptive condition or not.

There are four main tests anyone can try to find out whether they’re synesthetes.

Visual tests are common to diagnose grapheme-color synesthesia and they can be as simple as a plain group of numbers or letters written in black on a piece of paper. If the person tested sees the graphemes colored, he or she probably has synesthesia.

Auditory tests are useful to identify chromesthesia. When a sound is emitted, the synesthete might see colors or shapes, or even perceive tastes or smells.

To have further proof of the condition, doctors can rely on the Test-Reset trial. In this test, doctors ask a person to associate colors, flavors and smelling sensations to a given set of objects (sounds, numbers, letters, and so on). If even after many trials the tested person doesn’t change their associations, proving these to be automatic and consistent, they probably have synesthesia.

Lastly, the Stroop Effect tests the subject’s reaction time to certain stimulation, to understand whether the associations are involuntary, automatic, and consistent.

In conclusion, far from being a handicap, synesthesia is a perceptive condition that can even enhance the creativity of a person. The experiences associated with this state are mostly described as positive or neutral.

Synesthetes can even have a better memory, as the associations between two different senses work as a sort of mental map.

Synesthesia has proven particularly useful for musicians, who can use the involuntary links between sounds and colors produced by their brain to heighten their creativity and boost their inspiration.

Featured image by: By Shawn Ahmed – , CC BY 2.0, Wiki
Pharrell Williams – Image by: Frank Schwichtenberg, CC BY-SA 4.0, via Wikimedia Commons
Billy Joel – Image by: slgckgc, CC BY 2.0, via Wikimedia Commons
Aphex Twin – Image by: Octavio Ruiz Cervera, CC BY-SA 2.0, via Wikimedia Commons
Jon Hopkins – Image by: Matt Biddulph from UK, CC BY-SA 2.0, via Wikimedia Commons
Marina and the Diamonds – Image by: Drew de F Fawkes, CC BY 2.0, via Wikimedia Commons

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