American Culture

ArtSunday: What color is your music?

Cover, Wednesday is Indigo Blue (courtesy, Wikimedia)

On the wall in my studio (which serves me for both music making and writing) I have a huge dry mount poster of The Beatles. This is no surprise for those who know me – but why I love that particular poster might be. The colors (it’s from a fairly early time – perhaps even from the photo shoot that gave us the iconic cover for their masterwork Rubber Soul) are all yellow-to-gold tinted – the blacks of their outfits, the brown-to auburn-of their hair, even their skin is gold-toned.

That picture looks like what The Beatles sound like to me.

See, there’s this thing called synesthesia and apparently I have it.

So this next book from the 2013 reading listWednesday is Indigo Blue, intrigued me because it explains the history of synesthesia studies and how new technologies related to neuroscience and genetics are helping scientists both create and prove testable hypotheses about the synesthetic phenomenon and find explanations for why it occurs in (roughly 1 in 23 according to the latest data) people. Authors Richard Cytowic and David Eagleman, distinguished researchers themselves, write for lay readers as much as for colleagues (a refreshing and, sadly, all too uncommon practice among scholars) and the book is quite readable, if a bit challenging, because of both the quality and quantity of the charts, graphs, tables and other explanatory material that enrich the text even as they make it read at times a bit too much like a chapter from your old psychology textbook.

There’s a lot of science in this text, much of which I will gloss over, primarily because I don’t want you to glaze over trying to follow me. So let’s get to the gist: synesthesia is a psychological phenomenon caused by what the authors call “cross talk” between areas of the brain (speech/color identification, letter-word-number symbols/color, musical tones/color are some of the more common forms) that normally act (to the conscious mind) discretely from one another.  All of us, it’s possible (actually, probable) are born as synesthetes: the acts of acquiring language, mathematical fluency, and  other cognitive skills causes, somehow, cause our synesthesia to decline as we reach adulthood. We probably still have it; it is simply not easily accessed by our conscious minds.

Well, your conscious minds. Synesthetes, for some reason, retain the ability to “cross talk” among various brain centers. And experience the world rather differently as a result.

What this means is that some people “see,” for example, textual symbols in colors: 7 might be green, C might be orange, etc. This, called grapheme/color synesthesia, is probably the most common sort. As mentioned above, other sorts of synesthetic response are triggered (as in my case) by musical tones (bass is dark brown; guitars are golden or silvery variations always mixed with other colors, usually in the red family; drums are steel gray – but can add black or dark blues; voices always start from cream but flow with swirls of color – John is coffee, maybe milk chocolate swirled – Paul is raspberry).

In my own band, as recently as last Tuesday night, I said to my co-composer Steve as we worked on a new song, “This needs to sound more autumnal – you know, like early November, more towards brown but still with flecks of orange and yellow and maybe a hint of red if we can figure out how to get that in.”

You may be wondering about this by now, so let me ease your curiosity: yes, a much higher percentage of artists are synesthetic than the general population. This includes not just visual artists but musicians and writers, too.  Famous examples? Vladimir Nabokov, Wassily Kandinsky, David Hockney, Franz Liszt, Olivier Messiaen even, possibly (though now somewhat doubtful) Baudelaire and Rimbaud…and others.

The other thing you may be wondering about is whether synesthesia can be artificially stimulated. Yes, it can – both by the use of drugs (hallucinogenics, primarily) but also by deep meditation such as that practiced by Zen Buddhist monks, Hindu Yogis, or Native American shamen.  Cytowic and Eagleman are quick to note that they recommend trying the meditation method rather than the pharmacological one.

I could not possibly do justice to such a thorough discussion of both the characteristics of the many forms synesthesia takes and its vagaries in manifesting itself. If this subject interests you at all, and especially if you think you might be a synesthete,  I suggest you find this book and explore it for yourself – you’ll find it enlightening – possibly revelatory.

Meanwhile, as I write this, The Rolling Stones are playing “Mixed Emotions.” The rusty red from Keith’s guitar blends awesomely with the faded magenta from Ron’s. And no one’s bass is that exact light walnut color of Bill Wyman’s.  And Charlie -steel wheels, indeed.

The colors, man, the colors….

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1 reply »

  1. It is a fascinating book for those of us who have some form of synesthesia but a good read for anyone interested in nuances of neurological functions. I will always maintain my issues with math, at an early age, were due to the difficulty of assigning a numerical value to something that already had a visual ‘value’ in my head.
    I’m glad I found out what it was so I could explain to colleagues, two years later, who had heard me state that ‘4’ is always blue and thought I’d lost my mind. Until that moment I had never realized not everyone ‘saw’ numbers in specific colors before.
    I am also glad it’s something we share even if it’s in different forms.