Music and synesthesia

Another association described in “Musicophilia” is the condition known as “synesthesia”. This means that somehow the region of the brain that deals with perceiving colors gets linked to a sound perception area or more particularly, pitch recognition. All of these kinds of phenomena are fascinating, but they will always intrigue you more when you witness it in someone. I happen to have a student who is visually impaired, who has enough sight to get around without a cane. A few weeks ago, as I was giving him his drum lesson, he started to tell me what fundamental pitch the cymbal had; as I checked on the piano, he proved to have the right pitch. I then went to the vibraphone and, sure enough, he could name each pitch. This kid is thirteen and nobody had noticed that in him. The next week, as before, we were listening to various pitches. He told me that F# was his favorite note because it was making him think of the color blue, and as I asked him about the other pitches, he started describing what colour the twelve different pitches made him feel.

After discovering this I started asking my other students, and sure enough, one of the sax players in my jazz ensemble has synesthesia, with tones and keys having shades of colours, or a certain brightness, that is unique to them and also has strong color association with numbers. Synesthesia means fusion of the senses, which means there can be any one of them involved. Some people also see things like numbers in landscapes, which actually hit close to home. I have always seen numbers that way, going along a path that angles right, left and up, with different shades of brightness, but no colours. I experiences this as well with days of the week, and months of the year; and as I was thinking about it, it is how I memorize pieces of music. So it can be used as a mnemonic device, too.

Oliver Sacks says in his book that about one in two thousand people manifest this condition, and he suggests that there might be a greater ratio, since most people who have the condition don’t see it as such; it is just the way things are, so they don’t usually talk about it.