HIS IS GOING TO GET WEIRD, so please bear with me. Do you picture each number and letter in a specific color? What about Monday? Or November?
If you answered yes to any of these questions, you probably have a condition called synesthesia.
For synesthetes, the senses cross over to some extent. We can’t just see the number 7 as a black numeral on a white background. It has a definite color. Of course, my color is probably different from your color. Hence the first rule of synesthesia: never judge another synesthete’s colors.
They say two to four percent of the population has synesthesia. There are different types and degrees of the condition. I have a mild case. I perceive colors for numbers, letters, months, days of the week, and each of the U.S. states.
My two eldest children have additional symptoms. My son tastes flavors when he speaks or hears certain words. For example, “lightbulb” is minty. As for my daughter, she recently revealed that certain male voices trigger specific food cravings for her. A church friend we knew years ago sounded like chocolate cake. A priest who recently filled in at our parish made her want turkey (carved straight off the bird, mind you—not the lunchmeat kind). At least her diet is balanced; one of her online teachers is refried beans, and another priest we know sounds like crunchy red apples.
Somehow, I’m mushrooms. But she loves mushrooms on pizza.
So far, the condition sounds harmless, but you can imagine where I’m going with this. Musicians rely on hearing. Hearing is a sense. If synesthesia makes the senses cross over, then couldn’t that interfere with making music?
For me, the effect has been mixed; it gives me another form of perception, but it’s one that’s hard to explain to others. I’ll sometimes hear a voice singing and think that it sounds too yellow, or that it needs more yellow. But what is yellow in this context? I love baritone sounds that are coppery-brown rather than chocolatey brown. But how to teach that?
When I hear another organist play, I often perceive an overall color for the piece. I’m not sure whether it’s related to the registration, the key, the texture, or some other factor.
When I’m improvising at the organ, I try to remain aware of what key I’m in and where I’m at in the scale. I perceive each of the keys as a color, but since I don’t have perfect pitch, I’m going off of the color of the letter rather than the sound of the note. I also picture the colors of the other two notes in the triad. This helps me ground myself in the key as I picture the three colors swirling together.
Now, I can imagine how someone who has severe synesthesia plus perfect pitch might get bothered by certain consonant combinations of notes that happen to have clashing colors. Or something like that. But I suspect synesthesia is generally a slight help to musicians.
If you’re a musician with synesthesia, I’d love to hear from you in the Facebook comments. Please feel free to share your experiences and anecdotes.
Ah, synesthesia. If you know, you know. If you don’t, you’ll probably never fully understand. Remember when celebrities used to wear colored lapel ribbons to show how deeply they cared about various issues? I’ve often thought there should be a Synesthesia Awareness ribbon.
But it will never happen. We would never agree on the color of the ribbon.