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Musical Synesthesia: A palette of melodies

Updated: Dec 12, 2021

By Kevin Zhang Dec. 8, 2021

Ellie Kim Art

Imagine the number 15 is more than two characters drawn side-by-side but a sequence of piano notes. Imagine the deep “C” resonating from a cello is grainy and coarse, like sand slipping through cupped fingers. For 4% of America’s population, these fantasies are their everyday reality, made possible by a neurological phenomenon called synesthesia, where stimulating one of the five senses involuntarily triggers experiences of another sensation.


For most individuals, the five senses—sight, sound, smell, touch and taste—remain distinct, but synesthetes, or people with synesthesia, give new meaning to the concept of perception. Scientific American states that synesthesia’s most common form is grapheme-color synesthesia, where one visualizes written letters and numbers in idiosyncratic colors. This phenomenon is not limited to sight: any sensory shuffle is theoretically possible such as seeing sounds, known as auditory-based synesthesia or chromesthesia.


For most individuals, the five senses—sight, sound, smell, touch and taste—remain distinct, but synesthetes, or people with synesthesia, give new meaning to the concept of perception.

Although the explanations for synesthesia are still unclear, neuroscientist V.S. Ramachandran suggests that it may arise from activating unusual connections between adjacent brain regions, known as the cross-activation theory. Another hypothesis, the disinhibited feedback theory, states that the brain’s higher-order cortical areas—neural tissues responsible for sensory, motor and associative functions—send signals to primary sensory regions not originally activated by stimuli.


Being born with synesthesia is rare, but its various experiences can be consciously learned. In an interview with HuffPost, synesthete Berit Brogaard states that this involves associating objects of two different senses together. As for chromesthesia, one could associate the sounds of a string quartet with the color purple, and over time condition the brain to develop new pathways. After prolonged training, associations become automatic, paralleling real synesthetic activations.


There have already been attempts to trigger synesthetic experiences in an audience. Smithsonian reports that Steph Singer, the founder of the music and dance company BitterSuite, sought to recreate auditory synesthesia for 34 blindfolded audience members. He had dancers act out different senses upon the participants through touch, smell and taste in sync with accompanying musical passages. For example, when the music “soared,” the dancers lifted audience members’ feet to mimic weightlessness. With the audience deprived of visual perception, Singer hoped to allow other senses to command and cooperate in processing incoming sensations.


After prolonged training, associations become automatic, paralleling real synesthetic activations.

“When I was younger, I used to tell my parents how the letter “A” felt green and is more feminine and masculine than other letters. While my form of synesthesia might not have any practical uses, I think that auditory synesthesia can help musicians pursue another form of self-expression and showcase music in unprecedented ways,” Senior Hrishi Koushik said.


Auditory synesthesia’s applicability can be seen in musical artists with the condition. In his interview with National Press Republic (NPR), record producer Pharrell Williams stated that he uses it to spot errors in his songs. Given that one’s synesthetic sensations remain consistent over time, if the correct color appeared, it was in key. Williams also utilizes his synesthesia for seeking musical inspiration, using his time in the shower to let his mind wander and discover new ideas through sounds created by the water.


“When I listen to music, I feel like I am transported into another world with many attributes that belong in an alternate dimension. Different keys and tonalities tinge the world with different colors and scents, and occasionally invoke concepts that have nothing to do with the music. I find F major a romantic, pure red that invokes the number four, while E flat minor is a bleak, dark landscape that I try to avoid. When I play music, the effect is intensified,” Freshman Nadia Karpenko said.


“When I listen to music, I feel like I am transported into another world with many attributes that belong in an alternate dimension.”

In addition to music, several synesthetic visual artists use what they see in music as inspiration for their paintings. Illustrator Christina Eve uses music to draw colorful lights and abstract textures, according to her website. When Eve hears the first chords of “Doomed” by Moses Sumney, she visualizes a dark, somber blue paired with a vivid red. Besides colors, Eve can also portray emotions through her art, such as grief or hope.


More than a unique condition to be marveled at, synesthesia reveals how finite average people’s perceptions of the world may be. Metaphorical to its symphony of associations, perhaps this phenomenon’s mysterious nature is not to be uncovered, but rather appreciated.


 

About the Contributors

Kevin Zhang

Staff Writer


Kevin Zhang is a junior at Leland High School. He is indeed clinically sane, although his actions might occasionally suggest otherwise. In his free time, he enjoys playing video games, blood rituals, reading, and watching the sunset.







Ellie Kim

Artist


Ellie Kim is currently a junior at Leland High School and is an artist for The Charger Account. Her hobbies include reading, drawing, and spending time with friends.

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