When every musical note is a different color: Living with synesthesia

Photo by Gillian Ford

Can you “see” music?

Most likely, you can’t, and neither can I. If we hit a piano key or pluck a guitar string, only our sense of hearing is stimulated.

But can you imagine what it would be like if every time you heard a musical note you also saw a specific color? And when you heard a song or a symphony, all the colors merged together along with the sounds?

That’s what experiencing music is like for Laura Rosser, featured in this ABC News profile, and other people who live with synesthesia, also referred to as “cross-wired” senses.

Synesthesia is an involuntary joining of the “real information” of one sense with perception in another sense. The additional perception is regarded by the synesthete as real—something outside the body, rather than imagined.

There are several synesthesia variations, with different manifestations. For some synesthetes, numbers and letters are always associated with specific colors. For others, different numbers and letters have unique personality traits (the letter “T” might be “friendly,” the letter “W” not so much). In another form of the condition, words are associated with tastes. And for some people, tastes are associated with shapes (one food is “round,” another “triangular”).

The condition is still something of a mystery: According to the American Synesthesia Association, “although synesthesia has been known for the past 300 years, it is only in the last two decades or so that it has been seriously studied by scientists.”

The ASA attributes growing awareness of the condition to two technological advances: the development and use of functional MRI and the Internet. According to the association, “the use of functional MRI scans has launched numerous scientific studies worldwide, and the Internet has permitted synesthetes, for the first time in history, to learn more about their abilities and to be in touch with one another.”

Famous synesthetes include artist David Hockney, author Vladimir Nabokov, piano rocker Billy Joel and jazz great Duke Ellington, who told a biographer, “I hear a note by one of the fellows in the band and it’s one color. I hear the same note played by someone else and it’s a different color.”

Many synesthetes consider the condition to be a gift, rather than a disability.

“I see it as a spiritual, God thing that enables more intuition,” Laura Rosser told ABC News. “It really is an added dimension to what I do.”

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