Hearing in Color

When musicians discuss timbre, they often do so using vocabulary that speaks to stimuli other than audial. Conductors will ask for a sound that’s “brighter,” “darker,” “warmer,” or “sweeter.” Teachers wonder if you can “color” a note, and coaches will suggest that a syllable or word could benefit from a “whiter” sound. We use these conflicting cues because we don’t have a good solid vocabulary for talking about sound. Hearing is nebulous for most of us; it’s something we do unconsciously right from birth.

But for some, hearing is also seeing. Or tasting. Or any combination of things. Synesthesia is a term meaning “union of the senses” and it refers to a condition in which a person has an atypical response to a stimulus. This can manifest itself in many ways. Someone can see colors and shapes when they hear a sound, or even experience taste sensations when they hear a certain musical note. Their numbers or days of the week might have certain “personalities,” or they may see colors and shapes when looking at alphanumeric letters.

I have a type of synesthesia where I associate certain colors with numbers and letters. For example, my numbers look something like this: 0 1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9

It is as trippy for me to look at black type and try to imagine I’m seeing only black, as it probably is for a person without color synesthesia to imagine seeing an array of colors.

For purposes of looking at timbre, I find sound/color synesthesia to be the most interesting. This is the type where people see colors (and colored shapes) with certain sounds. There have been many composers throughout history with this type of synesthesia, and I think it is particularly fascinating to look at their music with this in mind, as if offers a unique look into the way someone else perceives the world.  One particularly fascinating instance of synesthesia that was actually incorporated into a composer’s work can be found in the symphonic tone-poem, Prometheus, by Alexander Scriabin.

Scriabin was a Russian composer who lived from 1875 to 1915, and who is believed to have had synesthesia. Envisioned as a “symphony of sound,” his work Prometheus was also intended to be a “symphony of color-rays,” though it was conceived long before lighting technology had developed well enough to accommodate this. His was a revolutionary idea at the time and in my opinion, a brilliant one. Something that has always fascinated me about composition is the idea that we can hear sounds that these extraordinary composers heard in their minds before they immortalized them on paper. With Scriabin’s “color symphony,” we can not only hear what he heard, but also see what he saw in his mind’s eye.

There are (for obvious reasons) not a lot of great videos on YouTube that showcase both the audio and visual aspects of this work, but I’ve included a recording that originated as a graduate project on this work and it’s performance. The actual piece starts around 9:43.  I encourage you to watch and see how the lighting affects your perception of the piece!

I think combining music and lighting in this way an amazing idea, and that colors absolutely enhance the way one can perceive a piece of music.  Even though we are not all synesthetes, we all experience some degree of sensory-connectivity just simply in order to make sense of our world (imagine your surprise if a small cricket hopped out of the grass and instead of chirping, bellowed!). Performing music with specific colored-light cues could offer a whole new perspective on the piece. And taking any piece of music and having someone create a color-scape for it would prove an interesting collaboration that might draw people into the world of classical music. We already describe music in visual terms; could we use color to enhance/explain complicated music? Would it draw people in, or make them more receptive?


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