04 February 2013

Joined Perception: To See with Your Ears

As part of the quarterly Challenges, I am attempting to write a post each week that will explore more about the subject matter for that theme. Since February is all about Music, I will share some research that I did to prepare for the event.

In thinking about what direction I wanted to lead the participants for this Challenge, I thought about my own musical journey. I am a product of the times, and my musical tastes when I was young consisted of the popular music of the day on my transistor radio, the scratchy Beatles records in my mother's collection, the Big Band or Jazz standards that my father preferred or the wonderful world of 8-track tape players that my father swore would be all the rage (anyone remember those? That big 'chu-chung' in the middle of a song that signaled it was moving to the next track?).

It wasn't until I had my first taste of classical music in college that I really opened up to all sorts of music and the power of music to really move and uplift you. It was from this place that I wanted to take the Challenge this year. So only pure music, instrumental music, music without lyrics. I want you to be moved by your music choices and bring your own experience to the music for this years' Challenge.

I mentioned in my earlier post the movie Fantasia. That had a profound impact on me. The fact that music could be perceived as colors and shapes and textures and forms was intriguing. And that phenomenon has a name: synesthesia.

So I started doing a little research. 

Joined Perception

Synesthesia - in Greek syn (together) and aisthesis (perception) - is a neurological condition in which one sense (for example, hearing) is perceived simultaneously with another (such as sight). Numbers that float in space (spatial sequence synesthesia), maps of numerical sequences (number form synesthesia), linking taste to words (the rare lexical -> gustatorial synesthesia) and even assigning personality traits to ordinals like days of the week or letters of the alphabet (personification synesthesia) are some of the 60 documented types of this neurological condition. The most common and documented form of synesthesia is grapheme -> color synesthesia which joins objects such as letters, shapes, numbers or people's names with a sensory perception to color. Basically, people who experience synesthesia link more than one sense to another,  literally meaning "joined perception."

The number of people estimated to experience synesthesia range from 1 in 200 to 1 in 100,000, meaning there are probably many people who have the condition but do not realize what it is. The most common expression of synesthesia usually involves letters and numbers and colors, like seeing the word B E D as red or the number 5 as blue. Synesthetes do not have the same perceptions across the board (meaning that someone else might see the number 5 as orange) but their experience is involuntary, something they don't need to think about and it is highly individual and memorable so that it is the same no matter what. 

I found it most interesting the there are more women than men with this condition, more left-handed people than right-handed, and that it can be very common within the same family which shows it as a genetic trait.

Cross sensory metaphors abound in our written language - loud pattern, bitter wind, prickly laugh - however, imagining those poetic connections don't make you a true synesthete, just someone who sees the world through rose-colored glasses (another cross sensory metaphor!). 

Seeing With Your Ears

Chromesthesia is described like seeing fireworks in relation to sound. About 40% of synesthetes 'see with their ears.' From the clatter of dishes to the bark of a dog, and especially music, each sound that occurs would bloom and move around and then fade when the sound ends. According to noted neurologist Richard Cytowic, chromesthetes see music as a 'screen' in front of their faces, like a transparency in which colors and shapes move and morph in relation to the sound. For them sound has characteristics that change the hue, brightness, scintillation and directional movement, like that Soundtrack oscilloscope in the opening scenes of Fantasia.
"In 1842 when Liszt took over the post of Kapellmeister in Weimar, he astonished the orchestra by saying, 'Oh please, gentlemen, a little bluer, if you please! This tone type requires it!' Or, 'That is a deep violet, please, depend on it! Not so rose!' The orchestra eventually got used to the maestro seeing colors where they saw only notes." ~ Richard Cytowic, Wednesday is Indigo Blue: Discovering the Brain of Synesthesia
I read that Franz Liszt and Nicolai Rimsky-Korsakov were both affected by chromesthesia and disagreed over the colors of the musical keys. 
Modern musicians with synesthesia include pop artists like Eddie Van Halen and Stevie Wonder, jazz guitarist Tony de Caprio (who has a really intriguing investigation of Color Imagery) and classical violinst Itzhak Perlman. Since they produce music that is truly groundbreaking and seems to come from another realm, it should come as no surprise that they have this gift.

Chomesthetes rarely agree on the exact color of a given sound, but even non-synesthetes experience sound in colors. Loud tones are described as brighter than soft tones and lower tones as darker than higher tones. Synesthetes might choose more precise colors for varying pitch, timbre and composition of a piece of music, but even if you are not a synesthete, you surely translate the experience of color to what you hear.

Other Noted Synesthesias

Emotions - > colors
Emotion - > smell
Emotion - > flavor
Emotion - > pain
Emotion - > smell
Emotion - > temperature
Emotion - > touch
Flavors - > colors
Flavors - > sounds
Flavors - > temperatures
Flavors - > touch
General sounds - > colors
Graphemes - > colors
Grapheme - > flavor
Kinetics - > colors
Kinetics - > sounds
Lexeme - > touch
Musical notes - > colors
Musical notes - > flavors
Musical sounds - > colors
Odors - > colors
Orgasm - > colors
Pain - > colors
Pain - > flavor
Pain - > smell
Pain - > sound
Personalities - > smells
Personalities - > touch
Personalities - > colors (auras)
Phoneme - > touch
Phoneme - > flavor
Phonemes - > colors
Smells - > flavor
Smells - > sounds
Smells - > temperatures
Smells - > touch
Sound - > flavors
Sounds - > kinetics
Sounds - > smells
Sound - > temperatures
Sound - > touch
Temperatures - > colors
Temperature - > flavors
Temperatures - > sounds
Time units - > colors
Touch - > colors
Touch - > emotions
Touch - > flavors
Touch - > smell
Touch - > sounds
Touch - > temperatures
Vision - > flavors
Vision - > kinetics
Vision - > smells
Vision - > sounds
Vision - > Temperatures
Vision - > touch

Of course, true synesthetes cannot choose to have this condition, but I wonder if they would? I would say that this would be a great gift to be able to experience the world in such a multi-dimensional way, a richer experience of all that is around you... or would it be a curse? The movie Fantasia is what I would expect to be the closest thing I will come to knowing chromesthesia, or the sound to color synesthesia. And while it might be great to experience from time to time, I wonder how it would be to have every sound accompanied by the color dance or every word a color and never be able to turn that off.

What do you think?  
If you could have one of those forms of synesthesia,
which would you choose and why?

Just a reminder that today is the last day to sign up for the 2nd Annual Challenge of Music.
The form will close at 11:59pm tonight!
(Don't forget that it is a double-opt in! Watch for the email to confirm your sign up!)

I hope you will join me!


Wendy said...

One of the bloggers I follow has this condition and she wrote some posts about it, I don't know if you're interested, but she writes about it and how it affects her creativity here http://www.pingsandneedles.com/2012/10/living-in-syn-blogtoberfest-231.html

Courtney said...

Love this post and yes, that's me - female and left handed. I have always associated numbers with colors and Love It! Keeps things bright. :)

Anonymous said...

I struggled as a child when learning how to add because my numbers and their associated colors didn't match up. Number 1 (which is red) plus number 2 (which is blue to me) equal 3 - but that's yellow. Red plus blue equals purple - and that's number 7 to me! Very frustrating as a child. I remain creative but don't "see" numbers as colors as I may have as a child. I just "know" that a certain number is a certain color to me.

Anonymous said...

My 11 year old son is like this....when he was three we noticed.....he heard a fire engine's horn blaring as it was coming up the road behind our house and said mommy that is a red sound......puzzled us at first and then after him repeatedly associating sound with color we researched it and discovered he had this.....He is also left handed..


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