The musical experience of an individual is subjective to one’s own experiences and ways of constructing meaning. To most of us, this would mean connecting to a song because it is a perfect summation of our emotions and it articulates something we cannot ourselves express. But have you ever wondered what the experience of music is like for someone with synesthesia? To be able to smell, see, feel or taste sound?

“I propose to describe a peculiar habit of the mind which characterises, so far as I can judge, about one man in 30, and one woman in 15.”

– Sir Francis Galton (Visualised Numerals, 1880)

Firstly, what is synesthesia, this ‘peculiar habit of the mind’? The term ‘synesthesia’ derives from Ancient Greece, translating to “together” and “sensation”; and it is exactly that, a neurological condition whereby any two senses not normally associated with each other are experienced simultaneously. Behavioural neurologist and visual psycho-physicist Dr. Vilayanur Ramachandran describes it as “a perceptual experience in which stimuli presented through one modality will spontaneously evoke sensations in an unrelated modality. The condition occurs from increased communication between sensory regions and is involuntary, automatic and stable over time.” Recent studies conducted by Simon Baron-Cohen in Cambridge have supported the theory that synesthesia is in fact a genetic condition, in which a single gene is responsible and inherited in a dominant manner.

A common formula for synesthesia is:

X is the “inducer” (trigger stimuli) → Y is the “concurrent” (additional experience)

Synesthesia presents itself in two main forms: projective and associative. Projective synesthetes will see actual colours, shapes and patterns projected out in front of them when stimulated by an inducer, whereas associative synesthetes will experience the concurrent in the mind’s eye. The combination of senses entwined is virtually unlimited, so not even those with the same variant, experience the same thing. For example, in one of the most common forms of synesthesia, grapheme-colour synesthesia, each number and letter (graphemes) consistently appears as a different and very specific colour. To one projective grapheme0colour synesthete, graphemes may appear like the following, and to another, the colours may be totally different:

So how then, would this affect one’s musical experiences and what really goes on in the mind? The most common audio-induced synesthesia is chromesthesia, where an involuntary experience of colour, patterns, shapes and forms is induced by sound. The only generally rule is, higher pitches evoke lighter colours and deeper pitches evoke darker colours, however each singular note will always evoke the exact same colour to an individual. To make the experience more relatable, imagine being able to see a video desktop screensaver, in the mind’s eye or projected out in the open, with every song you ever listen to. A song could look like this:

Whilst counterarguments have claimed synesthesia is simply the result of a hyperactive imagination, substance use, vague metaphorical expression or individuals seeking attention for possessing a unique gift, studies have verified that seeing music is a real phenomenon. A series of scans have revealed visual activity in the brain of experiment participants despite them being completely blindfolded.

These images indicate a region with significant activity in the visually stimulated areas upon auditory stimulations in the brain of synesthetes. Additionally, two regions in the left and right temporal lobe showed increases in activation upon auditory stimulations. Hear the experiences of Dulguun Enkhtur, a girl living with synesthesia.

Other forms of audio-induced synesthesia include auditory-tactile, lexical-gustatory or odour-sound synesthesia. For those with auditory-tactile synesthesia, certain sounds can induce physical sensations in different parts of the body or the perception of touch on the skin without actually being touched. Some even speculate that the common phenomenon of Autonomous Sensory Meridian Response (ASMR), where auditory stimuli trigger tingling sensations in the body, is a form of auditory-tactile synesthesia. Lexical-gustatory synesthesia however, is where certain words cause certain tastes to be experienced, while odour-sound synesthesia is where sound induces various scents. While these are less commonly experienced forms of synesthesia, they can all have major influences on the way one might perceive music. For example, the song ‘Bohemian Rhapsody’ by Queen, to an audio-tactile synesthete may induce a sense that they are being tapped on the back of the calf at various moments of the song, while to a lexical-gustatory synesthete it may be of a caramel taste, and to an odour-sound synesthete, it could produce a vanilla scent.

It is no wonder really, that this peculiar habit of the mind lends itself so well to creativity. In psychologist Jamie Ward’s study into synesthesia, creativity and art, it was suggested that individuals with synesthesia show heightened creativity due to the ability to form meaningful associations between disparate stimuli (e.g. sound, colour). There was a significant tendency for synesthetes to spend more time engaged in particular areas of the creative arts depending on the variety of synesthesia experienced. For example, synesthetes experiencing vision from music were far more likely to play an instrument than other synesthetic counterparts and perceive music in an above-normal manner. “Synesthesia is seven times more common among artists, novelists and poets, and creative people in general,” says Dr. Ramachandran, “artists often have the ability to link unconnected domains, have the power of metaphor and the capability of blending realities.”

Missouri-based artist Melissa McCracken is just one of many synesthetes who paints music inspired by her chromesthesia. Driven by a desire to capture her daily experiences and share the saturated world which she inhabits, McCracken produces paintings that carry the cadence of melodies. Below is a depiction of John Lennon’s ‘Imagine’.

Some famous musicians with synesthesia include:

Billy Joel: chromesthesia and grapheme-colour

“When I think of different types of melodies which are slower or softer, I think of them in terms of blues or greens…when I have a particularly vivid colour, it’s usually a strong melodic, strong rhythmic pattern that emerges at the same time. When I think of those certain songs, I think of vivid reds, oranges, or golds. Certain lyrics in some songs I’ve written, I have to follow a vowel colour.”

Pharrel Williams: chromesthesia

“It’s the only way that I can identify what something sounds like. I know when something is in key because it either matches the same colour, or it doesn’t.”

Charli XCX: chromesthesia

“People would always ask me how I came up with my music and what it felt like to make music, and I would always see colours and then found out that that was synesthesia…it helps me understand songs and what I like.”

Kanye West: chromesthesia

“I give you paintings, sonic paintings, i can see sound in front of me.”

For many artists, their synesthesia is their muse, it’s their unique way of interpreting the world and channelling it into an abstract form of expression. An otherworldly experience you could say, but one that is no less impossible to imagine the world without to a synesthete, than the thought of losing any other sense.