The key of clear green: Synesthesia and Music
Sacks, Oliver W. “Musicophelia: Tales of Music and the Brain” (2007) : Chapter 14.
By: Michelle Minke
Dec. 10, 2008
The chapter in Oliver Sacks book on Synethesia is about the relationship between music and colour. For most people we may see colour as a descriptive word such as “like” but for some people it is a complete sensory experience. Some people experience varies from a colour for each day of the week, or every colour having it’s own scent, own taste and every musical interval. This chapter refers to the scientist Francis Galston who became convinced that it was a physiological phenomenon, and that it was more than advanced mental imagery, but actually a part of some people’s nature. There is only one in two thousand who experience this that are known, but some people may not come forward not thinking of it as a condition. Musical synethesia is the most common, and one of the most dramatic. Musicians tend to be more aware of it, and the stories in this chapter are mostly of musicians. Musicians in this chapter such as Michael, see a different colour for every key of music. For example, D major was blue, G minor was even a more exact colour than just yellow, but ochre. The musicians in these examples have colours for different arpeggios, exercises, and scales as well. These colours are something very natural for someone like Michael, and have been there since a very young age, and are seen as very intense and real. Each person has a different colour palate that they see depending on the focus on the musical theme, idea, or pattern. Researchers in Zurich have come across a woman who has music-taste synethesia where each musical interval is linked to a taste on her tongue, for example a minor second is sour, a major third is sweet, and an octave has no taste. There is also a writer,Christine Leahy, who experiences colour through numbers and letters. When applied to music, if she looks at the note D on the music page, a colour will be associated with it. There are also other cases in this chapter of colour experienced through other sounds such as horns, alarms, and telephone rings. Scientists, Baron-Cohen and Harrison suggest that we all may be coloured-hearing synthesthetes in the first three months of life, and throughout time due to cortical maturation we are able then to separate the senses. The musicians who were studied in this chapter believe that their synethesia is the central process for their music making.
How fascinating it would be to see music as colour in your mind. As a singer, we are approached with modern techniques of teaching at times, and a clinician will suggest that we sing “Yellow” or feel “ Green” in order to express ourselves or achieve a certain technical task while using colour imagery as a tool. This concept was difficult for me, as I am not a visual learner, but I can acknowledge the influence that colour has on our emotion and perception. Yellow is generally a more optimistic colour than grey, and perhaps associating certain composers, or a piece with colour, it could offer a new palate for expression. Music often has descriptive words that are associated with shading of colour; such as bright, dark, muddy, brilliant, shiny, clear, rich, or tarnished but these could potentially all be translated into more specific colours if we really thought about it. I know that for artists, colour and emotion are very closely linked, the shading of colour is how they express the emotion behind that piece. In comparing that to a musician who hears music through colour, of course they would feel that colour is one of the main processes for them to experience and express music. If the use of colour imagery and association could be a tool for expressing emotion, and musicians usually act as a medium for emotion, perhaps we could use a little colour in our practice and performance.