music colour synaesthesia

One type of synaesthesia is music colour synaesthesia, where a note, key or certain quality in music causes the synaesthete to experience colour. Some music color synesthetes find the colours they see in music to be so distracting they can’t work while listening to music.

I find this fascinating because I don’t possess this kind of synaesthesia.

As a grapheme synaesthete, I do have colour responses to music but in a completely different way. For example, if I know the name of the song, then the song will be whichever colour I experience for the name (currently I’m listening to Sawdust and Diamonds by Joanna Newsom which is a lovely bright yellow for the whole 10 minutes of this epic song).

I am a very musical person (I play the piano, alto saxophone, surdo drum [brazilian] and a bit of clarinet, guitar and banjo) so in learning to read music I also had colour responses to keys and the letters of the notes if I knew which ones were being played, plus the instrument itself, because all instrument, like all words, have colours too.

Also, major and minor keys have an impact on the colours I perceive – minor keys generally add a black/grey/brown tinge to the letter of the key.

Although all this extra colour information is going on in my head it’s not overwhelming or distracting, it’s just there without intruding which is pretty lucky I guess.

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44 Responses to music colour synaesthesia

  1. ig says:

    Very fascinating. I’d be interested to know more about colors that represent certain keys and instruments (especially guitar). Do you have more to share on that? What about songs in the keys of E, A, G, F#m, C, and D, which are typical guitar keys. What about the note E? Wow. Nice post…

    Ignacio
    http://www.igblog.wordpress.com

  2. lauren says:

    Thanks for your interest ig!

    For me, E is yellow, A is black, G is dark green, C is red, D is dark grey/purple and F#m (i assume that’s minor) would be dark green (whereas F#maj would be lighter but not as light as F maj).

    Having said that, it’s only if I actually know what key the song is in that I see the colour (if at all), because my primary synaesthesia is colours in response to words, letters and numbers and not sounds.

    As I understand it, a music colour synaesthete would see the colours just from hearing the music rather than having to know the key.

    • Karenna says:

      Hello, I am a music-color, music-scent, music-touch synaesthete. For me, it depends on what instrument or voice or octave or timbre (so on and so forth) I am also a savant without major autistic problems with music. I would be happy to answer any questions anyone has. :)

  3. ig says:

    I get it. Ok, I’m gonna send you some songs later, with no titles, see what colors you see, and use that for titles!!! I’m so playing with this…

    Thanks!
    IG

  4. lauren says:

    I’ll give it a go, but as I said, I’m not a music-colour syn so it’s possible I might not see any colours at all. Could be a good experiment for me too!

  5. Nathanael says:

    Hi there!

    I came across your blog on a synesthesia site (I forget which one) so I thought I’d check it out. Very nice. I am a music/color synesthete as well as a pain/color synesthete. Needless to say, the music is much more enjoyable. lol. Check out my blog for more on my musical perceptions if you’re interested. http://sanesensations.blogspot.com/

    _Nathanael

  6. DUDE says:

    Well, I was just wondering but would a piece in G MAJOR and a piece in g minor have different colors? I’m talking about the overall piece not the notes or chords. If so, what colors would both be? Specifically I’m wondering what color Chopin’s Ballade No. 1 in g minor, Op. 23 would be. Any help would be great :]

  7. lauren says:

    Hi Dude. G Minor is a dark mucky green and G major is a lighter vibrant green. If I heard the music without knowing what key it was in I probably wouldn’t see green, but if I know I’m going to play a piece in G minor then I think of it as dark green.

    It’s not the same for all synaesthetes. Each person has their own experiences and colours so if you asked another synaesthete they would probably come out with a completely different answer.

    Hope that’s helped.

  8. lauren says:

    Also.. Chopin is black, 1 is white, 23 is red and yellow… so the whole title is very mixed up, but Chopin is the strongest word so black is the strongest colour.

  9. Anna says:

    Hello,

    We discovered daughter, 15, is a Synesthete only a year ago. She developed a severe migraine that lasted over a month with no relief. At the time she also had an eye exam and was found to have a slight thickening of her optic nerve. I thought there was a connection to the migraines. She casually mentioned the one eye saw brighter than the other but it was a slight variation. Thinking that it could be a clue to the migraines I started heavily questioning her in order to provide the doctors with information that they could use to help her in the next visit. To my surprise I got more information than I expected. When she started on the Z’s that she sees and the little dots that make the whole color, I had to stop her and have her start all over again. I thought I was hearing things. She then got frustrated while explaining because I didn’t understand. I had to stop her once more and tell her, what was obvious, that she thought everyone saw like she did. It took about a month afterwards doing research before I was satisfied that she wasn’t suffering from mental illness.

    Her synesthesia is to sound and emotions. Everyone’s voice has a color and pattern that is always in motion. She sees halos around people but it’s a different color than their voices. She says she can never see a halo for herself but she can see that her voice color brings up similar shapes and colors to her father’s and mother’s combined. When she gets pinched she also experiences so I would guess that means pain too. The last time she was very depressed and crying she cried out that the colors had dissapeared and she saw only gray blobs. She did the test on “synesthete.org” but wasn’t able to do the chord test because there were too many sounds that made too many colors, Trying to pick out just one color as the instructions asked to do only gave her a migraine. Does anyone know about any other tests? Sorry I took up so much space here.

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  12. Sam says:

    Hello,

    I’m thrilled to see (via this blog) that there are a lot of people who experience color with music. I’ve known of the term for a few years, and have met only one other person who was a synesthete, but he shrugged it off as quickly as anyone else. Throughout my life, I thought only musicians had this ability, but was surprised (and a little disappointed) to find that one of my college composition professors experienced nothing while listening/playing music and could hardly believe that it was real.

    Over the weekend I read Musicophilia by Oliver Sacks, an extremely interesting book, with a small chapter on synesthesia. It didn’t satisfy me, however, and today, in response to my thoughts on the subject, I wrote a blog on my myspace about my experiences.

    But I have a question. Is it only colors that you see or is there also something else?

    My synesthesia seems to have evolved over the last several years to the point that listening to music becomes an almost hallucinatory experience. It is really overwhelming, and like in the article above, I have to either turn music really low or off to concentrate on something.

    My blog is pretty detailed, but I’ll summarize. Not only do I see colors (which are in constant motion), but shapes also appear, structures… all abstract. And there is also depth, like I can step into the music and it surrounds me for miles, creating pseudo-physical textures, so it seems. So far, I haven’t been able to find any records of this sort of experience.

    Thanks for your insightful comments!

  13. Marie says:

    After searching for ages, I’ve finally found this blog. I don’t know anyone else who has synaethesia – and I didn’t realise that this even had a name until fairly recently. I have felt quite isolated, and the constant “you must be on drugs” comments have been very upsetting too.

    I have music-colour, pain-colour and a few other types too. Sometimes, the colours I see can be overwhelming – and I have to turn the music off. My synaesthesia, like Sam who has posted a reply here too, involves moving coloured patterns, shapes and structures, and as some kind of release, I paint them.

    It’s very nice to see that there are others out there…

  14. Briana says:

    I am a synesthete in Virginia. I’ve known that I have synesthesia for a year now, and I haven’t told my family. I can’t, My mom would freak out and think I’m crazy
    (maybe literally) and bring me to all these doctors that would say there’s nothing wrong. My brother would just think I was lying (I think that’s spelled correctly.) They’re notmean, but they are VERY judgemental, even though they try not to be. I’m just afraid that my mom will freak out, mostly. I have told a few of my friends. When I hear a sound, I see a color. When I feel something touching me, I see a color. I love having synesthesia, though. It’s like seeing fireworks every day of your life, and it never ends. It’s an artist’s dream, and I love to paint and draw. Music is awesome because all the sounds make beautiful colors. I hate fireworks. With all the sound and all the colors, there’s so much confusion you can’t even think! Did you know that the colors can go away due to stress? I learned that from a book. Thanks for hearing me out. It feels good to talk to some one who can relate to what I’m going through.

  15. allan says:

    only experienced this condition for a short period several years ago.music would break down into dna like strands which was separated into individual colours.these strand segments also had names,unfortunately the only one i can remember is trixel.could also smell a few colours too.this all came on suddenly,but over the course of a week completely faded away.not sure if i’m odd,but would like this ability to come back as it was quite an experience having not grew up with it

  16. Barbara Templeton-Graham says:

    This is an exciting day for me! I have had synaesthesia since my earliest memories and I am 59 years old now. In my situation it has manifested itself in music/colors
    for my entire life, as well as sight/colors that surround people. It is very hard for me to enter a large room with many people because of the color overload. My first visit to Times Square was almost too overwhelming! In the Sistine Chapel I had to close my mind to the crowd and concentrate on the ceiling to avoid overload. I was very interested in Anna’s comment about her daughter who cried when the day was gray with blobs. I have experienced this many times in my life’s ups and downs – especially when I became a widow suddenly. It took many, many months to have the colors restore themselves.
    I have taught children’s music (singing) for 37 years and I always found that the concerts (where I played the keyboard by colors in my head)were most wonderful because of the extraordinary colors that would flow from the children’s voices as they sang.
    The thing that I have found unusual in my life is the fact that, as I age my senses seem to be expanding.I now seem to experience colors with smell, taste and especially hearing. I also have been having some health problems and am starting to find that certain pains in my body manifest themselves with colors.
    I am very grateful that I was born with this condition. It has enhanced my life tremendously and made it much richer. I always feel sorry for those who do not experience what I do. How much they miss!

  17. lauren says:

    Thank you to everyone who posted a message on here over the last couple of years – this blog had been left untouched but your messages still arrived at my inbox and I read them all.

    I will begin to reply to them on the blog over the next few days, even comments from two years ago.

    Thanks for reading.

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  19. Judah says:

    Hello.
    So im a singer song writer. When i play certain notes or chords or if a song is in a certain key i see different colours. for example when i play Em i see green for Anything in A i see red tones. Its weird i kind of just see the colour and nothing else but only for certain notes. Em is by far the most vivid. is this synesthesia? It can be very distracting when i perform. Il be playing a tune and i will just see the colour. is it synesthesia or is it just a weird musician thing? I would love to know!

  20. Marlene says:

    that’s interesting what Anna said about her daughter seeing gray blobs when she was depressed. I’ve always hated gray in large doses because it’s such a drab depressing color. I wonder how much is synesthesia and how much is just human nature. It’s so confusing…

  21. Caroline says:

    Hello , you know I have only 13 years old and I have synaesthesia but I always thought that.. it was normal but I saw a tv program about that and I just tell my mom that I see colors in music especially in techno music :) im only take piano class like when I was 8 and choir class but since I saw that tvprogram I became more interested im sorry about my spelling is just that im from Mexico and im just 13 …. thanks for this info.!!

  22. Max Trebek says:

    Would any music Synaesthetes be so kind as to define for me which colors go with which musical notes? I’ve read a few accounts but so far nobody has laid it out exactly, A-G, matching each note in the scale with its appropriate color. This would be very helpful to me, thanks. Anyone who has experienced it would surely agree it is a superior method of understanding music.

    • Daniel Cory says:

      Max,

      It is different for different people, but for me it entirely depends on the chords they are also associated with.
      Independently it is:
      A = Oranges Yellow
      B = Purple
      C = Green
      D = Blue
      E = Red/Burgundy
      F = Black
      G = Brown

      For chords they depend, for example Am chord makes me see fire, where A is the yellow C is the Orange and E is the red

      So the C changed from Green to orange in this case.

      I also see elements for some chords
      Am = Fire
      G = Ground/Earth
      D = Water/Ice
      E = is kinda a mixture for things
      etc

      Also, Different Instruments give off different colors as well with each different timbre

      Piano = Black/White
      Choir (not a single voice) = White
      Violin = Burgandy
      Guitar = Brown
      etc

      I hope this helped ^^

      • My visualization of different instruments:

        Violin = gold
        Viola = orange-gold

        Triangle = blue-white
        Clarinet = dark blue
        Cymbals = light grey
        Flute = ice-blue
        Xylophone = aquamarine

        Snare Drum = blue-grey
        Bass Drums = grey-black

        Oboe = orange
        Bassoon = dark brown
        French Horn = mud-brown
        Trumpet = dried-orange brown
        Tuba = dark reddish-brown

      • Sorry, that should read:
        Trumpet = bright orange

        (I was going down the list of the synestaesia battery and got off-track)

  23. I would be glad to tell you what I “see” and have “seen” since I was a very little child:
    A=very dark purple almost black
    B=light blue
    C=black/not shiney
    D=tan or sandy color
    E=yellow/gold
    F=bright red/very shiney
    G=green – like Christmas green
    I know that others “see” different colors in each note but these are not negotiable to me and have never changed. I am almost 60 years old now.
    When I was a little girl I would “see” these colors as I played but never knew until much later that everyone did not see them. The chords corresponding to each note are the same colors but a ‘7’ chord adds tan to the chord and a minor chord adds darkness into the color. The key signatures are colored too so it makes it even nicer.When my students (children) sing colors flow from them all over the room. It is wonderful!

    I would be very glad to be involved with anyone who is interested in this study!

  24. Also remember that people with synaesthesia “see” colors that there are no human words for. Sometimes I cannot describe in words what I see – they are not colors in the human eye spectrum – very neat!

  25. Max Trebek says:

    Thanks Barbara for the reply, I’m aware many Synaesthetes do not have common experiences, but I’m curious if any coincidences or inversions of particular notes/colors tend to occur between multiple people. As I’m beginning to study music, I’m curious if I’d be able to incorporate color definitions into my study.

  26. Good work buddy, continue the good work.

  27. Kate says:

    I have a little bit of that synesthesia. But different songs have different colors and different instruments have different colors. The note does not have a color!

  28. Sean says:

    Hello there! I am not a synaesthete, but I am a very curious illustrator and artist. Throughout my life, I’ve been fascinated by classical and soundtrack music, and though I(sadly) cannot see color in music, I can vividly, yet abstractly imagine music as color. I will imagine music as colorful shapes, and abstract moving things flowing, changing, expanding, exploding, transforming, melting, merging. Many times they intensify in color, brightness, and change in hues. And they always flow and “dance” to the music in harmony. Sometimes I imagine them in nothingness-just abstract forms of color. Sometimes I imagine them in a setting, around people or things, or in a narrative setting where the forms of color purposefully intertwine and move and interact with the environment. But that’s all in my head, and I am very sure it’s just pure imagination and not related to synesthia(it would be cool if it was though!).

    Currently, I am commencing a children’s picture book. I have decided to create a picture book about seeing color in music. However, when I first thought of it, I did not know about synesthesia. The child in the story has hearing loss, but appreciates music so much that he visualizes it as color and immerses in that colorful musical world. I myself have hearing loss, but have always been extremely fond of how music creates color in my imaginations.

    So, I have a few questions to those who perceive color in sound.
    -Can you describe how the color appears in detail? Is it an aura? Is it translucent or very opaque?
    -Does it move around? flow through things or change into shapes? or is it still?
    -When you watch a movie or TV, do you see color emanating from the characters or TV speakers?
    -If an object creates sound or music, does the object change in color? or does it emanate color, as if it releases color?
    -Can you describe the shapes you see? Are they common shapes such as squares, triangles, and circles? Or do they transform or meld, or create abstract shapes? -Does color flow as if it were floating liquid?

    I know it’s a lot of very specific questions, but I am so mind boggled right now that I need to know haha! Not just for myself, but for my children picture book. It’s just so exciting knowing that people actually perceive music as color; I’ve always desired to “see” music.

    • polaviconfessions says:

      Hi there! As a music-color synesthete, I can answer a few of your questions, but I don’t think it’s the same for all of us.

      -Colors can appear in all sorts of different ways. Sometimes it’s translucent, sometimes opaque, sometimes translucent AND opaque…
      -Yes, it DEFINITELY moves around. It’s lovely, really.
      -The color isn’t really in front of me. It’s in the back of my mind, like there’s literally eyes in the back of my head, only they’re always looking inward…I wish they would look outward sometimes; it’d be very convenient, ha ha!
      -The shapes are pretty abstract for me, but often they follow a pattern. Guitars are lines surrounded with “smoke,” vocals are rippling sheets, pianos are stark rectangles, etc. It’s different for every instrument.

      So, you’re an illustrator, then? I actually drew a rather awful picture on my blog, but it’s as accurate as I can get it. Maybe that’ll help. Just a suggestion.

  29. polaviconfessions says:

    Hi there! I’m actually a music-colour synaesthete as well, and I find this page and this whole blog quite interesting. I’m also interested to see that the key of G major seems to be quite green for a lot of people, as it is for me. I know it’s not supposed to be the same for all synaesthetes, but I wonder if there’s similarities…Anyone see something different for G major?

  30. Mathilde says:

    I don’t have it where if I hear something, I experience it, but if I’m reading certain notes off a page, a different color comes to mind. For example, my favorite note, D flat, is the prettiest dark navy blue.
    I wish I could be the kind where I hear it and think of it, though. It seems like an out- of- this- world experience. To those of you who have it, feel lucky :D I’m happy for you guys!

  31. mark10ant says:

    Hi, I’m a 65 yo syaesthete/musician. I play and teach the ‘cello. When I found out that originally C was drawn as a red note on a red line between the treble and bass staves (and even before they were used, in plainsong I believe) I thought that everyone saw C as red as I do. On a harp the C strings are coloured red and the Fs blue (higher ones) or black, and F has always been a blue key for me.
    When I was at Junior Music College I used to compose music based on paintings and (my first) a Persian carpet using the length as the duration of the notes and the colours as the sounds. I’m just writing a journal for Bookmooch about my favourite (sixth) sense and for me it is musical synaesthesia. I so agree with the writer who said here:
    “I am very grateful that I was born with this condition. It has enhanced my life tremendously and made it much richer. I always feel sorry for those who do not experience what I do. How much they miss!” Gill T.

  32. Alex Lacy says:

    As a musician at Dreyfoos, I have music colour synaesthesia. I play jazz alto saxophone. I’m not so into chord changes. But my improv is good due to my music colour synaesthesia. Whenever I hear a chord, I percieve it as a color in my head. Then as my mind floods with musical ideas for improv, I play phrases that connect and match colors of the chords in which I’m playing over. Sort of how Coltrane, Miles, and Parker percieved this.

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  38. blake says:

    hmmm interesting
    searching the net to see if there’s a consensus on the colors.. looks like it varies considerably
    the colors i see are:
    G- red
    F- Indian red
    D- green
    A – silver/blue
    E – yellow
    C – brown
    B – Black

    those are the individual notes. it’s interesting to me that E will something appear as black & yellow & D as green or silver/blue,
    then i just realized that those chords have those other notes in the chord. both the 5th. neat

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