By Yovina Khiroya
For Kanye West, pianos are blue and snares are white. The first-time Pharrell listened to Earth, Wind & Fire he saw burgundy and perhaps most famously, when Frank Ocean first fell in love he saw the colour orange which inspired his 2012 album Channel Orange. Last year, during an interview with Ellen DeGeneres, Kanye described his process of making music:
“Everything I sonically make is a painting. I see it. It’s my only reference for understanding…And if it was taken from me suddenly I’m not sure that I could make music.”
They all have a neurological condition known as auditory synaesthesia.
What is Synaesthesia?
The word synaesthesia literally means “union of senses” and is a condition in which people’s senses are joined. They might hear a certain musical note or see a colour and taste a flavour or smell a perfume. For example, for a synesthete the sound of a middle C might induce a flash of navy blue while for another eating a piece of chocolate might induce a feeling in their fingertips.
Not a whole lot is known about synaesthesia. Researchers think the phenomenon is caused by cross wiring in the brain and that those with synaesthesia have more neural connections than those without. One theory explains that everyone is born with synaesthesia but as we grow older we lose those neural connections. Another suggests that childhood learning paradigms could explain how the condition came about because when children learn the alphabet or numbers, they are presented in different colours. For some, the condition runs in the family. However, for the most part the only other known way to induce temporary synaesthesia is through the use of hallucinogenic drugs, such as magic mushrooms or LSD.
Unsurprisingly, studies show that synaesthesia is more common amongst creative types than anyone else. According to researchers, the sensory induced by synaesthesia offers an artistic advantage, hence those who have it are seven times more likely to work in the field of arts.
For New Zealand born musician Lorde, who also experiences the condition, her synaesthesia is the driving force behind her music. She recently confessed
“from the moment I start something, I can see the finished song, even if it’s far-off and foggy. It’s about getting the actual thing to sound like what I’ve been seeing.”
However, she admits that it’s not always a comfortable experience when she recently explained to NME magazine
“there are definitely moments when I just want to listen instead of seeing everything because there are definitely sounds which are overwhelmingly visual with texture and colour. It’s like ‘ah, it’s too much!’”
For the most part, many people with synaesthesia don’t realise there is anything different about their lives unless the topic is bought up, as Pharrell explained, “People with synaesthesia, we don’t really notice until someone brings it up and then someone else says, ‘Well, no, I don’t see colours when I hear music,’ and that’s when you realise something’s different.” Even when they do realise something is different most synesthetes who are interviewed about their ability say they can’t imagine their life without the condition. After all, if you spent your life surrounded by a colourful kaleidoscope you might not want to be without it either.
Title image by synesthete artists, Melissa McCracken