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Chromesthesia: Feeling Music in Colours

Pharrell Williams, Aphex Twin and Dev Hynes all have it, but what the hell is Chromesthesia?
December 16, 2013, 11:40am

Imagine if every time you smelled a rose, your brain conjured up the taste of porridge. Or when feeling the discount leather of a DFS sofa, you saw blotches of purple light? Those may seem like abilities plucked from a comic, but they’re actually the symptoms of synesthesia, a neurological condition where one sensual stimulation evokes the sensation of another.

A couple of weeks ago, Dev Hynes – the musical virtuoso behind Lightspeed Champion and Blood Orange – described his own synesthetic experiences at a New York University lecture. In it, he juxtaposed 30 minutes of his composed score for the film Palo Alto against a dark room that splintered lucid colour spirals and radiant hues across its walls. He played narrator; portraying how all these colours made him feel and more importantly, what they made him see. What he was portraying was chromesthesia – the sound to colour synesthesia, which is a type of synesthesia in which heard sounds automatically and involuntarily evoke an experience of colour.

Between 5-15% of the adult population have experienced some form of synesthesia. Included in that figure are mirror-touch synesthetes, those who literally feel the pain or emotions of another, and those who taste/see colours when they orgasm. From that percentage, a further 4% automatically associate numbers with colours. But it’s chromesthesia that is the most common form.

As an area of study, the research of synesthesia has grown exponentially over the past few centuries. When people first discovered synesthesia in the 19th century, it was wrongly traced back to the eyes due to a prior knowledge of colour blindness. This ideology was shelved when it was discovered that people could actually generate the same senses with their eyes closed, confirming its base in neurology. Since then, the research agenda has moved on from questioning the legitimacy of the condition to understanding how exactly it can affect subjects. It wasn’t until the 1980s that neurologists, Richard Cytowik and Simon Baren-Cohen, began to understand its characteristics.

The latest development comes from Cambridge University, who have bridged a link between synesthesia and autism. Whereas synaesthesia only occurred in 7.2% of typical individuals, it occurred in 18.9% of people with autism. At the level of the brain, synesthesia involves atypical connections between brain areas that are not usually wired together, so that a sensation in one channel automatically triggers a perception in another.

Most believe synesthesia come from childhood experiences in which certain stimuli have created synesthetic pairings. For example, the letter “G” could be linked with dark green because your mum, Glenda, used to wear it a lot. It may also be that synesthesia runs in families. It’s possible that a gene for synesthesia results in extra connections and cross-wiring between brain areas.

Synesthesia note and colour chart via

Professor Sean Day, PhD and fellow chromesthete, summarises: “If the colours are more vivid, I would suggest that it is primarily a matter of focus. That is, you are paying more attention to the colours. There has been some speculation that such synesthetes have a heightened sense of colour perception.” So the difference lies in being able to accurately decipher the subtleties between shades when someone presses play. Even if those with the condition may brush their shoulders of such a nametag, there’s an ounce of superhuman about it.

“Returning to the matter of perception, if this type of synesthete is getting a sort of double whack of input to colour-perception centres of the brain - from both visual input and auditory input - this would place more upon the colour perception centres. One could then use this towards training oneself to be more perceptive to nuances of colour. However, one also can get worn out by overstimulation, in certain settings (e.g. noisy dance clubs, or sports arenas).”

There’s currently a dream team of chromesthetes making music including Kwes Pharrell Williams and Aphex Twin. Then there’s OF’s Tyler, The Creator whose strong affinity with colours in his work are allegedly linked with the condition. Just take a glimpse at the “Glowing” video produced by Wolf Haley, his director alter ego and it’s like a high contrast pack of exploded Skittles neatly packaged into 1080pi.