Entertainment

The Synesthesia Playlist – A Guide to Seeing Music in Colour

What's the most red-sounding song of the 21st century? Scottish musician Sam Gellaitry is here to tell you.
Ryan Bassil
London, GB
May 14, 2021, 8:15am
Sam Gellaitry EP press shot
Photo: PR

Picture a cool azure blue. If you’ve landed on an ice-cold shade that’s at home against a snowy mountain backdrop, then you’re close to glimpsing what Sam Gellaitry sees when listening to a Southern rap anthem from the year 2000.

For as long as he can remember, the 23 year-old Scottish musician has experienced music through colour. As well as viewing songs through a kaleidoscope of navy, indigo and Arctic blues, his synesthesia means he sees vibrant greens, deep, dark reds, and tungsten-toned orange, with tones determining whether a song takes place in the daytime, or after-hours.

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His new EP, IV, out today, feeds into this colour-merging, time-defining process. Blissful opening track “New Dawn” is awash with early-morning, rise-up-to-the-sun ambiance. French-house-tinged lead-single “Duo” sounds like the moment you’re up and ready to leave the house; and by the time you reach the euphoria of slick, brain-fizzing closing track “Assumptions”, you’ve landed firmly in the party.

Following on from Escapism – the three-part series that shuttled Gellaitry into head-bopping nights across the globe when he was still in his teens – IV’s four songs combine into a harmoniously idiosyncratic pop portrait.

VICE asked Gellaitry to tell us how his synesthesia works by picking the most blue, green, orange, red and purple-sounding songs since the 21st century began. Here are his choices, and why:

BLUE: OUTKAST – ‘MS JACKSON’

“When a song is blue, it often resembles the daytime and sunlight and this track is very bright blue. It’s one of the most blue songs of all time. The colour of the song relates to the key that it’s in. This song stays in the same key throughout; it stays blue for the whole time. This is why I’m into jazz and songs with deep modulation and key changes, because the colours are changing.

“Moving up in keys is almost the same as the way the rainbow changes. Scientifically, you could probably relate it to the spectrum of light. It’s a similar thing with music. Music is a frequency and the length of a vibration. When you move up a key, it’s similar to moving up the rainbow.”

RED: KENDRICK LAMAR – ‘MOMMA’

“The colours can be very set. I can’t imagine blue and red mixing together – they clash in my brain. The opposite of [a blue track like] ‘Ms Jackson’ is red. The song I’ve chosen is ‘Momma’ by Kendrick Lamar. It’s a similar BPM, it’s hip-hop, but ‘Momma’ is deep red.

“It’s night-time, it’s closed in – it’s not got that expansive feeling the blue songs give you, because of blue resembling the sky. When it’s red, it’s more enclosed. If you think about it physically, your arteries and things are all red, [like] brick work on a house. It gives me that feeling of introspection and looking inward.

“If I wanted to use my synesthesia to create a vibe, I’d use red tones to describe something emotional. It can also resemble night-time. A red song isn’t something I’d immediately put on in the daytime, because it would clash with what I’m seeing. It almost puts time stamps for me on when songs are suitable for the mood.”

GREEN: KANYE WEST – ‘HEARTLESS’

“Green is a bridge from the blue to the red. The way I hear it is: It goes from blue, to green, to orange, and then red. Green has elements of blue – it has the same brightness the blue has. I think that’s to do with the fact that if you’re outdoors, it will be green grass as well as blue skies. They go together.

“Also, green as a colour itself has blue in it – it’s not a primary colour. Green has brightness, but it’s also slightly closer to night-time. It’s not edgier… it’s less relaxed. It’s a bolder feeling. I think this is my favourite scale. ‘Heartless’ by Kanye West is a good description for a green song. The important thing is not to choose a song with a key change. It had to be a pure green song –and this is very much green. I think Kanye uses this scale a lot.”

ORANGE: JUNIOR SENIOR – ‘MOVE YOUR FEET’

“I remember hearing this in the car when I was younger and telling my mum I thought this song sounded orange. She said: ‘What do you mean this song sounds orange?’ That was when I first voiced [my synesthesia]. My mum didn’t respond.

“I don’t think I realised at that point that other people didn’t see music in colour – I thought she was ignoring me or disagreed or something. It was very vivid. The interesting thing about this track is that the music video is orange-themed as well. It’s a comforting visual aid for the song.

“Orange is the in-between of green and red. It has the warmth that [red tracks have]. To me, orange tracks remind me of the time at night when the streetlights start to come on. It’s the start of the evening. It’s starting to get darker. You’re not fully indoors in the red, club environment – it’s in the moments before you get there.”

PURPLE: GORILLAZ – ‘DARE’

“Purple is the transition point from the red back to the blue. But purple still has the night-time element, because it’s not bright. It wouldn’t be bright purple; it still has a darkness to it, with that blue and red combination.

“A purple song for me is ‘DARE’ by Gorillaz. That’s dark, but it’s a different shade [to a red song]. It’s a difference of a few notes, but that difference completely changes the colour. Because the colours resemble a temperature in a sense, it would be hard for me to see a colour like pink. The way I hear music means that red describes a dark setting and so to hear pink in that dark setting, my brain would be fried.”

YELLOW: NOTHING

“I don’t really see yellow. Yellow is my least favourite colour – maybe it’s a link to that? One of my friends has synesthesia and she said she sees yellow as C major. In terms of scale, that’s my least favourite scale too. Maybe it’s that.”

@samgellaitry