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You Need to Hear This

Chromesthesia: Feeling Music in Colours

Pharrell Williams, Aphex Twin and Dev Hynes all have it, but what the hell is Chromesthesia?

by Errol Anderson
16 December 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.

Previous studies have also suggested that musicians tend to feel a more vivid synesthetic experience. James Wannerton of the UK Synaesthesia Association suggests that synesthetes with musical training have more distinct colours for specific notes. In that sense a C note and a D note have relatively distinct colours while to a non-musically trained synesthete, the C and D note colours might be far more similar. That would explain the Grand Canyon-sized gap between the abilities of someone like Dev and myself. In his recent Fader interview, he said the Empire State Building resonates to Gmaj9.

That opens up a can of worms in reference to how the condition can be honed to the degree where its an advantegous extra leg. Just think how a combination of synesthesia and medical advancements in the future could bring music to a new, super-human level.

Could those who don’t experience synesthesia rewire their brains in order to get the most out of particular senses? Restoring sight for blind people, for example, is the focus of countless research teams around the world. There are technologies already available, such as recently approved Alpha IMS Retinal Implant, that bring limited vision to those with dysfunctional retinas. There’s also promising work being done utilising stem cells, and new surgical tools are coming out that open new therapeutic possibilities. Yet, one avenue that’s not been fully investigated is how to utilise the brain’s own capacity to change the role of what our senses can do for us. There’s evidence that regions of the brain responsible for a lost sense can begin working in cooperation with another sense, in this case hearing, to boost the cognitive abilities of the properly functioning sense.

Researchers from The Netherlands and UK have been researching a system called “The vOICe” that transforms what a head-mounted camera sees into an audio soundscape that even people with little training are able to use fairly effectively. The group has published an article in Frontiers in Cognitive Science arguing that sensory substitution has the potential to compete with other vision restoring technologies, particularly because there are no surgeries, implants, or anything else besides putting on a pair of headphones hooked up to a camera.

These are just a few hypotheses that could genuinely take music beyond its current form. Synesthesia is a very interesting phenomenon with chromesthesia being one of its most exciting forms. As technologies improve and musical talent burrows itself even further into the internet wormhole, maybe it’ll take something revolutionary to take the form to higher ground. Could a troop of chromesthetes be the ones at the helm of it all?

All photos via Binary Coco

Follow Errol on Twitter: @Errol_And

If after all this, you’re sat there wondering if you can see glimmers of cyan when Tupac plays, there’s a test. The Synesthesia Battery, an automated diagnostic test, covers the most common forms of the condition. For more information, make a visit to the UK Synesthesia Association website.