What It's Like to be Able to 'Hear' Color

Artist Jack Coulter has a rare condition which enables him to hear color. In his work, he paints what very few can see.

by Jack Coulter
Dec 21 2015, 3:30pm

As a child, even something like staring at the sky was a fluorescent experience for me. I remember sitting alone one day in my room and the sound of my own heartbeat resonating color to me. It was ultraviolet, like the glow cast from a black light.

I have an idiosyncratic form of synesthesia, so my experience of it differs vastly from others', but the dominant form is my ability to hear color. This is known as chromesthesia, or sound-to-color synesthesia. My sight is iridescent. If I feel overwhelmed or overstimulated, colors appear in front of me. So when I see something beautiful while listening to beautiful music, colors will appear, moving and swirling in rhythm. It's like a fire of green and blue and red.

My sight is iridescent. If I feel overwhelmed or overstimulated, colors appear in front of me.

It's a constant form of visual pleasure: even the blandest, grayest objects shine like diamonds or crystals. I have no control over it at all. I see it even when I'm asleep. I have a recurring dream that comes on nights of heavy rainfall. When I hear the downpour, formations of color surround me, pulsating in time with each rain drop. Having synesthesia is a very intimate, personal experience. Elements of it can be very sexual—like that overwhelming feeling when you first fall in love with someone.

It's difficult to explain synesthesia to people who don't have it. It's impossible to describe the intricacies—like trying to explain the world to someone who has been blind from birth.

Growing up was hard. I thought my color hallucinations were just daydreams. Everything is new to children, so I never said anything. I was shy and I disappeared a lot to be alone. I still do.


I felt very lost. I was a mystery to my teachers. I could never focus at school, and I could never explain to them what I could see. I didn't even bother to turn up to my college graduation. I started experimenting with drugs from a very young age—I think in my early teens I went through what most adults do when they hit a midlife crisis—trying to fill a void and work out who they are. At 12, I almost died of severe alcohol poisoning. The doctors said I was lucky to still be alive. It was a very frightening thing for my family to hear.

But then, I discovered art. My aunt was an abstract printmaker—my mom had her work hung up in every room of the house growing up. I remember going to one of her exhibitions as a child. I could hear the paintings. It was her who encouraged me to paint. It changed my life—it was finally a way for me to express what I could see and hear and feel—the psychoanalytical release of the abstract was so freeing. I lost my aunt to suicide the day before I began art college. She is still the greatest influence on my work.

Once it became clear that I had a neurological condition, a lot of things began to make sense to me. Even things as simple as the headaches I would get—they were due to sensory overload.


My tutors at art college would tell me to stop abstract painting and to do more conventional work first, but I didn't want to be trapped within their conventional boundaries. Now that I've graduated, I use my garage as a workspace. I feel like I can truly express myself. All of my experiences, my visualizations, the sounds that I hear—I try to bring them to life on canvas. Listening to the music I have made myself when I'm painting heightens my experience—I see the colors moving in front of me.

Painting is a very personal expression of my condition, and it can be quite overwhelming when I show my work in public. Recently, a young girl contacted me to say that she came across my work online when she was about to take her own life and it stopped her. I was a mess when she told me. It brought back some painful memories.

I'm 21 now and finally feel very lucky to live with such a rare neurological condition. The thought of living without synesthesia terrifies me. I live in color. I will die in color.

Find Jack on Twitter and on hiswebsite.