Colors, Numbers, Tastes, and Smells Can Bring Music to Life, too

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Colors, Numbers, Tastes, and Smells Can Bring Music to Life, too

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magine you just opened Spotify and you’re trying to decide what to listen to. Maybe you’re craving Lorde and her intriguing and dark songs, or maybe you want to rock out to some old school Billy Joel. Or maybe, you are just feeling happy and want to clap along with Pharrell Williams. What do these and other artists have in common? Synesthesia.

Synesthesia is a condition where one sense is simultaneously experienced with another sense, such as with letters, numbers, smells, tastes, sounds, and more, according to Psychology Today. I recently conducted research on synesthesia and have found that synesthesia is a strictly beneficial condition, especially with musicians. We should listen when artists talk about the benefits of synesthesia.

Some famous artists with it? Mental Floss reports Tori Amos experiences sound and light synesthesia. Another type is chromesthesia, the most common type among artists, and is described as experiencing sounds with colors. Duke Ellington, Charli XCX, Stevie Wonder and many others have this type.

Why is it beneficial? First, it inspires artists. Imagine being Lorde with chromesthesia. Lorde says this condition helps her write songs because she can listen to the beginning of a song and then develop a visual for the song in its entirety. Lorde says “her goal is to correct the colors and sharpen the contours until the precise configuration of chords, rhythms, emotions and textures she has been glimpsing all along snaps into focus,” in a recent NY Times profile. “It’s about getting the actual thing to sound like what I’ve been seeing.” It’s important we listen and know what is inspiring these artists so we can respect people with different realities than ourselves.

In an interview with MTV, Lorde went on about her creative process. “If a song’s colors are too oppressive or ugly, sometimes I won’t want to work on it — when we first started “Tennis Court”…it was the worst textured tan colour, like really dated, and it made me feel sick, and then we figured out that prechorus…and the song changed to all these incredible greens overnight!”

Dr. Jules Montague from the Royal Free London NHS Foundation Trust, describes this phenomenon as a “multimodal experience”, saying words and phrases in songs are specifically chosen based on these expanded connections non-synesthetes do not experience.

A second benefit is perfect pitch. Scientist Richard E. Cytowic conducted research on this specific relationship, describing chromesthesia as “fireworks” in which everyday sounds and music trigger colors when they arise and fade when they end. Cytowic found the relationship is caused by a synesthete’s ability to see/hear colors and that ability helps them identify specific notes and keys. By listening to artists talk about their experience with perfect pitch and synesthesia, there is a possibility that we can find a way for all artists to have this helpful condition.

A study done at Harvard Med focused on “absolute pitch” and synesthesia, and both types of participants showed unusual and more neural activity in the area that processes auditory info, just absolute pitch participants in the left hemisphere and synesthetes in the right. So basically, absolute pitch and synesthesia are related, and are just “two sides of the same coin.”

This helps artists rapidly create and identify any note, by not only hearing them, but also seeing, feeling, tasting, and smelling them.

Third benefit? Artists can tell their stories through music and raise awareness. Many artists that have this condition will reveal their journey through their lyrics. Some fans have learned and been inspired to learn more about this condition because of these artists. You shouldn’t just pay attention to these artists’ music, but to the descriptions of their processes and how they get to the final product of a songs.

Charli XCX for example, like many others, did not realize she had synesthesia for a while, believing seeing colors and sounds was normal. “People would always ask me how I came up with my music and what it felt like to make music and I would always see colours and then I found out that that was synaesthesia. It helps me understand songs.”

And while it may be difficult for artists sometimes, such as Dev Hynes describing it as “color streamers bouncing around” which makes it hard to focus, most artists agree they would be lost without it. Pharrell explains in an interview that it’s his “only reference for understanding.”

What can you do? Help raise awareness. If more people know about this condition, more synesthetes will share their experiences. If you have the chance to do research on synesthesia, try to find a way that everyone can develop it, since it’s full of many advantages.

Interesting fact: Live Science reported that it’s 7 times more likely to have synesthesia if you are an artist, poet, novelist, etc. So maybe synesthesia is inspiring these crazy talents to pursue the arts in the first place. I would love to have something that automatically makes me talented.

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