Sight, Sound and Beyond

Archive for April, 2011

What is Synesthesia?

Broadway Boogie Woogie by Piet Mondrian

I have talked about Synesthesia in many of my posts, but I thought I would take the time to discuss the term in further detail.  Derived from the Greek syn meaning together and aesthesia meaning sensation, synesthesia can simply be defined as senses coming together.  The stimulation in one sense will trigger perception in another.  For example, a person may see colors in response to hearing speach, music and other sounds.  This is one of the most common forms of synesthesia known as Color Hearing Synesthesia or just simply as Color Hearing.

Synesthesia is a completely normal neurological condition.  It is considered to be abnormal because it is statistically rare.  One of the leading authorities on the study of synesthesia is Richard Cytowic.  When I began my research on synesthesia in college, I read many of his articles and even a book of his called The Man Who Tasted Shapes.

Synesthetic experiences usually begin during childhood and consist of what Cytowic refers to as “a parallel arrangement of two gradient series.”  These series may be emotions, tastes, odors, temperature or colors, which are paired with letters, words, numbers, pitches and tonalities.  Imagine what it would be like to taste words.  It may sound bizarre to you, but for someone who has this form of synesthesia, it would be strange for words not to have particular tastes.

Synesthetic perceptions must have certain characteristics in or order to qualify as true synesthetic experiences.  Synesthetic perception is projected rather than experiences in the “mind’s eye”  For example, a person with synesthesia based on tonalities literally perceives the individual tonalities in color in response to hearing them.  These experiences are not imagined and not created at will.  I don’t tell myself to have them, they just happen simultaneously with the sounds.  Synesthetic experiences are also durable.  This means that the cross-sensory perceptions remain the same and never changes over time.  To me, the tonality of A was red, it still is red, and it will continue to be red.  I can’t imagine it being anything else but red.

In addition, synesthetic perceptions are generic meaning they are not elaborate or pictorial.  Let me use Beethoven’s 6th Symphony as an example.  Most people may imagine themselves out in the country when listening to this.  If I tell myself to do so, I can imagine myself walking in a wide open field or something of that sort.  However, whenever I listen to Beethoven’s sixth, the work produces an abstract image to my eyes.  It is a a mixture of different colored blobs and lines that move to the music.   These blobs and lines are based on the instrumental sonorities as well as the underlining harmonies.

Bassoons are yellow ocher and flutes are a shimmering, light blue.  Even individual tones have colors.  The c major scale played one octave would look like this: pink, green blue, lavender, violet, red, yellow, and  pink.  Notes in high registers are shiny and bright while notes in lower registers are more faint and dull.

Besides Color Hearing Synesthesia, I also experience Grapheme Color Synesthesia in which individual letters and numbers are perceived in color.  This is how I learned my alphabet and how to count. The letter A is red and M is pink, for example.  Many of my friends have pink names because many of them have names that begin with the letter M.  As for numbers, if you count from 0 through 9, the numbers would look like this: gray, white, pink, yellow, dark blue, tan, purple, red, light blue, and light green.

Even days of the week and the twelve months of the year have colors.  This is known as Lexeme Color Synesthesia..  I don’t know how or why.  It’s just always been like that.  Tuesdays are red and Fridays are green.  June is a blue month while August is pink.

I could go on and on but perhaps we will save that for another post.  Until then, stay tuned!


A Great Influence, Alexander Scriabin

Contrasting Sounds by Wassily Kandinsky

I discovered my synesthesian when speaking to an old friend of mine.  Like me, she also played piano and when I mentioned my visual perceptions of music her eyes lit up and she said “I totally understand.”  Unfortunately we couldn’t come to an agreement about anything.  We were much like Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov and Alexander Scriabin.  Scriabin had discovered his synesthetic perceptions when talking to his friend, Rimsky-Korsakov.  Just like these two composers, my friend and I couldn’t come to an agreement about the colors of tonalities or sound in general.  For instance, she perceived the tonality of A as being green whereas to my “eye” it appears red.  This left me feeling puzzled because if sound could be perceived visually, shouldn’t it look the same to those who could “see” it?

As for how I actually “see” colors.  I am not sure how to explain it but I don’t see them the way I see tangible objects.  Then again I don’t imagine them in my mind either.  It lies somewhere in between.  I can still see them with my eyes closed but I get a better “view” when my eyes are open because it is almost like they are there in front of me.

I didn’t come to know the word Synesthesia until I encountered the artwork of Wassily Kandinsky and the music of Alexander Scriabin.  Up until that point, my color hearing experiences were without a name.  Both Kandinsky and Scriabin were synesthetes and when I read more about them, I embraced their ideas and philosophies wholeheartedly.  Furthermore, I decided to carry out the mission that they started: To prove that there is a common oneness between color and sound.

After doing much research on these two Russian masters, I began composing music for the first time, at 20 years of age.   My first few pieces were about colors.  I wrote a little collection of pieces for solo piano called Conflicting Colors, which was inspired by Kandinsky’s painting called Contrasting Sounds.  The piano pieces in my small collection are bi-tonal, thus illustrating the concept of colors conflicting.

I owe a lot to Scriabin.  He helped me understand my Synesthesia and made me feel like I was apart of something bigger that is waiting to be uncovered.  Perhaps he was right when he said that there would be some great cataclysmic event where all the arts would come together as one.

On an even more personal level, Scriabin taught me the true meaning of perception.  I am fascinated by the senses of hearing and sight, but as you already know, out of my five senses these two are not the sharpest tools in the shed.   I have had these “physical challenges” all my life, so the world is quite normal for me.  But perhaps, I needed to have some of my vision and hearing taken away to truly experience what I have been experiencing for as long as I can remember.  Perhaps the five senses give us a false sense of security and impair us in terms of perceiving the world as it really is.  I have known people who have sharp eyes and keen hearing, who can perceive the world in perfect visual and aural detail.  However they fail to see the big picture.  Furthermore, they fail to understand the connection that lies between the senses in general.  I have five fingers on each of my two hands and those five fingers all come together to form each hand.  We have five senses and regardless of how well each one of them works, they all come together to form the ultimate experience which we call perception.

Me, Myself and Synesthesia

Fugue in Red by Paul Klee

While I was a graduate student at Purchase College, I had a meeting with a professor of mine on my final composition project for one of my classes.  For this particular class I was to write a piece for string quartet exhibiting one of the techniques we studied.  My piece was inspired by a painting by Paul Klee entitled “Fugue in Red” which later became part of a set of pieces call Images By Paul Klee.  To put is simply, “Fugue in Red” is a fugue but in a more modern sense.  With regard to the painting, my professor asked me:  “Why do you think this piece is called Fugue in Red?”

“Well,” I began “You can see how the images appear in layers and they look like one another.  This suggests imitative counterpoint, which you find in a standard fugue.  As for the color red, that, to my eye, refers to the tonality.  My fugue is not tonal in the conventional sense, but if you notice, I use the pitch A as a tonal center here at the beginning.”  I pointed to the repeated A’s in the head motive of my fugal subject.  I continued.  “I chose A because A is red.”

“Really?” she asked.

I nodded “Yes.”

“Says who?”

Uh oh, I shouldn’t have said that.  I forgot for a moment that my perceptions of music were clearly my own and no one else’s.  My professor obviously didn’t see what I see with regard to tonality or sound in general.  Perhaps she didn’t see tonalities at all.  Though she seemed fascinated by my perceptions I felt a little embarrassed after that particular conversation.  To many “normal” musicians the whole idea of seeing sounds sounded a little crazy.  I moved away from that topic and discussed with her my plans regarding completing the work.  I hadn’t finished it yet.

As far back as I can remember all sounds have images and colors.  I wish that people could experience the things I see when I hear music, a bird chirping, or even a person speaking.  I was surprised to learn that not many people experience this kind of phenomena called Synesthesia.  As a someone who plays piano, the keyboard has always been my pallet of paints and my fingers are what make the paints come together to create a visual masterpiece.  I conduct all the colors of the keyboard in the manner I feel makes the work most understandable to the audience.  Music looks like an abstract painting: blobs and splashes of colors move across the keyboard as I play.  The colors of music operate on two different levels: instrumental sonority and harmony.  That is how it works.  Generally speaking, the sound of a piano is silver, but the harmonies and pitch sonorities are what make the music come to life in color.  Piano sounds appear as metallic blobs to me and disappear as their sounds decay.

To understand what music truly looks like to me, look at the abstract artwork of Wassily Kandinsky.  There is nothing more sensational then playing piano and watching the music come to life before my eyes.  I had always wished to someday play a piano concerto with an orchestra.  Wouldn’t that be grand to mix the metallic timbres of the piano with the spectral hues of an orchestra?  I certainly think so!


Spectrum V by Ellsworth Kelly

Since this is my very first blog post, I thought it would be best to begin with an introduction.  That’s usually a good place to start.  Anyway, this is not my first blog.  I actually started keeping a blog about 2 years ago when I was an active online member of a parrot forum.  Writing has always been a great outlet of expression for me, so here I am starting it up again.

Allow me to introduce myself.  My name is Jennifer and I love music and birds.  I am a music educator at a community music school and also incorporate music into my work in therapeutic recreation at a children’s home.  I have been playing piano for over 20 years and I have been writing my own music for almost 10 years.  I play the handbells in my church’s handbell choir and absolutely love it.  Some people would call me a professional musician, but I don’t consider myself one, just a great lover of this wonderful art form.

As  much as I love music, I also love birds.  I live with two very special, feathered companions: a sun conure, Sunny, and a quaker parrot, Nikki.  Both are girls and were born in 2004.  They are very dear to my heart and add much color to my life.  They are my girls and anyone who knows me, knows my girls.  They are my biggest musical inspirations.

That brings me to the title of this blog.  Spectrum is a very special title to me because it is the title of one of my favorite artworks that I saw at the Metropolitan Music of Art.  The work is specifically called Spectrum V (as opposed to Spectrum IV) and is by a contemporary artist named Ellsworth Kelly (b. 1923),  The work consists of thirteen large panels, each containing a different color or shade of color. The first panel is yellow and the last is yellow.  To me this work is a visual representation of a chromatic scale played one full octave up the piano keyboard.  Years after my first sighting of Spectrum at the Met, I decided that I wanted to make an audio representation of the seven colors of the rainbow, each represented by a different tonality or pitch center: A being red, B orange, C yellow, D green, E blue, F indigo, and G violet.”

I have played Spectrum many times.  To me it is my signature piece.  Anyone who hears it or for any pianist who plays it hopefully gets a glimpse of what’s going on in my head.

The word Spectrum conjures up both audio and visual memories for me.  I am a great lover of both color and sound and find the senses of both vision and hearing to be very fascinating.  Ironically, when I was born, these two senses were not the sharpest tools in the shed because I was born both hearing and visually impaired.  However since I have never had normal vision and hearing, all seems pretty normal to me.  I am very happy with my aural and visual perceptions.  I can see enough to appreciate all the beautiful colors, and I can hear enough appreciate all the beautiful sounds.

To me, my girls, are the the most beautiful creatures in my life with their beautiful colors and bright eyes, and their unique vocalizations are the most beautiful sounds to my ears (except when they nag for my attention).  There is nothing more beautiful than the sound of their happy chirps.  Of course, other people would disagree with me.  Many find the vocalizations of parrots, even small ones, to be quite annoying.  Oh well, when you love, you do not only become blind but deaf too!

My topics for discussion will range from anything that I feel relates to either sound and/or color as well as vision and/or hearing.  Feel free to leave comments and thank you for visiting!

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