Sight, Sound and Beyond

Archive for the ‘Synesthesia’ Category

Thursday, March 1, 1990

Today is Thursday, March 1st.  For many it is the first day of a new month but for me, March 1st has great significance.  It was on Thursday, March 1, 1990 that I officially began my piano studies.  My first piano teacher was Donna DeAngelis, who also taught my eldest sister piano.

Most parents want for their children to learn the piano and in many cases, it is against their children’s wishes.  I can recall many stories of individuals telling me that they took piano lessons because their parents wanted them to learn, and they never practiced.  It was the complete opposite with me.  I had to really prove that I was  interested and that I would stick with it for at least a couple years.

My interest in piano lessons began to grow when an “incident” occurred at a childhood friend’s house.  I was about seven years old, and my friend showed me a small electronic keyboard that had a series of buttons at the top.  She pushed one button and soon I heard a simple melody with a drum accompaniment.  I listened to it a couple times.  Then she pushed another button, which produced the drum accompaniment alone.  My fingers immediately jumped to the keyboard, and I began playing the song exactly how I remembered it.  My childhood friend immediately jumped up and ran into the kitchen where her mother was.  I followed to see what the excitement was all about.  “Mom! Mom!” she cried “She can play it!”  I was shocked by her enthusiastic response.  I had no idea what the big deal was.  Wasn’t that how everyone learned music?  My friend’s mother told me that I should take piano lessons.

Prior to my piano studies, I had mimicked the melodies I heard on the radio or television.  I was like a little parrot mimicking speech (no wonder I live with parrots now!).  I would fumble around the keyboard and strike notes until I could get them to sound like a melody I had heard earlier.  I did not even know the names of notes I played, but I could hear the difference between each one.  Each one had a special color and it were the colors that helped me play by ear.

I can still remember my first piano lesson.  I was eight years old, and the first thing I learned was all the names of the notes.  I could remember my teacher introducing me to them.  That’s when I learned that the pink note was C, the green note was D, the blue note was E, etc.  In a matter of minutes I could find and name them all (including sharps and flats).  Within a couple months I learned two things about myself:

  1. I had hearing loss and needing to wear hearing aids.
  2. I had absolute pitch or the ability to correctly name musical notes that I would hear on piano.

It seemed like a paradox to be a hearing impaired musician who had absolute pitch.  Was that even possible?  I didn’t know, and to be frank, I didn’t care.  Sure, I was struggling to hear my classmates in school, and was afraid to answer the telephone (I had trouble hearing the person at the other end).  However, I had a very good musical ear according to my piano teacher.  I honestly thought the hearing loss was simply temporary and would cure itself on its own.

It took me a while to accept my hearing loss for what it was but eventually I did accept it when I was 12 years old.  Not only did I accept it, I never allowed it to prevent me from continuing my musical studies.  In May 2004, I earned a Bachelor of Arts in Music at Manhattanville College where I concentrated in piano performance, and in May 2008, I completed a Master of Music at Purchase College where I concentrated in composition.

Now, I am currently studying the organ.

If you had told me when I was eight years old that I was going to study piano for the next 20 years, earn two music degrees and then start studying the organ in my 30’s, I would look at you like you were nuts.  It is amazing where that first piano lesson took me, and it’s amazing how your life can change with some encouragement.  The world becomes a better place when someone gives you a chance.  My first piano teacher actually believed I could succeed.  Not everyone is lucky to have such support.

March 1, 1990 is more than just a date.  It marked the beginning of a wild and crazy musical adventure.



In Print

So tomorrow and Tuesday, Marvin and I will be doing our two workshops on 21st Century Music.  I am all packed and ready to go and looking forward to what should be a very exciting couple of days.   I just hope I can stay awake.  I have to catch a 6:56 train tomorrow morning and I am not an early bird.  Although, I probably should be given that I live with two parrots.

Last Sunday, Joe Barron of Montgomery News, interviewed both Marvin and me about are upcoming workshops.  Marvin may be a pro at being interviewed for papers, but for me it was an amazing experience.   To be honest, the last story about me to ever appear in any kind of newspaper was probably when I was in the 6th grade.  Oh, and did I mentioned that it was for the school newspaper and that the person who wrote it knew me and was a friend of my older sister?  Hey, I held onto that article for many, many years.  Now that I am thinking about it, I wish I still had it for it is quite an accomplishment to be included in any type of newspaper.  But wait!  I just remembered!  I did get included in a story in New York Magazine, does that count? LOL!

Anyway, Marvin told me that Joe was going to call me that day.  I wasn’t sure when but it would be sometime in the late afternoon or early evening.  I started imagining myself receiving Joe’s phone call.   The girls would start chirping in the background and I would say something like: “Excuse me for the noise, Joe, those are just my two birds yakking in the background.”

Joe called me about 8pm and thankfully, the girls were asleep so there was no avian commentary whatsoever during our telephone interview.  I had expected Joe to fire a bunch of questions at me, but what I expected to be a formal interview turned out to be a pleasant conversation.  Joe and I discussed details regarding the workshops, such as the repertoire Marvin and I would be presenting and he asked me about my musical studies and my own personal story.

At some point during the conversation, Joe had asked me about Synesthetic perceptions when listening to music.  I think this topic came up when I had mentioned my ability to see and recognize colors despite my vision loss.  Nevertheless, it was refreshing to speak with someone who had knowledge about Synesthesia.  In most cases, I usually have to explain what Synesthesia is.  It is too bad I left Alexander Scriabin out of the conversation since, well, he was a significant influence on my music and my own philosophy about music and color.

Anyway, Joe’s article went up on the Montgomery Media website this past Wednesday, and it was a real delight to start off the month of February reading it.  Click on the link below to read it for yourself!

Piano recital at Jacobs Music hopes to bring avant-garde to the fore

by Joe Baron

My First Experiment with Synesthesia

Abstract Symphony in Blue and Green by Vicky Brago Mitchell

When I was a sophomore in college, I made my first attempt at painting music.  I don’t know if I was very successful, but the experiment went like this.  In my theory class, we had to write an example of a tonal modulation.  We had to begin in the key of E minor and modulate to one of the other 5 related keys: G major, C major, D, major, A minor or B minor.  I ended my example in D major by using an E minor chord as a common chord.  The example was about two measure and was written in four voices, like you would find in a Bach four-part chorale.

I showed my musical example to my freshman academic adviser, Randy.  He is an art professor, but I had him for the freshman seminar which all incoming freshman were required to take.  I asked Randy if he would help me make my two measure example into a painting.  He agreed and we began our experiment.

Creating my visual masterpiece took a few attempts, but here is what I ended up finally doing.  I took a large piece of water color paper and painted 2 thirds of it blue to represent E minor and painted the remainder of the paper green to represent D major.   These visual representations were based on my own personal perceptions of these two keys.

Now how did I represent the notes in the chorale and their durations?  Randy gave me a book that consisted of color samples.  He told me to cut the colors out that best represented the notes in the example.  Shorter notes were cut closer to the shape of a square while longer note values were cut more in the shape of a rectangle.  It was not an easy task to do as matching up the colors to my own perceptions was very challenging.  Therefore, I had to chose the ones that were as close to the original as possible.

I arranged the “notes” on the panted paper in the same manner as it appeared on the staff.  The example moved from left to write and the voices were arranged in their conventional order: bass, tenor, alto soprano.  Once the notes were glued in their respectful places, the work was finished.  It turned out to be pretty cool and I titled it From E Minor to D Major.

Once I finished the work, I gave it to Joyce, the professor of the theory class in which I had done the initial assignment.  I had given it to her as a Christmas gift.  Joyce became my academic adviser in my Sophomore year.  It was that same year that I became interested in composing music and began studying composition with her as well.  Even after all these years, I still have close ties to both Randy and Joyce.  I don’t know if Joyce still has the painting, but I am glad we still have our friendship.  That’s more important.

What Does Sound Look Like?

Composition VII by Wassily Kandinsky

There is nothing more pleasing to the eyes than the colors of a symphony.  To put it simply, an orchestra contains lines and blobs.  The bowed strings contribute to the linear designs while the winds contribute the roundish blobs.  That is why the winds add body to the overall orchestral sound.  Unlike the linear design of the strings, the blobs created by wind instruments expand in all directions.

The individual colors of the orchestral instruments are marvelous: The strings are brownish-red and brass sounds consist of varying yellow hues.  However, the trombones are gold and carry a regal appearance to my eye.  The percussion contributes various highlights to the scene with their colorful specks and splashes.  However, the woodwinds are the icing on the cake because of their variety of colors.  Bassoons are yellow ocher, while oboes are a warm chestnut brown, clarinets are metallic dark brown and flutes are a shimmering light blue.

In December 2007, I sang in the Purchase College Choir, which performed Mendelssohn’s choral symphony entitled Lobgesang (“Hymn of Praise”).  Having the earth tone colors of the human voices mixed with an orchestra is something you cannot imagine, and to be on stage, standing in the middle of it all is even more amazing because the colors are all around you.  I stood in the alto section with bass and tenor voices to my left, sopranos to my right and the orchestra in front of me.

Voices appear as blobs just as the wind instruments do.  Bass voices are a sandy color, while tenor voices are brown.  Altos are light green, and sopranos are an ocean blue.  Mix that with your colorful orchestra and the colorful harmonies of Mendelssohn’s symphonic cantata and you really have something to talk about.  The fugal sections of that work are especially fun to watch as they run past you in varying colors and hues

Tonalities have color, instrumental sonorities have colors, and individual pitches have colors, especially when heard on piano.  Human voices have colors even when they are just speaking.  This is very interesting because when a person’s emotions changes so does the hue or shade of color of his voice.  Everything I hear appears as a line, speck or blob with some kind of color.  High sounds have brilliant, shimmering colors while low sounds are more faint and dull.  Images flash, splash, or even flicker (like when a telephone rings) before my eyes.

Animals create colors when they vocalize.  I was surprised and shocked when I heard one of my parrots, a Sun Conure, squawk for the first time.  She is a brightly-colored bird with a predominantly yellow plumage.  I nearly jumped out of my chair when her high pitched squeak produced a speck of dark blue.  Nikki’s call is a little less surprising as it is a greenish brown blob.  It is funny is funny when the two of them squawk back and forth because the color splatter all over the place.  However when they speak the colors appear much lighter.  Sunny has a low, scratchy voice, which is huge contrast to her high pitched call, so her speech is yellow in color while Nikki’s is tan.  Unfortunately, the colors of their voices are not nearly as beautiful as the colors of their feathers.  Oh well, you can’t have everything!

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!

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