A weekly insight into music's affect on the mind through a review of Musicology and Music Therapy.

Monday, December 10, 2012

The Color, Taste, and Feeling of Music

Have you ever wondered what music would look like if it was a color? Or what music would taste like if it was a flavor? Or how it would feel if it were tangible?

Researchers in the field of Musicology have run across some interesting cases in which some people are able to see music as a color, flavor, or feeling in their studies. This unique physiological phenomena is called Synesthesia. It is the combination of the senses, meaning that when one sense is stimulated another simultaneously reacts as well to the stimulation.

How does such a unique condition come about? Most of those with Synesthesia were born with it. As a result, these people do not realize that it is even considered a condition. It is just a part of them as is their color of their eyes or hair. Researchers have studied many with this condition and believe that it is due to the integrity of areas in the cranial cortex and the connections between these areas that results in some being born with Synesthesia. As a result of it being a physiological quality that one is born with, it is very rare that someone might develop this condition and that is why Synethesia is most commonly found in children. There are a few cases in which someone acquired this connection of the senses. This most often was the result of permanent blindness, in which the person's body becomes heighten to visual imagery and intersensorary connections develop to compensate for the lack of sight. 

So, how do people with Synesthesia experience music? For each person with this combination of the senses, the perception of music is a little different. For Evelyn Glennie, music is a feeling. 

The case of Evelyn Glennie, professional percussionist:
At the age of 12 years, she was labelled as being profoundly deaf. Her deafness had been gradual but by this point in her early life, she was only left with a little residual hearing. Before becoming deaf, she had already been a practiced musician and did not want to lose her music. As a result with the help of her music teacher, she taught herself to feel the music. She was able to feel the different vibration lengths in pitches rather than hearing the pitch. Evelyn Glennie may not be able to hear music, but because her senses combined and allow her to feel it she is able to continue in music. In fact, Glennie became the first full time percussionist in history. The only difference between her and other musician performers beside the fact she is deaf, is that she plays barefooted so that she can feel the vibrations of the pitches within her body.

The case of Michael Torke, contemporary composer:
In this instance, Michael was born with his Synesthesia. His sense of sound is connected to the visual senses. So, whenever he would listen or play a song, he would see a specific color associated with it. Torke grew up thinking that this was something everyone had, until his piano teacher informed him otherwise. He (and the Researchers who have studied his synethesia likewise) discovered that his Synesthesia is key and scale based. As a result, when he hears a song in a specific key or scale, Torke simultaneously recognizes it as a color. These automatic color visuals or constant and fixed with an inability for change. No matter how hard he may try, Torke will always connect the key or scale with a specific color that is invariable. When trying to describe the color of specific keys or scales, Michael Torke has a hard time finding the words to describe the color just as one might have a hard time trying to find the right colored crayon. He has discovered a connection between the colors and musical keys/scales. For instance, to Torke's Synesthesia, a scale or key in Gmajor is bright yellow; whereas, a scale or key in G minor is a subdued yellow ochre. The G Major and Minor keys and scales share a color family, but tend to vary in level of intensity and shade. Another composer, David Caldwell, also experiences color Synesthesia to music. However, when hearing about Michael's colors, Caldwell stated that that sounded wrong to him because his colors were connected to different keys. This showed researchers that even those with similar Synesthesia such as Torke and Caldwell experience the combination of senses differently. 

The case of Patrick Ehlen, psychologist and songwriter:
Similarly to Michael Torke, Patrick Ehlen has a color based Synesthesia. However, what makes his case unique is it is not tied exclusively to music.  When he hears any kind of sound, sees numbers, letters, or days of the week, Ehlen connects colors and shapes to these other items. As for his musical Synesthesia, Ehlen sees colors and shapes that is connected to the rhythm and tempo of the music rather than the key signature. Ehlen also experiences shape and color based Synesthesia with regards to the shape of a melodic line, timbre (tone quality) of instruments, and the mood of the music. Patrick Ehlen's Synesthesia is similar to Torke's in that it is invariable and is something that Ehlen feels is just part of him. 

In addition to these individual cases, there is a case of a female musician in Zurich who experiences music as taste. Her Synesthesia is the combination of the auditory and taste senses. When two notes create a specific interval between them, the musician experiences a taste on her tongue. Researchers have documented that these tastes are invariably connected to specific intervals. For her, some intervals are bitter, sweet, taste like cream or mowed grass. When tested to see if she could identify the intervals just by the taste in her mouth, this musician proved to the researchers that she could accurately name the interval every time. As a result the automatic and instant Synesthesia response of taste she has to hearing musical intervals is never wrong. 

It is fascinating to think that there are some people out there who experience music differently than what is "normal". However, for those with Synesthesia, experiencing Music as a feeling, taste, or color is normal to them. 

With this in mind go listen to one of your favorite songs. As you listen to it try to think about what kind of color, flavor, or feeling it might have for you if you had Synesthesia. Feel free to share your thoughts about this in the comments below. I would love to hear what your favorite song is and the color, taster, or feeling it gives you.

1 comment:

  1. Music and Emotions

    The most difficult problem in answering the question of how music creates emotions is likely to be the fact that assignments of musical elements and emotions can never be defined clearly. The solution of this problem is the Theory of Musical Equilibration. It says that music can't convey any emotion at all, but merely volitional processes, the music listener identifies with. Then in the process of identifying the volitional processes are colored with emotions. The same happens when we watch an exciting film and identify with the volitional processes of our favorite figures. Here, too, just the process of identification generates emotions.

    An example: If you perceive a major chord, you normally identify with the will "Yes, I want to...". If you perceive a minor chord, you identify normally with the will "I don't want any more...". If you play the minor chord softly, you connect the will "I don't want any more..." with a feeling of sadness. If you play the minor chord loudly, you connect the same will with a feeling of rage. You distinguish in the same way as you would distinguish, if someone would say the words "I don't want anymore..." the first time softly and the second time loudly.
    Because this detour of emotions via volitional processes was not detected, also all music psychological and neurological experiments, to answer the question of the origin of the emotions in the music, failed.

    But how music can convey volitional processes? These volitional processes have something to do with the phenomena which early music theorists called "lead", "leading tone" or "striving effects". If we reverse this musical phenomena in imagination into its opposite (not the sound wants to change - but the listener identifies with a will not to change the sound) we have found the contents of will, the music listener identifies with. In practice, everything becomes a bit more complicated, so that even more sophisticated volitional processes can be represented musically.

    Further information is available via the free download of the e-book "Music and Emotion - Research on the Theory of Musical Equilibration:


    or on the online journal EUNOMIOS:


    Enjoy reading

    Bernd Willimek