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Sensual Synaesthesia: When Colour And Music Collide

It has often been found that colour compliments music and vice versa. There is evidence of this ideology stemming from the 15th century to the present with recent developments. However, out of this bonding of colour and music comes a phenomenon called Synesthesia. It can be described as two regions of the brain that do not normally communicate, mix together to create something that is not physically there such as seeing colour when someone is only playing music. Synesthesia has many forms including taste mixing with shapes, words and letters mixing with colour, and days of the week mixing with different tastes and colours. However, this essay focuses on the common bonding of audio and visual – particularly colour and music.

Fig. 1 Newton’s Opticks

When talking about synesthesia, it is important to understand the cultural history of colour and music in order to grasp why synesthesia was such a huge phenomenon when it was first discovered in1812. This was due to the underlying connection that humans have been making for centuries between colour and music. The relationship between these two senses can be linked back to the 15th century with Athanasius Kircher, a Jesuit priest and a professor of mathematics and physics. He called music “the ape of light” and believed that everything audible could be made visible and vice versa (Scholes 206). In 1704, Newton devised a “colour wheel” called Opticks [Fig. 1] that associated the seven colours (red, orange, yellow, green, blue, indigo, violet) with the seven notes of the scale basing the connection between colour-bands in the spectrum and the seven-string lengths needed to make a scale.

In 1720, further developments were being made in instrumentation. Louis Bertrand Castel (another Jesuit priest and professor) was inspired by the works of Kircher and Newton, and developed the “Clavecin Oculaire” a.k.a. the “Harpsichord for the Eyes” (Scholes 206). It contained an arrangement of coloured tapes for each finger key, which allowed light to pass through. Unfortunately without the advent of electricity at the time, it was not successful. However, the instrument was often discussed and inspired several other attempts at producing colour and music. In the late 1800s, A. Wallace Rimington invented the “Rimington Colour Organ”. Although it was called an organ it was incapable of producing music. It was meant to be played alongside an organ, projecting colours onto a screen whenever a key was pushed on the organ. Each note was associated with a colour (through comparison of the colour and music frequency) and depending on the octave, the colour either increased or decreased in luminosity (Scholes 207). This was an attempt to actually translate music to colour. In 1921 Bernard Klein created an elaborate “Colour Projector” that was originally used for stage lighting. However, the projector contained a two-octave keyboard that was connected to different colours. The projector would eventually be used with orchestras (and be used for the making of Disney’s Fantasia film in 1940) in order to accompany the mood and emotions of the piece by displaying colours. Unlike the Colour Organ, it was not translating, but accompanying a piece. A different mechanism called “The Clavilux” was invented in 1922 by Thomas Wilfrid, which tried to “compose” colour. It looked more like a soundboard than an organ. He redefined the term “colour-music” by creating what he thought colour-music should be: coloured art that resembles music through time, rhythm, and shifting combinations (Scholes 207).

George Sachs, a German man diagnosed with albinism, was “discovered” by Dr Julius Schlegel in August of 1795 when he was nine years old. In 1812, Sachs submitted a medical dissertation that described his colourful condition after reading a book called “Theory of Colours” by Johann Wolfgang von Goethe in 1810. Goethe believed that colour could be understood through biology rather than physics. Near the end of Sachs’ dissertation, he explained how certain sounds, words, and ideas had colours. Sachs later appeared in a medical encyclopaedia in 1814. It was not until 1849 that new cases of synesthesia were being discovered. Dr Edward Cornaz was reviewing Sachs’ case at the time and was the first person to give a name to the condition: “hyperchromatopsia” because he believed the colours were originating from the eye and that synesthetes had extra cells to create colours in places where others could not see them (Ward 13). Between 1860 and 1870, a large volume of new cases were being reported, causing scientists to believe that the brain was responsible for the added colour, and not the eye. Two theories developed regarding what caused synesthesia in the brain: either synesthesia is the result of learned associations or synesthesia reflects the way nerves from different senses are interconnected. The 1880s and 1890s were the golden years of synesthesia with hundreds of cases pouring in for examination. It was reported that 76 people out of 596 alone had vowel-colour associations. For many people, the idea of being able to see a mental image using one’s own “mind’s eye” was quite comforting, and served as an accurate description of their unique sensory world (Ward 14). Unlike today’s negative connotation towards synesthesia (i.e. calling it a mental “condition”), people first believed that it was a positive experience and that people who had synesthesia were gifted. However, with the further development of studies and with the realization that synesthesia was more common in women and children, the idea of synesthesia being a quality of a superior intellect was removed (Ward 14). Around this time, Mary Calkins was the first to use the word “synesthesia” in an English publication to describe this phenomenon for a survey in America (Ward 14-15). She would go on to become the first President of the American Psychological Association and the first woman to study for a PhD at Harvard. Unfortunately, she was not allowed to get the degree because she was a woman. She was even tutored by William James, a top psychologist of the day alongside Sigmund Freud. However, within the next 50 years, the study of synesthesia would taper off due to B.F. Skinner’s behavioural science methods of psychology. Suddenly psychology was being perceived as the study of people’s behaviour. Since people with synesthesia did not have a different behaviour from people without synesthesia, the curious case of synesthesia was then considered trivial and irrelevant and was put on the back burner (Ward 16). Although synesthesia had been abandoned by science for almost 50 years, important steps in understanding vision and colour were still being made, and the curiosity behind other sensory words was continually growing due to explorations of sensory reorganization blindness and hallucinogens from the 1960s such as LSD (Ward 25-26).

During the early research of synesthesia in the 1800s, there were several attributes that made synesthesia a legitimate topic of scientific discussion. Firstly, synesthesia tended to be very stable over time. Also, it tends to run in family genetics even though family members tend to disagree on the correct colours of things. Moreover, it tends to be very particular about colour, specifically in tones and shading, and it occurs quickly. It was also believed that there was a part of the brain entirely responsible for colour, but at the time the theory was not widely accepted. It was Semir Zeki and his colleges that eventually found supporting evidence for this theory, identifying a part of the brain by “V4” (the 4 represents the fourth visual region) that remains active when perceiving colour images and not active when looking at greyscale images (Ward 24). In the mid-1980s, Dr Simon Baron-Cohen found an article describing 76-year-old Elizabeth Stewart-Jones’ synesthesia. She was looking to find out more information about her condition and asked scientists to contact her. Baron-Cohen accepted the case and came up with a simple experiment that showed that synesthesia was more than random colour associations. Elizabeth had precise word and colour associations. He asked her to describe several words and 10 weeks later he unexpectedly called her and asked the words again. She had repeated every word and its proper colour association. Some sceptics implied that Elizabeth just had a good memory, but this test was repeated to a younger person within two weeks and they were only 17% accurate to their first set of answers. Elizabeth also took a standardized memory test and did poorly. The science behind synesthesia took a drastic turn with the advent of brain imaging technology. Julia Nunn examined twelve synesthetes using an MRI scanner and observed their brain activities while the patients were blindfolded. The results were outstanding. The V4 areas were stimulated even though the patients could not physically see colour due to the blindfolds. This was because other senses (namely audio) were activating the V4 section, resulting in the patient seeing colour whenever the other sense is present. One final test was done to non-synesthetes to confirm that it is not just colour association. Researchers explained to the patients that the word “fish” was green and that “photo” was lavender. Even with the word-colour associations, the V4 area was not stimulated when scanned, unlike the synesthetes. This disproved the long dispute over whether or not synesthesia was just learned colour associations. Although it took science awhile to agree that synesthesia actually existed, the real reason why research continued to develop was due to scientists like Baron-Cohen who believed that synesthesia was worth investigating. During the researching process of synesthesia, the world of science was exposed to new ideas about the brain, sensory behaviour, and cells, which shall remain beneficial to many other phenomena in the fields of science and psychology.

Although the science portion of synesthesia has been thoroughly examined so far, the next step is to explore the mind of a person diagnosed with synesthesia. Dr Oliver Sacks is a well-known physician, professor of neurology, and has completed a book called Musicophilia, which contains many medical stories about individual musical experiences from patients, musicians, and everyday people. In this book, Sacks mentions Michael Torke, a contemporary composer who starting composing when he was five. He has been influenced creatively by his key synesthesia. Sacks notes that Michael sees “fixed colours associated with the playing of music, scales, arpeggios, anything with a key signature – as far back as he can remember” (Sacks 181). However, colour does not appear if there is only a single note played, or a fifth – there must be a triad in order to have a sense of a key. He does not respond to composers, rhythms, musical textures and patterns, instruments, mood, or emotions – only keys. To Michael, the colours for each key are fixed and appear with no effort and cannot be changed, no matter how hard he tries. Like many synesthetes, the colours are very specific, “G minor, for example, is not just ‘yellow’, but ‘ochre’ or ‘gamboge’. D minor is ‘like flint, graphite’; F minor is ‘earthy, ashy’. He struggles to find the right word, as he would struggle to find the right paint or crayon” (Sacks 181). There is not a system for Michael’s colours, accept that major and minor keys share the same colour but the major keys have a brighter shade than their minor counterpart. Michael has many colour associations. There are twenty-four colours for major and minor keys, along with different colours for modes. Michael admits that some of the colours he sees from keys are so strange, that he has never seen them before in the real world. Sacks asked Michael how he sees the colours. Michael replied that they are very bright and luminous and that they appear before him but they do not alter his normal vision. Sacks then asked what would happen if Michael were looking at a yellow wall while D major (which appears blue) was playing. Would Michael see green? Michael replied no, and that his synthetic colours are never confused with external colours. He would see both, but the blue would still seem very “real” and intense (Sacks 182). Sacks concludes his talk by asking if Michael’s synesthesia has made much of a difference in his life, especially as a musician. To this, he replied that it is not a hindrance. It is something that is normal to him and is not really remarkable (Sacks 184).

Considering the sudden rebirth in synesthesia in the past couple of years, the future still holds a lot for synesthetes. Further development can be done on brain imaging and the connections between the senses and cells. More people are slowly becoming aware that synesthesia actually exists, and with that, more unique cases are being found. Jamie Ward, author of The Frog Who Croaked Blue, first came across synesthesia in 2000 after he already had a degree in natural sciences, a PhD in psychology, and lecturer of neuropsychology (Ward xi). For years it has been an unpopular subject in science, but now a shift has been taken towards synesthesia, which will only increase as time goes by. Synesthesia has the possibility of having a role outside the senses and inside the mind with outlets for creativity, language and memorization. Regardless of the possibilities synesthesia has in the future, one must keep in mind that synesthesia is just a basic part in the lives of people who have it. As Michael Torke assured, “For me, at least, it’s no big deal” (Sacks 184).


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