Even though it’s been more than 20 years since I was in the fourth grade, I can still remember holding the clarinet at home or in school and hearing the sweet sound that came from the woodwind instrument.
When I was a teenager, my parents bought a grand piano and enrolled me in lessons with a private instructor. I was not the best student, but I did like to experiment with the instrument. Around the same time, my parents bought me a Yamaha keyboard, which allowed for multi-track recording and playback.
So I began to record renditions of my favorite artists’ songs. I learned basic chords, and then, listening to a CD player, would sound out each of the accompanying parts by ear.
Not only did I come away from those sessions understanding a little bit more about how my favorite artists played, but these instruments — guitar, bass, drums, synthesizer, etc. — taken together, created images in my mind as I played.
I’m not talking images of actual people, places or things — more like abstract colors and patterns. For instance, I always thought of piano notes as thin pieces of glass floating in an open space or the ripple effect made when something hits water. With bass — an instrument I pursued in high school — the associated color was always brown in a skinny rounded shape, almost like a finger or thumb.
It turns out there’s a name for this: Synesthesia, a neurological condition involving any one of the five senses. “synesthesia” comes from two Greek words and means “joined perception,” so someone experiencing this condition could associate one sense with another.
“Some people with this condition see music — they see music!” said Ben Bowlin, of the infotainment website HowStuffWorks, in a video about synesthesia posted on YouTube. “That sounds beautiful when you think about it.”
In writing this column, I thought I’d reach out to several Utah State University professors in psychology or neuroscience to tell me what they knew about synesthesia, but no one claimed to be an expert on it. So I spoke with several musicians at USU and in Cache Valley to ask them if they’ve ever experienced this condition.
Sergio Bernal, the conductor of the USU symphony, told me he has experienced synesthesia and that associating music with different senses is actually quite common among musicians.
Bernal told me he associates music with different colors and shapes — even physical motion and flavors.
“I think what one does a lot in music making is phrasing, how you move the notes so that all the notes do not have the same weight,” Bernal said. “Sometimes, for example, I imagine throwing a ball downward and the ball bouncing ... That helps the music move as it should.”
When it comes to the tempo of music, to Bernal it often “feels like somebody’s walking or trotting on a horse.”
“Open chords” invoke a sweet flavor, like fruit, he said. Other chords seem tart or salty to him.
Bernal believes associating these flavors, movements and colors with music makes him a better conductor and musician.
“It helps you establish a connection between sound and daily life,” he said. “I believe that is very much a part of music.”
The late Russian composer Alexander Scriabin would have likely agreed with Bernal.
Scriabin’s composition, “Prometheus Poem of Fire,” resulted from his “perception of sound as literal color” — or, to put it another way, “color hearing,” according to an article in the publication “Music Perception: An Interdisciplinary Journal.” The article itself said Scriabin’s perceptions could be classified as synesthesia, though researchers have found that the composer wrote in his diaries that he did not believe he had the condition.
Scriabin’s composition was performed at USU in 2013 as part of a Caine College of the Arts series “Enchanted Modernities.” It was organized by Christopher Scheer, associate professor of musicology at USU.
Scheer said that Schiabin had an engineer literally build a “color wheel,” which was “supposed to be the grand color spectacle of the music he wrote.”
“It was not impressive; it was not like what Scriabin saw in his mind, because there was no technology to match his vision,” Scheer wrote in an email.
The color wheel that the Russian composer created, Scheer said, is only “an imitation of what some people have naturally.”
While Scheer is aware of synesthesia as a musicologist, he said he has never actually experienced it when he performs or listens to music, which is mostly classical. Instead he experiences a range of emotions, from happy to sad.
“I should say that can also be triggered not just by hearing music but by understanding it intellectually, too,” Scheer said. “I hear a piece of music and I understand what the composer is doing, and that’s clever, so it makes me smile.”
I can say, too, that when I hear a song that I like, it makes me smile — and then I see colors and shapes emerge in my mind. A very satisfying experience, indeed!