What is synesthesia?
Feeling textures when listening to music or reading words on a page. Tasting foods or hearing music in technicolor. Synesthesia is a sensation wherein stimulus of one sensory pathway causes involuntary, irrepressible involvement in a secondary sensory pathway. The phenomenon derives its meaning from the Greek “to perceive together,” and it comes in many varieties. Composers Alexander Scriabin, Nicolai Rimsky-Korsakov, and Olivier Messiaen are all reported to have experienced synesthesia.
There exists the concomitant stimulation of every possible sensory combination, but some of the most common manifestations are as follows:
- Auditory-tactile synesthesia: occurs when a sound elicits a palpable sensation in the body
- Chromesthesia: occurs when a sound (such as music) prompts the vision of colors
- Grapheme-color synesthesia: occurs when letters and numbers are correlated with colors
- Lexical-gustatory synesthesia: occurs when hearing certain words stimulates certain tastes
- Mirror-touch synesthesia: occurs when an observer feels as though they’re being touched when they see it happen to someone else
Grapheme-color synesthesia is the most widely reported form of synesthesia, but chromesthesia is also prevalent among synesthetes.
Russian composer and pianist, Alexander Scriabin (1872-1915) began his compositional career in a mostly tonal, late-Romantic style. As he progressed, he became more inspired by his contemporary atonal composer Arnold Schoenberg, and he adopted a more atonal musical language, while being influenced by his own experience of synesthesia. His color system aligns with the Circle of Fifths, wherein he assigns a different color to each of the 12 keys. He doesn’t differentiate between major or minor, just assigns a color based on tonal center. So, C major and C minor are both the same color. Scriabin’s colored circle of fifths is as follows:
Contemporary Russian pianist and composer, Sergei Rachmaninoff, detailed an interaction he had with Scriabin in his autobiography, Recollections. In this conversation, he and Scriabin compare and contrast Scriabin’s and other contemporary Russian composer Nicolai Rimsky-Korsakov’s experiences of synesthesia. Rachmaninoff was intrigued to discover that Scriabin and Rimsky-Korsakov agreed on some colors and key signatures, although he himself was dubious about the whole thing. For instance, both composers linked D major with golden-brown; however, E-flat major conjured red-purple for Scriabin and blue for Rimsky-Korsakov.
One of Scriabin’s orchestral works, Prometheus: Poem of Fire (1910) includes a part for the “clavier à lumières” which is a “color organ” designed specifically for the performance of this piece. It is played like a piano, but it projects colored light onto a screen rather than producing sound. Scriabin’s original color organ and its mechanism of colorful lamps is preserved in his apartment in Moscow, which is now a museum of his life and his works.
French post-impressionistic composer Olivier Messiaen (1908-1922) experienced strong chromesthesia. He is quoted as describing his experience, “I see colors when I hear sounds, but I don’t see colors with my eyes. I see colors intellectually, in my head.” He established that if he heard a certain combination of pitches repeated an octave higher, the associated color would grow paler. If repeated an octave lower, the color would become darker. If the combination of pitches were transposed the color in his head would radically change. He gives colorful instructions to performers in some of his pieces. For example, in his Quartet for the End of Time, in the second movement, he instructs the pianist to aim for “blueorange” chords, to invoke “yellow topaz” for one chord cluster, and “bright green” for another.
Although synesthesia takes many forms blending across the five senses, hearing colors is a wonder that some composers and musicians experience. Although synesthesia is not extensively studied nor understood by scientists and psychologists, these sensory phenomena provide endless avenues for creativity among composers and musicians.