Real Voices interview: Julie Roxburgh

Meet Julie, a retired music teacher. When she hears sounds she sees them as colours: a condition known as sound-to-colour synaesthesia

What are the most significant features of your synaesthesia?

It is very hard to describe. It’s as if I have a big screen in front of me, and when I hear sounds they appear on the screen as colours and shapes. Sometimes they are moving and they appear in different areas of the screen every time. I am a trained musician and I used to teach oboe and clarinet, so I know what colour to expect when I hear different instruments. The low notes on a clarinet, for example, are a blue-black colour and the high notes are a murky white. Other sounds, such as traffic, can appear differently every time.

How does it affect your life?

I can’t always differentiate between my senses – whether I am hearing something or seeing it. When my alarm clock rings, I see brass-coloured bubbles and white lines. It’s quite disturbing first thing in the morning when you are waking up. Seeing colours and shapes all the time muddles up my thought process, especially when I am tired.

What role do you think your brain has in your condition?

It could have something to do with the connections in your brain – the wiring as you might call it. I know I certainly don’t have any control over it.

Do you consider your condition an illness or a disability?

I don’t think it could be called a disability compared to the dreadful problems that other people have. However, it does create difficulties. Society is not designed for synaesthetes. I can’t go to places where there is a lot of noise. Music in shops is so distracting.

How do people react when you tell them about your condition?

Most people find it hard to understand. Describing it is like trying to explain colour to someone who has been blind from birth. Equally, I can’t think what it would be like not to be synaesthetic. My husband is a composer and I can’t imagine how he hears in his head the sounds he wants to write down, yet doesn’t see them.

What do you think the origins of your condition are?

My brother, my mother and my son are all synaesthetic and I think my granddaughter might be. So there could be a genetic link.

About this resource

This resource was first published in ‘Thinking’ in September 2006 and reviewed and updated in August 2014.

Education levels:
14–16, 16–19, Continuing professional development