Scriabin colour keyboard

Red red whine

People with synaesthesia may experience music in radically different ways

In most people, the auditory nerve ferries signals from the ear’s hearing apparatus to sound-processing areas of the brain. In people with certain forms of synaesthesia, however, these connections seem to take detours. As well as hearing music, they may also ‘see’ it or ‘taste’ it.

Sound–vision synaesthesia is relatively common. Musical sounds generate distinctive visual experiences. Particular notes may be associated with specific colours. Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov is said to have had synaesthetically coloured musical keys, while Franz Liszt would startle orchestras by asking: “Gentlemen, a little bluer, if you please!” According to jazz pioneer Duke Ellington: “ If Harry Carney is playing, D is dark blue burlap. If Johnny Hodges is playing, G becomes light blue satin.”

Perhaps even more remarkably, a case recently came to light of a musician who experienced musical notation synaesthetically. As well as seeing notes as particular colours, she could also taste intervals between notes (e.g. a major second was bitter, a major sixth tasted like low-fat cream). Interestingly, consonant tone intervals produced pleasant sensations, dissonant ones unpleasant ones.

Very strikingly, the ability to recognise musical intervals is something that has to be learned, and so her synaesthesia has ‘evolved’ along with her musical training.

Lead image:

A colour-coded keyboard developed by the Russian composer Alexander Scriabin. The system developed by Scriabin was an intellectual attempt to identify the ‘natural’ colours of notes and varied markedly from fellow composer (and genuine synaesthete) Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov’s colour keyboard.

Adapted from Talaj/iStockphoto CC BY NC ND

Further reading

About this resource

This resource was first published in ‘Music, Mind and Medicine’ in June 2009 and reviewed and updated in July 2014.

Neuroscience, Cell biology, Health, infection and disease
Music, Mind and Medicine
Education levels:
16–19, Continuing professional development