Chromesthesia is a rare form of synesthesia. It is commonly described as the sound-to-colour synesthesia, where sound evokes an experience of colour but this action is involuntary. Synesthesia, in general, is a condition where one sense is perceived at the same time as another, therefore, chromesthesia is when hearing is perceived with sights and feelings (mostly colours). Other forms of synesthesia include grapheme-colour (letters/digits trigger a colour), auditory-tactile (sounds induce a tactile sensation inside or outside the body) and even lexical-gustatory synesthesia (words trigger tastes, smells and textures).
I did not realise I had this phenomenon until late last year and it’s been so intriguing to me how I’ve always associated music and songs with colours, images, textures and even sometimes personalities without really realizing it until a friend brought it up one day, and I thought to shed some light on this.
What is it?
Chromesthesia induces strong emotional connections to music and particular songs, and a listener may associate different pitches or tones with different colours and this can produce very specific feelings when you listen to a song. This condition can be instilled in you since birth and grow stronger as you grow older, or you can develop it over time. For example, if you play one of those colourful xylophones as a child, you may memorise the colours, associating certain colours to certain notes on that xylophone. So every time you hear that note, you automatically see a certain colour.
Let’s dive into some of the artists in the music industry who have chromesthesia to explain this even further.
Artists with chromesthesia
- Pharrell Williams
It’s the only way that I can identify what something sounds like. I know when something is in key because it either matches the same colour or it doesn’t. Or it feels different and it doesn’t feel right.
Pharrell Williams makes a valid point about this. When something is off-key, the colours don’t match and you feel weird- it feels very wrong.
Williams’ incredibly famous song “Happy” is a very yellow song. We associate yellow with sunshine, smiley faces and the general feeling of feeling good. In Happy music video, Williams really emphasis on the colour yellow in all his shots. This is a very common and simple example.
In this interview, he talks about how people with synesthesia don’t really notice that they’re different until someone brings it up. Additionally, he discusses heavily one how very normal it is for musicians to have chromesthesia and how even some of the greatest minds in history have synesthesia.
- Bea Miller
I see colour and sometimes even objects and textures when I listen to music.
In 2017, Miller released three mini-albums which she referred to as “chapters”. Chapter 1: Blue, Chapter 2: Red and Chapter 3: Yellow. She said that the slow sad songs were blue, the empowering and angry ones were red, and songs in between those were yellow. These colours are the primary colours. Miller explained to DuJour saying, “I feel you can make any colour in the entire world with those three primary colours. So, the same way you need the three primary colours to experience the other colours, you need to feel those emotions of anger, sadness and happiness in order to be who you want to be.”
Even her music videos are associated with the colours that song evokes. For example, if we take a look at her music video for, i can’t breathe from Chapter 1 the song itself and the lyrics are melancholy. She talks about feeling trapped. The strings and the gentle piano in the music bring out a very desolated but calming experience. In her video, she emphasises on the colour blue, highlighting that colour in her dress, or the flowers on the piano. The blue is striking and stands out against the white background.
On the contrary, if we look at her other music video from Chapter 2 of her collection, buy me diamonds, Miller highlights the colour red wherever she could. Red is pretty much in every frame of the video. This song evokes the feeling of empowerment as she moves on from heartbreak. The music, unlike i can’t breathe, is very pop and bouncy and makes you want to get up and dance.
And finally, let’s take brand new eyes which she sang for the movie ‘Wonder’ which brilliantly underlines the feeling of growth as a person, becoming and accepting yourself, which is in tune with the colour green. Green represents growth and new beginnings for many people, which is exactly what this song and what the inspiring music encapsulates.
Even in her FUSE interview, she says, “I think Led Zeppelin is red.” For her, Halsey is blue, Hayley Williams is green, Miley Cyrus is yellow, and Prince is purple (I mean, of course). And to be honest, I see the same colours for these artists too alongside some other colours.
Her album Aurora is compiled with these songs and a few more, all following themes of feelings with colours
- Brendon Urie
When I hear a song, sometimes I see colours, sometimes I see words circling me. It depends but when something special happens, you know it and you feel it. It’s more of an emotional connection.
Panic! At The Disco’s one and only Brendon Urie is known to have chromesthesia alongside other forms of synesthesia making him see shapes and letters with different notes. During his interview with The Rolling Stones, he says his album Death of a Bachelor was very bright yellows and bright reds and “very 60s.” Moreover, he describes this album as very Easter-ish with soft pastel colours but still remaining bright. The album blossomed from the “Death of a Bachelor” song completing the idea he had envisioned.
Some other artists with chromesthesia are Alessia Cara, Billie Eilish, Charlie XCX, Patrick Stump, Billy Joel, Stevie Wonder, Lorde, and even Vincent Van Gogh.
The science behind the brilliant brains
What synesthetes perceive is found to be “cross-modal association” where there is enhanced activation of the visual AND auditory cortexes of the brain together. The auditory cortex lights up while listening to the music as it would for anyone, however, the visual cortex is also in action because of the images and colours a synesthete experiences. The left side of the brain becomes activated enhancing limbic expression which triggers emotions. Furthermore, the colours felt through this experience triggers the nucleus accumbens (processing of motor function, reward, and reinforcement) as well as the amygdala (perceives emotions and stores memories).
Therefore, it is found that people with chromesthesia have a stronger emotional connection to the songs they listen to because their mood is triggered by colours produced by the music.
Most synesthetes tend to have perfect pitch or relative pitch as they recognise a certain colour with that specific pitch similar to what Pharrell Williams said, if the colour doesn’t match the pitch then it feels very off. This helps some artists and musicians excel in their careers as shown in the examples above.
During my research, I came across something which I found vastly fascinating. A fan of the kpop group SHINee had told their ex-member Jonghyun, that she associated his voice (even if he wasn’t singing) with what she described as “autumn sunlight” in a letter. She says she hears too many voices and noises as she walks down the streets. This is why she listens to music constantly, as these noises produce colours that can be overwhelming. This fan says she will “fall asleep watching a golden voice”. On a call to Jonghyun, she said his voice was “on an autumn day with really clear skies. The colour of sunlight reflecting on the ground and sparkling. It’s that kind of yellow colour.” This is a very specific yellow and she described his voice down to detail.
Later Jonghyun confirmed in an interview that the lyrics to their song “View” was written in the perspective of someone with chromesthesia, having drawn inspiration from his conversation with the fan.
Could you be a synesthete? There are many different types of synesthesia and for some, it may be stronger, for some weaker. Some may develop it over the years, and some will have known it all their life. If you’re like me, and you suddenly realise that hey, maybe not everyone sees colours when they listen to music… maybe you’ve got chromesthesia too. It’s not a medical condition, it’s not a disorder, it’s just a fantastic and incredibly bizarre phenomenon of the human brain. Embrace it and make the most of it!
Written by Nethmi Dimbulana