Timeline: Synesthesia

Apr 15, 2019

1915 saw the New York premiere of Alexander Scriabin’s Prometheus: Poem of Fire. The performance featured a new instrument of Scriabin’s invention, the clavier à lumières, a keyboard with lights. Rather than playing music or sound, this instrument emitted a different color of light based on the note pressed on the keyboard. Some say that Scriabin created this instrument to express his own synesthesia.


Watch a modern realization of Prometheus: Poem of Fire presented by the Yale School of Music in 2010.

Synesthesia means “sensing together” and it describes the phenomenon of one our senses triggering another; such as sound and color. This isn’t something farfetched; we come across this idea every single day. The English language is filled with synesthetic idioms. Loud colors, frozen silence, bitter cold, sharp cheese, feeling blue and seeing red are just a few examples. We understand these figures of speech instantaneously without realizing that on the surface, they’re rather odd mixtures of our five senses.

In an earlier episode we talked about “qualia”, each individual’s subjective, internal experience and also the “explanatory gap” our inability to concretely describe our own experience to someone else. We used this Zen-like question to describe these ideas; how do you explain the color red to someone who was born blind?

In 1690, the English philosopher John Locke may have pointed to an answer to that question. In Locke’s “Essay on Human Understanding” he described a blind man who claimed that he understood the color scarlet, liking it to the sound of a trumpet. Is Locke referring to synesthesia, or simply using a metaphor? The line between metaphor and metaphysics blurs when we talk about this subjective experience.

There are many different types of synesthesia; however the most often reported are grapheme-color, where a number or letter is associated with a specific color, and chromesthesia a link between sound and color, music and light. The 18th Century painter, Johann Hoffman developed a system of color harmony based on musical harmony. There seven colors in a rainbow and seven notes to a scale. In 1812, Georg Sachs published a medical dissertation in which he described his own experience of color within music. Many point to Sachs as the first documented case of synesthesia.

The true essence this phenomenon is still a matter of debate. Modern research and brain scans have shown that those who experience synesthesia do have multiple parts of the brain light up when observed. The visual processing and auditory perception locations within the brain are right next to each other. So it is possible that these two areas can cross-activate, trigger one another, leading to the experience of sound associating with color and vice-versa.

Many musicians and artists have said that they experience some form of synesthesia. Vincent Van Gogh was called insane by his piano teacher when he insisted that there was a color for every note on the piano. The artist Kandinsky reported that his paint box would often hiss with sound as he mixed colors together.

Perhaps even our favorite composers from the past experienced this connection of the senses. Beethoven called B minor the “black” key and D major the “orange” key. Franz Liszt was quoted in rehearsal telling his orchestra, “O please, gentlemen, a little bluer, if you please! This tone type requires it!” and also, “That is a deep violet, please, depend on it! Not so rose!” Olivier Messiaen said, “I see colors when I hear sounds, but I don’t see colors with my eyes. I see colors intellectually, in my head.” Ligeti wrote that, “Major chords are red or pink, minor chords are somewhere between green and brown.”

How about you? Do you experience color when you listen to music? What does this talk about synesthesia trigger in your mind? Comment below and let us know. We'd love to hear from you.

Timeline is an exploration into the development of Western music.