Tag Archives: Music-colour synaesthesia

Report on the MONA synaesthesia show on Australian public broadcaster television

http://www.abc.net.au/news/2014-08-19/synaesthesia-festival-brings-classical-music-to-light-in-hobart/5681584

Anouk – Birds representing The Netherlands at Eurovision 2013

This was the only tune at this year’s Eurovision that had any colour for me:

http://youtu.be/n5iazXvMw5o

 

Wistful yellow masterpieces

http://youtu.be/kP5nOTYk4Ac

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Naples_yellow

http://www.basenotes.net/ID10211632.html

The unusual, wistful, slightly sad vocals in the song Suture Up Your Future by the Queens of the Stone Age are the same colour as the smell of the classic Guerlain fragrance Shalimar. The general, background colour of the music of QOTSA is black. They have a distinctive, grating guitar sound that is black, and often the vocals evoke in my mind something like a graphic design in black with curly bits, or something like a writing script from the Islamic world in black ink, but in some songs QOTSA vocals can be quite yellow, like a wash of yellow watercolour or a glowing yellow sky, when the vocal sound is gentle or sad or falsetto. The colour of the song Suture Up Your Future is a pale, gentle, unassertive colour which I would describe as a pale version of Naples yellow. This piece of music, the Guerlain perfume and the gentle yellow colour go together as though they were created as expressions of the same thought, the same emotions, in different senses. It’s an experience that seems at first to be quite a weak and gentle thing, but the effect is surprisingly persistent, with a beauty that is, in the end, quite unforgettable. Well, that’s how I see, smell and hear it.

Anti-gravity by British India – a rock song with a definite oceanic quality

The sea was a big part of my life in my childhood, and memories of the sea are so deeply etched in my mind that it is a theme that comes up over and over again in my synaesthesia, with is an atypical memory-related variation in brain functioning that develops in the earlier years of childhood, around 5 or 6 years. At that age, all I wanted to do was swim. I experience the well-known types of synesthesia triggered by listening to music – colours, simple visuals, spatial concepts and abstract concepts, and I also experience aspects of the sensory experience of swimming in the ocean when listening to some pieces of music. Anti Gravity from the Avalanche CD by the amazing Aussie band British India is a very evocative song for me, I think because of the way that it surges and crashes, like waves in the sea. I become immersed in the music, I swim in it, and parts of it are most definitely a deep blue-green colour. Be sure to swim between the flags!

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=wVgy3nz3C98

Magnet by Bombay Bicycle Club

I wouldn’t know about this piece of pop music if we didn’t have any teenager in our family. I don’t know a thing about this band, except that they are probably young and talented. When I heard the sound of this tune floating out of one of the bedrooms of our house I wondered if it might be Tame Impala. This tune struck me as a bit psychedelic because of the colour in the chorus, with its wooo wooo wooo style of singing, which is the kind of thing that you might find in the chorus of a psychedelic song. The colour is a pleasant light mauve-grey, rather like the colour that is currently in the background of this blog.

http://youtu.be/WkKJHYHCt6Q

The Art of Fashion and the Sound of Fashion

I’ve had the opportunity to have a good browse (while the kids are at school) of an exhibition of some interesting works of wearable art. Fashion isn’t one of my major interests, so I’m not sure just how new or original the idea of fashion garments as works of art might be. I’m guessing that the extreme fashion which the pop music icon Lady Gaga has become famous for could be considered wearable art, and I’ve also got to wonder whether this singer-songwriter’s engagement with such extreme originality in an area of visual art is in some way connected with her coloured music synaesthesia. Some synaesthesia researchers believe there is a link between creativity and synaesthesia, a theory that must surely be difficult to test, and they never seem to explain exactly how this connection might work. Living in Perth, Western Australia I doubt that I’ll ever get to view items from Gaga’s wardrobe,  but I did get to see the Art of Fashion exhibition at Lakeside Joondalup Shopping Centre, which is a part of the annual Joondalup Festival, which is organized by the City of Joondalup and is happening this weekend.

Does a synaesthete create differently, and does a synaesthete perceive works of artistic creation in ways that non-synaesthetes do not? I doubt that a clear-cut answer to that question is possible, but I suspect that a synaesthete might experience a more conscious awareness of cross-sensory effects. The unusual coloured asymmetric frill at one hip of a predominantly black dress designed by Kasia Kolikow in the Joondalup exhibition has a full and contrasting appearance which evokes the idea of expansion or air blowing, a movement which would seem odd to me if it were not accompanied by a sound. What type of sound? The transparent, airy frill with its day-glow yellows and salmon pinks (contrasting against the black of the dress titled “Never Sleep Again”) has colours that I have always associated with falsetto singing and other high-pitched musical sounds. This dress whistles. There is another outfit in the exhibition which has a title that brings to mind the notion of sound “Summer Pop Fizz” by Cynthia Chong, but my visual perception of the work  evokes extra-modal motion more than sound. A translation of sound and touch and temperature into a visual expressive art form must have been the origin of this whimsical brightly coloured top and shorts, inspired by ice-cold bubbling lemonade, but it doesn’t give me a chill. When I look at the squiggly shapes on the surface of these garments I see motion typical of the surface of turbulent liquid.

It doesn’t take much thought to figure out why the dress named after the species of fish Chelmonops truncatus designed by April Richards evokes a rhythmic sound, as the scalloped edges in contrasting colours spiralling around the dress are visually striking and highly rhythmic, but it’s less clear to me why this rhythmic sound should be an electronic keyboard sound like something out of a 1970’s pop tune by a girl singer. The idea of a dress that looks a bit like a fish or even a mermaid is perhaps an idea typical of pop culture from a more innocent age, and maybe this is why my unconscious mind makes this association. It’s surprising how noisy an exhibition of fashion garments and jewellery can be, so it is some respite that the one outfit in the group of Celene Bridge’s works on display which makes a noise only whispers. I believe Bridge should have thought twice about naming one of her outfits Leap of the Rabbit, because whenever I looked at it I could not help thinking of the French word “lapin” spoken in the softest whisper, repeated over and over. Everything about this amazing outfit has a soft quality – the fabric looks soft and lustrous, the outlines of the dress are feminine and gentle curves, the gorgeous rabbit-shaped sculptural details at the back of the skirt of the dress are soft curved shapes, the shoulder-hugging limpness of the fabric in the short cape and even the headpiece though grim in theme has curving lines. I think an outfit like this demands to have a name with sound symbolism that sounds as soft as the outfit looks, but sadly the English-language word “rabbit” is all wrong. It is a jagged, hard-sounding word, not appropriate as a name for an animal with a soft pelt. The French have more of a clue. I can think of no animal in the world softer to touch than a rabbit, so I’d say a rabbit deserves to be called a lapin.

I’m a little bit surprised that my unconscious mind has spontaneously offered up a French word to my conscious mind as a comment on the fashion outfit, because I don’t consider myself in any way proficient in the French language. I dropped out of French classes early in year 8 of high school, and year 8 was the extent of my formal teaching in that language, but I suspect that most people have a broader vocabulary in foreign languages than they realise.

The Art of Fashion exhibition will be on display up to the 31st of March 2012 (tomorrow) at Lakeside Joondalup Shopping City. It’s worth a look (and a listen) so don’t wait till it’s too late.

Urban Couture. City of Joondalup. http://www.joondalup.wa.gov.au/Explore/artsandevents/JoondalupFestival/UrbanCouture.aspx

Urban Couture Gallery.  http://www.joondalup.wa.gov.au/Explore/artsandevents/JoondalupFestival/UrbanCouture/UrbanCoutureGallery.aspx

Local brain hyperconnectivity, synaesthesia, autism, music, the temporal lobes and perfect pitch: some interesting reading

Douglas, Ed Perfect pitch. New Scientist Issue 2801 Feb 26th 2011 p. 46-49.

Online title of the article: Finely tuned minds: the secret of perfect pitch. http://www.newscientist.com/issue/2801

This is a most interesting science magazine article about perfect pitch, otherwise known as absolute pitch, the “ability to name or sing any note on demand”, written by someone who himself has perfect pitch. Ed Douglas reports on the findings of studies that have been published in six different science journals, and research scientists mentioned include Daniel Levitin, Sarah Wilson, Elizabeth Theusch, Analabha Basu, Jane Gitschier, Maria Teresa Moreno Sala, Eugenia Costa-Giomi, Patrick Bermudez, Psyche Loui, Diana Deutsch, Luca Tommasi and researchers at the RIKEN Brain Science Institute in Japan.

Douglas explicitly speculates that there could be an association between synaesthesia, autism, and perfect pitch ability, caused by an “excess of wiring in the brain” or hyperconnection. Douglas cites as evidence the study by Psyche Loui and colleagues listed above, and another New Scientist article that reported the interesting “intense world” theory of autism in 2008.

In this article the names of four famous musicians who either had perfect pitch or possibly had it, Beethoven, Ella Fitzgerald, Mozart and Jimi Hendrix are mentioned. The author Ed Douglas does not mention that two of these musicians also experienced coloured music synaesthesia (drug use could have been the cause of Hendrix’s colours). We do not know if Mozart had synaesthesia (my intuition tells me he did), but there has been much speculation over the years that Mozart might have had a range of different neurological peculiarities or disorders. Douglas mentions that Hendrix and Mozart both had an extraordinary savant-like memory for music. Hendrix, Mozart and possibly also Beethoven were left-handed.

Enhanced Cortical Connectivity in Absolute Pitch Musicians: A Model for Local Hyperconnectivity. Psyche Loui, H. Charles Li, Anja Hohmann and Gottfried Schlaug Journal of Cognitive Neuroscience. April 2011, Vol. 23, No. 4, Pages 1015-1026.
(doi: 10.1162/jocn.2010.21500) http://www.mitpressjournals.org/doi/abs/10.1162/jocn.2010.21500

This is one of the studies discussed in the above New Scientist article. Don’t ask me how a journal paper dated “April 2011” can be cited in a science magazine dated “Feb 26th 2011”. The world of science journals is a futuristic world.

Twelve musicians with absolute pitch (AP)/perfect pitch and a matched control group of twelve musicians without perfect pitch were studied. Volume and fibre numbers in some tracts in the left and right hemispheres of the brain were found to be significantly higher in the study subjects who had perfect pitch, but hyperconnectivity was not found all over the place; “Heightened connectivity among AP musicians appears to affect local structures specific to the temporal lobe.” Figure 4 in this paper strikingly shows the difference between the tracts of three groups of study subjects. This paper shows that people with perfect pitch appear to have greater connectivity in the white matter of parts of the temporal lobes that associate and perceive pitch. It looks to me as though greater connectivity in the left hemisphere might be more important regarding perfect pitch. I am not pretending to be a qualified scientist in interpreting this paper.

I believe that greater connectivity in the white matter has been found in grapheme-> colour synaesthetes, in other parts of the brain, so I would not be surprised if music-related synaesthesia might be particularly common in musicians who have perfect pitch. It is no surprise that this paper mentions synaesthesia and has two studies of a synaesthete musician with perfect pitch among its references (see below). Unfortunately synaesthesia is discussed with some negative language in this April 2011 paper; “these disorders” and “abnormal white matter connectivity”. In the discussion of this paper the case is argued that perfect pitch has hyperconnectivity in common with conditions such as synaesthesia, autism and heightened creativity, and the authors identify “increased local connectivity in temporal regions” as a feature that perfect pitch, synesthesia and autism share.

Hänggi Jürgen; Beeli Gian; Oechslin Mathias S; Jäncke Lutz The multiple synaesthete E.S.: neuroanatomical basis of interval-taste and tone-colour synaesthesia. NeuroImage. 2008;43(2):192-203. http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/18692578

This is a journal paper that was mentioned in the 2011 journal paper above. A brain scan study was done comparing E. S., who has perfect pitch and some musical tone-related types of synaesthesia, with other professional musicians and with normal controls. Bilateral areas of hyperconnectivity in the temporal lobes of E. S. were found.

Synaesthesia: when coloured sounds taste sweet. Beeli G, Esslen M, Jäncke L. Nature. 434, 38 (3 March 2005) doi:10.1038/434038a Published online 2 March 2005. http://www.nature.com/nature/journal/v434/n7029/abs/434038a.html

http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/15744291

Another journal article that was mentioned in the 2011 journal paper. Female synaesthete musician E.S. is compared with five non-synaesthete musicians. E.S. experiences flavoured musical tone intervals, which she uses to identify these intervals. It appears that this paper is about the same musician synaesthete with perfect pitch as the one described in the 2008 NeuroImage paper above.

I’m satisfied that there is a real association between synaesthesia and perfect pitch, based on what I have read in the above article and papers, and also based on the fact that perfect pitch seems to be unusually common among musicians who have or had synaesthesia. I believe this association between synaesthesia and perfect pitch is a direct effect of the physical localised hyperconnection within the synesthete brain that gives rise to the synaesthesia and also the increased perception ability, even though I do acknowledge that a type of synaesthesia that gives musical sounds individual colours or flavours could obviously aid in the identification of individual sounds. The question remains though – by what mechanism are the individual sounds identified then each given an identifying taste or colour? Surely a conscious or an unconscious identification of the sounds must precede the allocation of colours to the musical notes.

There is plenty of scientific evidence that various types of synaesthesia give rise to various types of superiority in perception, and it appears that perfect pitch is another example. I do not know if I have any capacity for perfect pitch as I had only the most rudimentary musical education (the same true of my synaesthete close relatives). I’m happy to conclude that simply being synaesthetes makes us especially “at risk” for possessing special powers of perception, including perfect pitch, being a super-recognizer or a superior reader, but it is also clear that specific types of special abilities and specific types of synaesthesia are associated with higher connectivity in specific parts of the brain. So far, my inquiries appear to suggest that the hyperconnectivity in the brains of my kin and I could be limited to the right hemisphere, while perfect pitch might well have as its physical basis higher connectivity in the left, so I guess we could dip out on perfect pitch. If there exists any cost-free test of the capacity for perfect pitch that can be taken by people who do not have musical training, I would love to have a crack at it.

I don’t know about perfect pitch, but I wouldn’t be surprised if there is something a bit atypical about the way our brains process sounds. The enjoyment of music is very important to a number of people in our family, which I’m sure has something to do with the temporal lobes. A lot of the music that we enjoy is sung in non-English languages, languages from all corners of the world. I’m not sure how unusual our taste in music is, but there does seem to be a hunger in our family for listening to exotic phonemes. None of us are language savants like the famous British synaesthete Daniel Tammet, but there is a consistent line of descent in our family of bilingual or multi-lingual people. I also seem to have a thing about unusual voices. I choose to have people in my life who have unusual voices and I love to listen to distinctive singing voices of a range of types. For me, singing voices are easily categorized as interesting or not interesting, and I much prefer the former. The gravel-voiced rap singers Everlast and Tone Loc have interesting voices, and so do all counter-tenors. I recently read an interesting observation about the extraordinary sound of the counter-tenor voice in a newspaper interview article about German counter-tenor Andreas Scholl. “I think these days the audience knows what a countertenor is, but it’s that inability to readily categorise the voice that makes for better communication – you listen with fresh ears, and focus more on the words.” I believe this is an important element of my enjoyment of the voices of countertenors and other singers with interesting voices. The strangeness of the sound draws attention closely, finely, and it also destroys any set of simple musical expectations. I find strange sounds compelling and interesting, and I’m not sure why I find this so very enjoyable, but I do know from experience that when people enjoy doing anything involving thought, they are most likely utilizing some particular area of cognitive strength.

Beth Gibbons from Portishead and Kate Bush are some female singers who have interesting voices. For me, many interesting voices have a colour. Today a rellie and I were having an argument at a supermarket about the colour of the music that we were listening to, as Wuthering Heights by Kate Bush, one of the strangest bits of music to ever hit the top of the charts, was playing on the PA system among the aisles of groceries. Don’t worry about us. We are just a little bit different.

Listen to the grey

Killing Joke are one of the bands from the 1980s that I used to enjoy during my youth, and which I have recently rediscovered. I was amazed that this band has been cited as a musical influence for an incredible range of bands, including some of my present-day absolute favourites. Tool, a band that has the coloured music synaesthete Justin Chancellor for a bass player, are one of the bands who cite Killing Joke as an influence. I find this intriguing because I experience the music of both Tool and Killing Joke as predominantly coloured in dark grey. I enjoy this music in spite of the drabness of the colour evoked, but I must admit that there are times when I hesitate to pick up their CDs to play when I think of all that greyness.

Killing Joke had a hit way back then with Love Like Blood. The keyboard sound in this song is a highlighter-pen salmon pink in my mind, the guitar sound darkish grey, and the singer’s voice moves between golden yellow to brown if I pay attention to it, but as it isn’t a particularly interesting voice I tend not to pay attention to it, so these yellow-brown colours tend not to be evoked, so this song is predominantly dark grey. Men’s speaking and singing voices all tend to be brown, with higher pitch turning the brown to gold or yellow.

I don’t think the lyrics and the title of this song had any influence on my colour synaesthesia – there is no red or any bloody colours in among the colours that I see in my mind’s eye when I listen to this track, but if you listen carefully the colour grey is mentioned in the lyrics. I would have viewed the video clip for this song back in the 1980s, but I seem to have not been influenced by the red and purple and yellow featured in this video clip. Synaesthesia is not mere suggestibility, I think of it as an extra level of appreciation and enjoyment of music, very directly influenced by the sounds and the structures and the emotions of music.

Wikipedia contributors Killing Joke. Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia. http://en.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?title=Killing_Joke&oldid=413969805

Love Like Blood by Killing Joke on YouTube
http://www.youtube-nocookie.com/v/TnpwuRlXbhk?fs=1&hl=en_US

Perth 80s indie band Holy Rollers perform Above the Law from 1985

How’s your memory for Perth locations from about a quarter of a century ago? Where do you think this video clip was filmed? Where can I buy a pair of those sunglasses?  http://www.youtube-nocookie.com/v/-Dg97sseKtk?version=3&hl=en_US

I think I’ve still got this single somewhere in the house. 45 RPM. This is just too good a piece of music and a clip with too much nostalgia value to be forgotten, don’t you think? Are you old enough to remember the Perth to Fremantle line powered by diesel engines, with orange-coloured passenger cars? I loved the gentle, deep drone of a diesel engine. So many memories…..

One of the guitars in this track makes a lovely warm sound that is about the same tint of brown as the lead singer’s hair colour. The scenery in the background of this clip is just the type of thing that I often involuntarily “see” in my mind’s eye while I’m doing manual chores around the house, in a form of synaesthesia in which fine-motor movements of the hands trigger visual memories of scenes, often scenes from the distant past, of places which I didn’t visit often or didn’t expect to visit again. There’s obviously a lot of connections in my brain between the part of parts of my brain that do fine motor movement, or maybe procedural memory, and the part or parts of my brain that store visual memories of scenes. It is especially interesting that I’ve got synaesthesia involving visual memories of scenes because the part of the brain that does scene recognition (the parahippocampal place area or PPA) “is often considered the complement of the fusiform face area (FFA)” according to the Wikipedia and some people who can’t recognize faces also can’t recognize scenes. As well as being a synaesthete I get perfect scores in face recognition tests, and am thus probably also a super-recognizer.