Tag Archives: Voice Perception

Where are the yellow bits?

The other night we were watching RocKwiz on SBS and the band and a guest singer did a cover of Goodbye Yellow-Brick Road, a major early 1970s hit by Elton John, which was a very nostalgic experience as I haven’t heard that tune much since the 1970s when by best friend was a mad-keen Elton John fan. Two things struck me: what a great and unusual song, with interesting lyrics and music that rather reminds me of another unusual and sad hit tune (How Soon is Now? by The Smiths), and what amazingly high falsetto singing the hit recording had, but the most interesting thing that I noticed when I heard the cover-version was that the bright-yellow pineapple-jelly bean-flavoured bits were missing.

They say you don’t notice things until they are gone, and I hadn’t realized that the falsetto bits of the original recording had been, for me, such a dominant (visual) feature, till I listened to a relatively colourless but enjoyable cover version, with decipherable lyrics. That amount of falsetto in a rock song is I think quite typical of the psychedelic era when the tune was created. Would it be pushing an idea to far to say this is a psychedelic recording? I don’t know why, but most of my favourite music, since I was a kid to now, has had some element of psychedelia; hypnotic repetition, extreme forms of singing, unusual instruments, unusual sound effects, extreme emotionality, etc.

Tunes that I listened to as kid or teen seem to be more often coloured than music from recent years, I guess because synaesthesia is less likely to form anew as one ages, just as new brain connections are less likely to form. It seems likely that I got the idea of that song as a yellow song from the title, but this merely abstract idea becomes an experience only when evoked by that singing, Elton’s yellow singing.

The yellow-deficient cover-version:

Vale Chris Cornell

For me the human voice in song is one of life’s greatest pleasures. For synaesthetes enjoyable experiences are often coloured. Many but not all voices of popular singers have specific colours, in my experience: men’s voices typically brown, women’s red, baritones deep brown, counter-tenors and falsetto yellows and whites, harsh Italian tenors shining gold, but there was only ever for me one orange singing voice – that of Chris Cornell, the late singer of Soundgarden and Audioslave fame. Orange is the colour of experiences that are so intense that they are close to painful.

Personification at the heart of imagination in stories loved by children

The Thomas the Tank Engine stories, with railway stock who have faces and voices and dialogue and relationships and dramas, and the Wizard of Oz story, with a tin-man and a living scarecrow and curmudgeonly apple trees are just two examples of classic children’s fiction which translated very successfully to popular family screen entertainment, and both are full of objects that are personified. Many synaesthetes like myself have naturally and mysteriously developed conceptions of letters of the alphabet and numbers as having personal characteristics such as genders and personalities, as well as individual and specific colours. These synaesthetic ways of thinking formed in childhood and has become embedded in the structure of the brain. It is possible that all people once experienced synaesthetic thinking as children, but synaptic pruning did away with all that fanciful nonsense for most of us. Perhaps we were all personifying synaesthetes when we were little kids, and perhaps that explains why object personification pops up so often in children’s entertainment. To complement the winter school holidays one of our TV channels is broadcasting The Wizard of Oz for the umpteenth time. I’m not sure if I’ve ever sat and viewed the whole thing and forgotten half of it, but there was some familiarity in the deep and gruff sound of the voice of one of the apple trees. Could any grown tree have a voice that is not dark and resonant? I doubt it. Irrational as it is, object personification operates according to psychological rules and relationships, and big dark brown things tend to have deep voices.

I’m sure I’m not the first to observe that popular movies are full of psychology, and the Wizard of Oz is as good an example as any. There’s the object personification in many of the characters. There’s also some interesting psychology in the way that Dorothy feels that she has known her three strange new friends for a long time, but also logically knows that can’t be true (the story is set in a dream with bizarre characters which Dorothy’s sleeping mind has created out of memories of real people in Dorothy’s real life). “Oh, you’re the best friends anybody ever had. And it’s funny, but I feel as if I’d known you all the time, but I couldn’t have, could I?” Would face processing researchers call that “implicit familiarity” or “covert recognition”? It is actually person recognition, not just face recognition, but then again, I’ve been arguing at this blog that face recognition cannot be separated from person recognition. Faces are only memorable because they are the front windows of minds. I think Dorothy’s strange and unexplained feeling of familiarity is a nice illustration of the way that person recognition is swifter and more emotional than the verbal labeling of people with personal names and place names that we are able to do once we are able to figure out where that person fits into our autobiographical memory bank. That memory bank is quite a thing to search, so it can take a while. I like the way that the Dunning-Kruger Effect or something like it is woven into the centre of the narrative of The Wizard of Oz, the tin man not understanding his own emotional dimension, the scarecrow suddenly spouting a bit of geometrical wisdom once told he does have a brain, and the lion needing to be told how brave he actually is even though he had been through so much. There’s also a message about the possibilities of human development, effort and experience changing what we are, if we care to give it a red-hot go. That could have something to do with synapses. Of course, this story has a lot to say about the psychology of quacks, con-artists, fame and inflated authority figures, but the odd thing is, despite the many decades of popularity of this book and the Hollywood movie, great hordes of educated people in America and other English-speaking countries continue to be conned and robbed by quacks, con-artists, famous people and inflated authority figures. Yes, I’m no genius for pointing out the main message of the story of The Wizard of Oz, but if it is such an obvious message, then why does it appear to be so seldom heeded?

How’s your ability in voice perception?

Guess a person’s age from their voice. New Scientist. 


I tried the test but got no score or feedback about how I did compared to others who’ve done the test. I think I did well, with most age judgements within 10 years of the correct answer, a few, maybe 4 I guessed the ages within a year or two.

I maintain that there are some women who have voices that sound much younger than their age. They are unusual, but they do exist. There is an interesting collection of reasons why men can have voices that sound deeper and older than their years. Hormones probably influence how deep a man’s voice is, and this effect can be confused with the effects of age. There is a common belief that alcohol can have a temporary deepening effect on the vocal cords, giving a deeper tone the day after a big night. I think there’s something in this theory, but I’m not sure how much it is supported by hard evidence. The Uncyclopedia’s recipe for a rich bass voice describes a lifestyle that is not for everyone: “The diet of a bass consists of alcohol, cigarettes, more alcohol, fried meat products, children, ex girlfriends, yet more alcohol and even more cigarettes.” The late Jim Morrisson had a reputation as a hard drinker and had a singing voice well beyond his years. Till Lindemann has a brown-coloured monster of a voice, and a family background in which people hit the bottle hard. Genetics clearly plays a major role in vocal pitch, often displaying a pattern of inheritance. I have known one family in which both the father and sons from infancy onward all had markedly deep voices. An unusually hoarse voice can be caused by a genetic connective tissue or collagen disorder. Inhaling Sulphur Hexafluoride can deepen the voice temporarily, but that’s a pretty silly thing to do. Lots of things besides the ageing process can alter the sound of the voice, so reading age in the voice is not always a simple thing.

Making children’s television even more annoying

The Annoying Orange is now a TV show, “The High Fructose Adventures of Annoying Orange”, which is currently being broadcast on ABC3. It’s another example of a personified object and personified foodstuff in a comedy show. Why do at least some of us love to see food with human characteristics in sculpture or funny TV shows? What’s the surreal appeal of things that behave like people? Are these quirks of popular culture in any way related to personification synaesthesia or the mental modelling of faces, genders and personalities that gives rise to facial recognition?

Some interesting aspects of the Annoying Orange’s TV show are that it highlights two facts about the visual recognition of people – that dentition can be used to visually identify individuals just like faces can, and that there is one aspect of dentition that can in many cases indicate the gender of the person who owns the teeth. In other words, dentition displays sexual dimorphism, and I suspect that while the Annoying Orange has a male voice that matches his male teeth, one of the other fruity characters in his TV show might not have the correct gender of dentition for their voice and character. Do you know which aspect of human dentition sometimes displays sexual dimorphism?

Annoying Orange  http://annoyingorange.com/

Wistful yellow masterpieces




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.

Reise, Reise by Rammstein

Till Lindemann has arguably the most awe-inspiring male voice in rock music today. This song from the 2004 Rammstein album of the same name is in my opinion the greatest showcase of Lindemann’s stunning German voice. Recording studio tricks might account for some of the impact of the vocals in this track. I really don’t care – the musical effect achieved is what matters to me.

I only experience singing voice and spoken voice to colour synaesthesias in response to singing and spoken voices that strike me as unusual or extraordinary, or which evoke emotion. It follows that the singing in this song should make the colours happen as sure as night follows day, and this is true. While some clear and pretty singer’s voices evoke a transparent visual effect like coloured varnish or a watercolour, Till’s powerful manly voice is as opaque as mud, like a most delicious tidal wave of molten chocolate. I never fully appreciated the beauty of the colour brown till I heard this song.


Interesting stuff from the New York Times from late last year about prosopagnosia and another condition that I’d not heard of – phonagnosia

Have We Met? Tracing Face Blindness to Its Roots by Karen Barrow New York Times December 26, 2011   http://www.nytimes.com/2011/12/27/health/views/face-and-voice-recognition-may-be-linked-in-the-brain-research-suggests.html?_r=2

this is the study mentioned in the above article:

Direct Structural Connections between Voice- and Face-Recognition Areas. Helen Blank, Alfred Anwander, and Katharina von Kriegstein Journal of Neuroscience. 7 September 2011,31(36): 12906-12915; doi: 10.1523/​JNEUROSCI.2091-11.2011  http://www.jneurosci.org/content/31/36/12906.abstract?sid=2704774c-0cbd-4342-9b75-639b388b99f9

and this is the video featuring Dori Frame that goes with the article:

Faceless produced by Almudena Toral New York Times December 2011 http://video.nytimes.com/video/2011/12/26/health/100000000958226/faceless.html

Free full-text journal papers about defining and redefining synaesthesia!

Thank you British Journal of Psychology. I find this stuff interesting. I hope my horribly neglected readers will also find the February 2012 issue interesting. It has Dr Julia Simner’s most interesting paper and two papers in response to it, one by the leading US synesthesia researcher David Eagleman and and another by synaesthesia researchers Cohen Kadosh and Terhune, plus Simner’s response to the responses. So if you still think synaesthesia is just crossed senses, do take a look.

For those of us with an interest in face recognition as well as synaesthesia, there is also a free paper titled “Integration of faces and voices, but not faces and names, in person recognition”. Happy reading!


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


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.