Article from ‘The Psychologist’, vol. 28, no. 2, February 2015

(image source: BBC)

In its simplest form Synaesthesia is best described as a “union of the senses” whereby two or more of the five senses that are normally experienced separately are involuntarily and automatically joined together. Some synaesthetes experience colour when they hear sounds or read words. Others experience tastes, smells, shapes or touches in almost any combination. I have ‘grapheme synaesthesia’ which means I experience colour when I think of letters, words, numbers, the musical keys, chords, the notes on the piano keyboard and music in general.

In this interesting article from The Psychologist, Jack Dutton meets people with the condition and the researchers who study them to reveal the very surprising world of synaethesia, including its impact on memory and how it may even be taught.

Download and read the article here (PDF file)

Madonna and Child (Madonna Litta) by Leonardo da Vinci 1452-1519

French composer, organist, ornithologist and devout Catholic Olivier Messiaen began his masterpiece Vingt Regards sur l’enfant Jésus in 1944, and the work was premiered in 1945 by Messiaen’s piano student and future wife, Yvonne Loriod. The French title roughly translates as ‘Twenty gazes/ contemplations on the infant Jesus’. The entire work is a meditation on the childhood of Jesus, and it utilises recurring “themes” or leitmotifs to highlight certain ideas, such as the Star, the Cross, and the Father.

Messiaen’s music is rhythmically complex (he was interested in the rhythms of ancient Greek and Hindu music) and draws inspiration from many sources, including Indonesian Gamelan music (which also interested and inspired Debussy), Japanese music, the landscape of Utah in the USA, and the legend of St Francis of Assisi. My own serious interest in Messiaen’s music began after I discovered he was a fellow synaesthete, who experienced colours when he heard or imagined music. He devised his own system of modes (scales) based on his synaesthesia, and in certain scores he actually notated the colours, to help the conductor in interpretation, rather than to express exactly which colours the listener should experience. He also wrote descriptions of the colours of chords, ranging from the simple “gold and brown” to the highly complex “blue-violet rocks, speckled with little grey cubes, cobalt blue, deep Prussian blue, highlighted by a bit of violet-purple, gold, red, ruby, and stars of mauve, black and white. Blue-violet is dominant”. My own synaesthesia manifests itself in a similar way to Messiaen’s, though each synaesthete’s experience is of course unique and personal, and I find his concept of colour in music – in the sense of real colours, as opposed to shadings of dynamics and articulation – entirely understandable. Indeed, my own score of the ‘Regard de la Vierge’ (No. 4 of the Vingt Regards) is littered with notes about colour.

As I teenager, I visited the Église de la Sainte-Trinité in Paris where Messiaen was organist (my mother had a penchant for visiting places with ‘artist associations’: the same trip to Paris included a fascinating tour of the studio of symbolist artist Gustave Moreau, and a pilgrimage to the Père Lachaise cemetery to see the tombs of Oscar Wilde and Fryderyk Chopin). As a pianist, I was for a long time fearful of attempting any of Messiaen’s music – indeed anything atonal (Schoenberg, Hindemith) I regarded with extreme trepidation – but I heard the ‘Regard de la Vierge’ played at a piano course I attended last year, and was very taken with it. Hearing the Quator pour le fin du temps (‘Quartet for the end of time’) at the Wigmore last winter (with Stephen Osborne on piano), a deeply arresting and emotional experience which left me in tears at the end of the concert, confirmed that this was a composer whose music I should explore.

Hearing a selection of his Preludes (1928/9) at a recent concert at the Wigmore Hall, I was struck by how close these pieces are to Debussy and Ravel, with their uncertain harmonies (chords chosen for timbre and colour rather than strict harmonic progression), and impressionistic titles, such as La Colombe (‘The Dove’) or Les sons impalpables du reve (‘The Impalpable Sounds of Dreams’). The Vingt Regards were composed some 15 years later, his compositional style had evolved a great deal, and by that time Messiaen had also experienced the full horror of the Second World War as a prisoner of war, after the fall of France to the Nazis in 1940. While his deeply-held faith undoubtedly informs this music, one does not have to be religious oneself to be affected by it. The sheer scale of it (20 movements, a work lasting around 2 hours), the sounds and images it suggests, it is music that expresses something far greater than us.

While each Regard is different, they are linked by the use of recurring motifs (Messiaen’s “themes” of all-embracing love, the Virgin, the Star, the Cross, God the Father), “flashes” (clusters of notes or fragments which reflect Messiaen’s belief that it was only possible to comprehend the totality of God in “flashes”), tolling bells and chimes, references to devotional texts, portentous passages, suggesting Jesus’s fate, repeating chord progressions, and birdsong. While Messiaen is absolutely specific in his writing, there is room for individual interpretation and variation, and, for me, this links the pieces back to the earlier Preludes, and the impressionist writings of Debussy and Ravel.

Messiaen prefaced his masterpiece with a detailed commentary, and each Regard has its own short explanatory paragraph which offer fascinating insights into his very personal visual, devotional and compositional landscape for these pieces, as well as offering useful pointers for performance.

In the ‘Regard de la Vierge’, the Virgin Mary contemplates the infant Jesus with a simple tender lullaby which demonstrates affection and recognition. A contrasting middle section, with birdsong, “flashes”, tolling bells and portentous double octaves interrupts Mary’s devoted gaze, and is a reminder of Jesus’s fate. The naive rocking theme is then restated with bell-like notes in the upper registers, as an expression of Mary’s intimate motherly response and God’s love for humankind.

Pianist Stephen Osborne is an acclaimed Messiaen-player, but for me Pierre-Laurent Aimard’s recording of the Vingt Regards is sublime, capturing the mysticism and magnitude of this great work.

Interestingly, while looking up something unrelated to Messiaen, I heard this track by Radiohead, Pyramid Song, which contains a piano riff which could easily have been lifted from one of the Vingt Regards.

Radiohead – Pyramid Song

Messiaen on Debussy and Colour

Regard de la Vierge, No. 4 of Vingt Regards, played by Pierre-Laurent Aimard

More on synaesthesia and music here

I picked up Oliver Sacks’ book Musicophilia at the library the other day. I remember reading several favourable reviews of it when it first came out, and thought I might like to read it, but feared it may be too scientific for my taste. However, having dipped into it over the course of an evening, I find him an engaging writer, whose numerous case studies offer some fascinating insights into music and the human brain.

The chapter which interested me the most, initially, was the one entitled ‘The Key of Clear Green: Music and Synesthesia’. I am a ‘synesthete’, and, like some of the case studies referred to in the chapter, see the musical keys as colours.

Synesthesia literally means “a fusion of the senses”, and was not, until quite recently (i.e. in the last 100-odd years), considered a physiological phenomenon. Its incidence is considered to be about one in every two thousand people, though it may be far commoner, since its “sufferers” do not regard it as a “condition” for which they should seek help from a psychologist or neurologist. It is more common in women than in men. Oliver Sacks states that musical synesthesia is “one of the most common [forms], and perhaps the most dramatic”. It is not known whether it is more common in musicians or musical people, but musicans are more likely to be aware of it.

As far as I can tell, I have always had it, and, until not that long ago, assumed that everyone else had it too. I regard it as something perfectly normal, and indeed, it came as something of a shock to discover that not everyone experienced a fusion of different senses as I do. For me, letters, numbers, days of the week and months of the year all have their own distinct colours (for e.g. two = blue, five = pink, Monday = red, Wednesday = greenish-blue, January = pale orange), while others are more obscure: murky hues and shades which almost defy description. These colour associations are unchanging and are not dependent on my mood or state of mind at the time of thinking of them.

The same is true of the musical keys, each one having its own distinct colour or ‘colour scheme’. Reading one of the case studies in Dr Sacks’ book, I was pleasantly surprised to find that one of the people who contacted him experienced colours when thinking about the musical keys in exactly the same way as I do – though his colours were different to mine, which demonstrates it is very personal. The colours are also entirely inward and are never confused with external colours: for example, if I were to put D major (bright, sky blue) against a yellow background, I would continue to see it as blue, rather than green.

Here’s a selection of my ‘personal key colours’:

Major keys

C = Brick red

D = Sky blue

E = Orange

F = Mauve

G = Greenish with black

A = Red, brighter than C

B = Greenish-blue

E flat = Orange, but softer than E

A flat = Soft red

B flat = sea green

Interestingly, the enharmonic keys do not share the same colours, for they are all distinct (just as D flat major sounds different to C sharp major!):

C sharp major = Dark red

D flat major = Soft blue-green

F sharp major = purple-pink

G flat major = pale yellow-gold

The colours of the minor keys are always related to the major keys, but tend to be softer or more diffused hues.

Baroque and classical composers’ music seems to me, for the most part, to use a simpler palette than, say, the music of Schubert, Chopin and Schumann whose complex modulations and harmonic twists make greater demands on my synesthesia.

The opening movement of Schubert’s great, final sonata, the D960 in B-flat major, is, for me, a movement in sea-green and the colours of water. I see these colours when I hear the music, and when I play it, and it sits very well with my feelings about the music: that it suggests a great river, plotting its final course towards the sea. This metaphor, however, has nothing to do with my synesthesia, for the colours I see are not metaphors: they just are! And, incidentally, my colour schemes for the other movements are II: dark red and burgundy hues; III: yellow, fresh green, blue while the Scherzo changes to cooler colours; IV: cold greens and blues with occasional red patches.

In the opening movement of Beethoven’s Op 27/2, the colours shift with the harmonies, and thus, when the music is reharmonised into E major, I see strong orange hues replacing the deep, red-blacks of C sharp minor.

The word “chromatic” has taken on a fuller meaning for me while learning Chopin’s Etude Op 10 No. 3, for the chromatic passages in augmented 4ths in the stormy middle section of the piece are a riot of almost psychedelic colour as well as sound. Sadly, my synesthesia has not helped smooth the difficult path of learning this piece, but it does make it more interesting when I practise it! And by the way, this piece is mostly orange, green and red.

I have never found my condition peculiar or disabling in any way. Indeed, it positively enhances my experience of music, offering not just aural but also visual pleasures.

I would love to hear from any other musicians who experience music/sound in a similar way.

Composers who saw “key colours” include Rimsky-Korsakov, Scriabin and Messaien.