Synesthesia, an interesting neurological condition has colored the worlds of many popular people we know of. Famous synesthetes who in a way are where they are today, have had synesthesia as a God’s blessing on them since childhood.
Rare… very rare!
Only about 4% of the total population has this rare condition called synesthesia!
Synesthesia is a neurological condition, in which the origin of one sense triggers the other. Synesthetes are said to have unnatural behavior towards a lot of things, because their senses are cross-connected which allows them to apply two senses at a time. Like they can see a balloon in the air, but also get its taste in their mouth. They can see a normal black text as colorful as you can imagine, with every letter having a different color! They can taste the words coming from your mouth, and smell your name. They can see music in different colors, and hear the colors of paints. This is an unimaginable twist in the mind that makes our colorful world more colorful for synesthetes; and to have a greater insight on this amazing condition you can check out our Historyplex article – Understanding synesthesia which will take you through a mind-boggling colorful ride into a different world altogether!
While you will rarely come across a synesthete in person (except if you yourself are one!), many in the entertainment industry and other famous people have this eccentric condition called synesthesia. As there are 5 senses in a human body, there can be around 25 types of synesthesia, if one sense triggers the other. Let’s have a look at who’s got what type!
Singer, songwriter and pianist. Type of synesthesia: Music → color
“The song appears as light filament once I’ve cracked it. As long as I’ve been doing this, which is more than thirty-five years, I’ve never seen a duplicate song structure. I’ve never seen the same light creature in my life. Obviously similar chord progressions follow similar light patterns, but try to imagine the best kaleidoscope ever.” – From the autobiography, Piece by Piece.
Producer/mixer, and a member of Faithless. Type of synesthesia: Music → color
“He gets on with the broad strokes, textures and colors – that’s how he hears music, he’s got that synesthesia (a phenomenon where sounds have color), he says ‘make it really sad, like a rainy day, I want to hear thunder’ – and I get on with all the anal fiddly bits.” – Sister Bliss talking about her working relationship with Rollo Armstrong.
British author. Type of synesthesia: Music → color
“It’s not as strange or unusual as it’s made out to be – it’s just a bit of a crossover of different senses. So I see music, taste some colors and so on. I think the music thing is very common, but people tell themselves that that isn’t what’s happening.” – From Fractal Matter interview with Steve Aylett.
American pianist and composer. Type of synesthesia: Musical keys → color
Two quotes from her biographies:
“Other interesting stories about Amy’s musical personality and her astounding abilities as a prodigy are recounted in almost all previous biographical writings. One such story is Amy’s association of certain colors with certain keys. For instance, Amy might ask her mother to play the ‘purple music’ or the ‘green music.’ The most popular story, however, seems to be the one about Amy’s going on a trip to California and notating on staff paper the exact pitches of bird calls she heard.” – From Jeanell Brown, p. 16.
“Amy’s mother encouraged her to relate melodies to the colors blue, pink, or purple, but before long Amy had a wider range of colors, which she associated with certain major keys. Thus C was white, F-sharp black, E yellow, G red, A green, A-flat blue, D-flat violet or purple, and E-flat pink. Until the end of her life she associated these colors with those keys.” – From Walter Jenkins, pp. 5-6.
American composer, conductor, author and pianist. Type of synesthesia: Timbre → color
Leonard Bernstein spoke about this during his “Young People’s Concerts” series (the “What is orchestration” segment).
Swiss psychiatrist. Type of synesthesia: Phonemes → color
Eugen Bleuler was the originator of the term schizophrenia. He was also the pioneer of synesthesia researchers.
Mary J. Blige
Singer-songwriter, record producer, and occasional rapper and actress. Type of synesthesia: Music → color
“I have that condition, synesthesia. I see music in colors. That’s how my synesthesia plays out.” – From an interview at LA Confidential.
Sir Robert Cailliau
Belgian informatics engineer, computer scientist. Type of synesthesia: Grapheme → color
His website used to include his color-coded alphabet.
Australian actress and lyric soprano. Type of synesthesia: Lexeme → color
“Monday is yellow; Tuesday is quite a deep red; Wednesday is sort of a grass green; Thursday is a much darker green but still quite bright; Friday has always confused me, it’s either a very dark purple, blue or gray; Saturday is white; and Sunday is sort of a light peach color. For anyone who doesn’t understand what’s happening here, I have a neurological condition called synesthesia, which means that I ‘see’ words in colors.” – From Stephanie Carswell Q & A web site.
Composer, pianist and bandleader of orchestras. Type of synesthesia: Timbre → color
“I hear a note by one of the fellows in the band and it’s one color. I hear the same note played by someone else and it’s a different color. When I hear sustained musical tones, I see just about the same colors that you do, but I see them in textures. If Harry Carney is playing, D is dark blue burlap. If Johnny Hodges is playing, G becomes light blue satin.” – Ellington, as quoted in Don George, p. 226.
American songwriter, multi-instrumentalist, actor, director and lead singer of The Bravery. Type of synesthesia: Music → color
“Synesthesia is when your brain sees music as colors. That is what my brain does, and these are the colors I see when I hear this song,” – From Spinner.com, Slow Poison video premiere.
Theoretical physicist. Type of synesthesia: Grapheme → color
He was the winner of the 1965 Nobel Prize in Physics. “When I see equations, I see the letters in colors – I don’t know why. As I’m talking, I see vague pictures of Bessel functions from Jahnke and Emde’s book, with light-tan j’s, slightly violet-bluish n’s, and dark brown x’s flying around. And I wonder what the hell it must look like to the students.” – From Richard Feynman, p. 59.
Cartoonist, animation artist. Type of synesthesia: Music → color and movement
Michel is the creator of the synesthetic taste sequences in Disney/Pixar’s “Ratatouille” (2008) and of short film “Sensology”.
“Back in June 2006, Nancy and I were invited to the Vancouver International Jazz Festival by Coastal Jazz’s manager of artistic programming, the amazing Rainbow Robert. That’s where I heard piano improviser, Paul Plimley for the first time. As Paul played, I closed my eyes and had an intense synesthetic experience.,” – From Gagné’s website.
French pianist. Type of synesthesia: Grapheme → color, music → color
“It was when I was eleven, and working on the F sharp major Prelude from the first book of Bach’s Well-tempered Clavier – I perceived something that was very bright, between red and orange, very warm and vivid: an almost shapeless stain, rather like what you would see in the recording control-room if the image of sound were projected on a screen. But as numbers had always had colors for me – two was yellow, four was red, five was green – and as I have always found music evocative, I didn’t regard this as unusual. It was more the idea of color than color itself. Certain pieces always project me into a particular color-world. Sometimes it’s a result of the tonality – C minor is black, and D minor, the key that has always been closest to me, being the most dramatic and poignant is blue.” – From Credo – Hélène Grimaud interviewed by Michael Church.
Type of synesthesia: (Color → sound / sound → color)
Neil is a contemporary artist and musician who can hear colors and perceives them outside the normal human spectrum of vision. He was born colorblind and so he devised a cyborg antenna implanted in his skull that helps him hear the frequencies of colors around him and lets him receive color sounds directly into his skull through an external Wi-Fi.
Singer, songwriter and pianist. Type of synesthesia: Multiple synesthesia
“A thought struck me: if my new album sounds this good on a Walkman, what would Roxy Music sound like? A mere two years later I bought one and found out. However, on a train, a few years later still, I had negative synesthesia eating a bacon sandwich and listening to a solo Ferry album, which turned me vegetarian.” – From the liner notes of the I Wanna Go Backwards box set.
English painter, draughtsman, printmaker, stage designer and photographer. Type of synesthesia: Music → color
A brilliant artist who can see colors in music sets his stage backgrounds for operas and ballets as he hears the music of the theater piece he works on and sees various colors.
Singer, songwriter, composer and pianist. Type of synesthesia: Sound → color and Grapheme → color
“I would say the softer, more intimate songs — there’s ‘Lullaby (Goodnight My Angel), ‘And So It Goes,’ ‘Vienna’ and another called, ‘Summer, Highland Falls’ — when I think of different types of melodies, which are slower or softer, I think in terms of blues or greens…When I [see] a particularly vivid color, it’s usually a strong melodic, strong rhythmic pattern that emerges at the same time. When I think of these songs, I think of vivid reds, oranges and golds.” – From an interview by Maureen Seaberg with Billy Joel p. 89
“Certain lyrics in some songs I’ve written, I have to follow a vowel color. A strong vowel ending, like an A or an E or an I, I associate with a very blue or a very vivid green…I think reds I associate more with consonants, a T or a P or an S. It’s a harder sound. These [letters] are what I associate with reds and oranges.”
From an interview by Maureen Seaberg with Billy Joel p. 91
Jazz drummer. Type of synesthesia: Music → color
“I get images sometimes, color images. The lowest, the bass tones, the little D would be purple, the C red, F be yellow.” – From the documentary, A Different Drummer.
British Painter. Type of synesthesia: Music → color
Kilford who is known as the music painter, has made many of his paintings live with musicians around him as he paints with colors he sees, as he hears them play. He paints for various tracks too at his studio, and is even visited by several musicians playing for him to paint their music! He has played live for famous musicians like Paul Weller, Robert Plant, Damon Albarn, The Black Eyed Peas, Brian Eno, Deep Purple, Status Quo and The Charlatans amongst others.
Jazz pianist. Type of synesthesia: Musical notes → color
“With the little bit of sight he possessed, Brooks was unable to read or to identify objects, and lead sheets remained a forever closed door to him, but he was able to differentiate colors. I remember when he first told us that in his mind’s eye every musical note was a different color and that the scale resembled a rainbow. He fingered a C on the piano, explaining, ‘This note is red.’ He hit a D. ‘This one is dark blue.’ He hit an F. ‘This is yellow.’ His finger wandered to a G. ‘This one is light blue …'”
– From Don George, pp. 225-226.
Composer. Type of synesthesia: Grapheme → color
“I am inclined to synesthetic perception. I associate sounds with colors and shapes. Like Rimbaud, I feel that all letters have a color.”
“Major chords are red or pink, minor chords are somewhere between green and brown. I do not have perfect pitch, so when I say that C minor has a rusty red-brown color and D minor is brown this does not come from the pitch but from the letters C and D. I think it must go back to my childhood. I find, for instance, that numbers also have colors; 1 is steely gray, 2 is orange, 5 is green. At some point these associations must have got fixed, perhaps I saw the green number 5 on a stamp or on a shop sign. But there must be some collective associations too. For most people the sound of a trumpet is probably yellow although I find it red because of its shrillness ….” – From György Ligeti, p. 58.
Composer, virtuoso pianist, conductor, teacher and Franciscan tertiary. Type of synesthesia: Music → color
“When Liszt first began as Kapellmeister in Weimar (1842), it astonished the orchestra that he said: ‘O please, gentlemen, a little bluer, if you please! This tone type requires it!’ Or: ‘That is a deep violet, please, depend on it! Not so rose!’ First the orchestra believed Liszt just joked; more later they got accustomed to the fact that the great musician seemed to see colors there, where there were only tones.”
– Anonymous, as quoted in Friedrich Mahling, p.230.(Translation by Sean A. Day.)
Jazz pianist, composer, writer and radio personality. Type of synesthesia: Keys → colors
She has stated that: “You see, nobody ever told me it was difficult to play in certain keys, like F sharp. Personally, I find C a hard key. It’s very sterile to me. Somehow all the keys seem to have colors and textures. I love B and E and A and F sharp. I actually associate them with colors, but Jim Hall, the guitarist, does too, so I don’t feel that ridiculous about it.” In another quote: “The key of D is daffodil yellow, B major is maroon, and B flat is blue.”
Composer, organist and ornithologist. Type of synesthesia: Chordal structure → color
Olivier Messiaen admitted him being a synesthete, in his own writings and interviews. He tries to produce pictures through sounds with his compositions, some of which are Oiseaux Exotiques, L’ascension, and Couleurs de la cite celeste.
Actress, singer and model. Type of synesthesia: Sound → vibrations
She has that displacement of the senses which others take drugs to find. So she is like a lover of rock who sees vibrations when she hears sounds.- Norman Mailer Marilyn: A Biography p. 47
Her niece, Mona Rae Miracle says, “Synesthesia is a term Marilyn and I were unaware of; in the past, we simply spoke of the characteristic experiences with terms such as ‘extraordinary sensitivity’ and/or ‘extraordinary imagination’.” p. 115
Actress, screenwriter and film director. Type of synesthesia: Grapheme → color; musical notes → color
“A few years ago, I mentioned to a friend that I remembered phone numbers by their color. He said “So you’re a synesthete!” I hadn’t heard of synesthesia (which means something close to sense-fusion’) – I only knew that numbers seemed naturally to have colors: five is blue, two is green, three is red… And music has colors too: the key of C# minor is a sharp, tangy yellow, F major is a warm brown…” – Stephanie Morgenstern interview.
Novelist. Type of synesthesia: Grapheme → color
In his autobiography, Speak Memory (1966), the Russian writer Vladimir Nabokov tells us of his fine case of colored hearing. Perhaps ‘hearing’ is not quite accurate, since the color sensation seems to be produced by the very act of my orally forming a given letter while I imagine its outline. The long a of the English alphabet (and it is this alphabet I have in mind farther on unless otherwise stated) has for me the tint of weathered wood, but a French a evokes polished ebony. This black group also includes hard g (vulcanized rubber) and r (a sooty rag bag being ripped). Oatmeal n, noodle-limp l, and the ivory-backed hand mirror of o take care of the whites. I am puzzled by my French on which I see as the brimming tension-surface of alcohol in a small glass. Passing on to the blue group, there is steely x, thundercloud z, and huckleberry k. Since a subtle interaction exists between sound and shape, I see q as browner than k, while s is not the light blue of c, but a curious mixture of azure and mother-of-pearl. Adjacent tints do not merge, and diphthongs do not have special colors of their own, unless represented by a single character in some other language (thus the fluffy-gray, three-stemmed Russian letter that stands for sh [Ш], a letter as old as the rushes of the Nile, influences its English representation).”
” … – From Vladimir Nabokov, p. 34-35.
Violinist, conductor and teacher. Type of synesthesia: Tone → color
“If I play a B-flat on the G string, I would say that the color for me is probably deep forest green. And if I play an A on the E string, that would be red. If I play the next B, if I look at it right now, I would say that it’s yellow.” – From an interview in Tasting the Universe by Maureen Seaberg with Itzhak Perlman.
German-Swiss composer, teacher and pianist. Type of synesthesia: Timbre → color
In 1855, the composer Joachim Raff “declared that the sounds of instruments produced color impressions of various kinds. Thus the sound of a flute produced the sensation of intense azure blue; of the hautboy [oboe], yellow; cornet, green; trumpet, scarlet; the French horn, purple; and the flageolet [bassoon], gray. The clearest and most distinct shades were those evoked by the high notes” (Krohn 1892 : 22).
Composer. Type of synesthesia: Musical keys → color
Rimsky-Korsakov experienced colors for musical keys. For example, for him, the key of C major was white, and the key of B major was a gloomy dark blue with a steel shine.
Australian actor and film producer. Type of synesthesia: Multiple synesthesia (Lexeme → color)
“Friday is dark maroon, a type of sienna, and Saturday is definitely white. Monday is a cool blue… Since I was seven, when I first learned counting, numbers had specific colors.” – Geoffrey Rush: A Man for all Seasons, May 20, 2007.
Russian journalist and mnemonist. Type of synesthesia: Multiple synesthesia
He was the subject of a case study ‘The Mind of a Mnemonist: A Little Book About a Vast Memory’, by neuropsychologist Alexander Luria. In this book, the details of his fivefold synesthesia and how he used it to solve complex mathematical problems or any other difficult task like learning foreign language poems, and later the problems he faced due to his ability of remembering even the minutest details of anything and everything have been explained.
Composer. Type of synesthesia: Sound → color
“For him there existed a strange, mysterious connection between sound and color, between the most secret perceptions of the eye and ear. Everything he saw produced a corresponding impression on his ear – every impression of sound was transferred and fixed as color on the retina of his eye and thence to his memory. And this he thought as natural, with as good reason as those who did not possess this faculty called him crazy or affectedly original.”
“For this reason he only spoke of this in the strictest confidence and under a pledge of silence. ‘For otherwise they will make fun of me!'” – From Karl Ekman, pp. 41-42.
Singer-songwriter, musician, record producer, actor and music critic, lead singer and rhythm guitarist of Fall Out Boy. Type of synesthesia: Grapheme → color
“So this isn’t really news but it’s come to my attention that I have a common form of synesthesia known as grapheme to color synesthesia. It is (according to Wikipedia….who are always right…right?) ‘A neurologically-based phenomenon in which stimulation of one sensory or cognitive pathway leads to automatic, involuntary experiences in secondary sensory or cognitive pathway.’ The shorthand is basically that your senses are crossed. Like some synesthetes can ‘Taste’ colors or ‘See’ sounds. In the case of grapheme to color synesthetia it basically means that one interprets written information as ‘Colored.’ For instance the letter ‘F’ for me is green. When I see it written in black I obviously still notice that it is black but it ‘Feels’ green. Or ‘S’ is red. Most of the alphabet and numbers from 1-10 have some sort of associated color to me. It’s ultimately totally trivial but I found it fascinating that this is a documented phenomenon and not just me being a weirdo.” – Patrick Stump’s blog entry, August 18, 2008.
Experimental musician. Type of synesthesia: Sounds → visuals.
“I feel like I think about music in such visual terms that it’s hard (to not consider the visual elements). It’s not something that I really turn on or off. It’s like even listening to a record…I mean that’s kind of why I got into music. It has always taken on a whole visual atmosphere to me.” – From his interview with Brightest Young Things.
German social worker and co-founder of Braille Without Borders. Type of synesthesia: Multiple synesthesia
She was born with an impaired sight. “‘As far back as I can remember,’ she writes, ‘numbers and words have instantly triggered colors in me … number four, for example [is] gold. Five is light green. Nine is vermilion.. Days of week, as well as months, have their colors, too.’ Her synesthesia has persisted and been intensified, it seems, by her blindness” – From www.fortunecity.com
Singer-songwriter, rapper, record producer, and fashion designer. Type of synesthesia: Music → color
“It just always stuck out in my mind, and I could always see it. I don’t know if that makes sense, but I could always visualize what I was hearing… Yeah, it was always like weird colors.” – From a Nightline interview with Pharrell.
Rapper, record producer, director and fashion designer. Type of synesthesia: Music → color
“Yeezus, though, was the beginning of me as a new kind of artist. Stepping forward with what I know about architecture, about classicism, about society, about texture, about synesthesia – the ability to see sound – and the way everything is everything and all these things combine, and then starting from scratch with Yeezus.” – From Steve McQueen interview with Kanye West.
Singer-songwriter. Type of synesthesia: Music → color
“I see music in colors. I love music that’s black, pink, purple or red – but I hate music that’s green, yellow or brown.” – XCX speaking with BBC.
Welsh singer-songwriter. Type of synesthesia: Multiple synesthesia, Music and days of the week → color
Welsh singer-songwriter. Type of synesthesia: Multiple synesthesia, Music and days of the week → color
French geographer and explorer. Type of synesthesia: Number form synesthesia
Ida Maria Børli Sivertsen
Singer/Songwriter. Type of synesthesia: Sound → color
Autistic savant. Type of synesthesia: Multiple synesthesia. Grapheme → color/shape, lexeme→ color, and grapheme → personality (also known as OLP, or ordinal linguistic personification)
Composer. Type of synesthesia: Multiple synesthesia
Vincent Van Gogh
Dutch painter. Type of synesthesia: Technique-timbre synesthete
Eddie Van Halen
Guitarist, songwriter and producer. Type of synesthesia: Sound → color
Singer/songwriter and record producer. Type of synesthesia: Sound → color