Have you ever smelled something that instantly brought you back to a particular memory? Do you associate a day of the week with a color, or a feel? If so, you’re at least loosely familiar with synesthesia — a term derived from the Greek words “together” and “sensation” (syn and aisthesis). Psychologists understand synesthesia as a condition experienced by individuals who interpret stimuli by using a different sense modality than the one intended to receive the stimuli. For example, you see a shape or color while listening to a song, or hear a musical tone when looking at a color. A synesthete could taste sweetness when looking at the color purple, or hear a high-pitched sound when touching a rough surface.
You don’t have to be a diagnosed synesthete to experiment with or encounter synesthesia. If a song reminds you of a color, you are, in a sense, seeing sound. Interestingly, almost 25% of artists are synesthetes. Most artists who draw on synesthesia in their art experiment with the relationship between color and sound, and aim to create works that you can hear as well as see. For some viewers, the perception of sound in these works will be quite real and literal, and for others, it may be metaphoric.
Understood in another light, synesthesia is harmony. There is undoubtably a rapport between art and music — both can stimulate relaxation and inspire deep thinking, both can excite, and both can sadden. Traditionally, art and music are meant to be heard and seen, respectively, but often, the goal of both is to promote feeling. The premise of much art is to help viewers perceive something they otherwise wouldn’t, so it is no far stretch that art is quite capable of guiding viewers to use their senses differently. To borrow the words of Russian painter Vasily Kandinksy, “Color is the keyboard, the eyes are the hammers, the soul is the piano with its many chords. The artist is the hand that, by touching this or that key, sets the soul vibrating automatically.”
Explore the harmony between color and sound and investigate whether you have synesthetic tendencies.
1. Listen to a rock song, a classical piece, and a mellow folk song. Fill your mind with colors while listening to the songs. Do the different genres of music encourage you to see different colors? Write down the main colors that you “see” as you listen.
2. Look at an abstract painting with many colors, and an abstract painting with just a couple colors (perhaps look at Kandinsky first, then Mark Rothko). Free your mind as you allow yourself to venture away from conventional rules of looking. Don’t just use your eyes, use your other senses too. Try to hear what the painting sounds like. Write down the type of music that comes to mind. Is the painting most like a slow song or a fast, loud song? Is it harmonious or cacophonous?
3.Now, analyze your experiment by comparing your notes. Do any of the colors or sounds correspond? For example, are there colors in the abstract painting that you “saw” while listening to one of the songs? Did did that painting conjure up a tune similar to that of the song in which you saw the colors?