The condition “synaesthesia” has many definitions and explanations that are associated with it. It also manifests itself in many forms. One of those forms is a sub-category called “chromaesthesia.” Much like synaesthesia, chromaesthesia has various different forms, effects, and causes.
There are two primary forms that are almost always connected with chromaesthesia. One of these types is most often called “colour-hearing, [which is] the involuntary perception of colours by someone hearing sounds or listening to music” (Jewanski). Another rare title for chromaesthesia or colored-hearing has also been referred to as: “audition colorae, the phenomena of hearing colors in music and vowels” (Campen). It can also be described by saying that the “auditory stimuli are imaged in both auditory and in visual form” (Horowitz 16-17). The stimulus is the thing that causes the reaction. Thus, instead of the audio just causing someone to hear something, he or she will also see something too. Regardless of how chromaesthesia has been referred to, however, it still means that when a person hears a note or a song, he or she tends to either see a specific color for each specific note or a get a sense of a general color off of each piece of music that they encounter.
Another common form of chromaesthesia occurs in those individuals who see numbers or letters in color. The definition of chromaesthesia is thus explained as “synesthesia in which color is perceived in response to stimuli (as words or numbers) that contain no element of color–also called . . . color hearing” (“Chromesthesia”). In other words, this translates to mean that synaesthetic people who have chromaesthesia will be able to see plain black and white print as words or numbers in color. Either they see the printed words turning into colors in their heads, or they will see the printed words changing colors directly on the page.
Artists and musicians have also found a way to incorporate synaesthesia and chromaesthesia into their daily lives. Some of these artists actually have had synaesthesia, but others merely use it in their art. For instance, composers and artists sometimes will try to express themselves more uniquely “by deliberately blurring the frontiers between the arts” (Jewanski). Composers such as Skryabin, Messiaen and Denhoff used “synaesthetic phenomena in the process of composition” (Jewanski). It is unclear whether or not all of these composers actually had chromaesthesia or not though. The possibility exists that they may have just been using synaesthesia to give a more interesting twist to their compositions (Jewanski).
One composer in particular–Olivier Messiaen–was particularly interesting in that it seemed as if he was not only a synaesthete, but that he also tried to produce synaesthetic-like products out of his music. Messiaen was an extraordinary composer. He “distinguished himself from many of his musical contemporaries by his passion for sound-color relationships” (Benitez 1.1). As mentioned before, Messiaen–unlike many other artists/composers–not only incorporated synaesthetic approaches into his music, he also experienced synaesthesia/chromaesthesia itself in his mind. He was a crossover between the two worlds.
The belief that Messiaen was actually a true synaesthete–or had chromaesthesia–is due to a couple of different factors: “First, chords evoke[d] color associations in Messiaen’s colored-hearing synesthesia. Second, Messiaen’s color associations . . . [were] very consistent” (Benitez 1.1). Messiaen was also very impressed with an artist named Robert Delaunay. He once referred to his “work as very close to what I see when I hear music” (Benitez 1.2). Messiaen also said that:
I am all the same affected by a sort of synesthesia, more in my mind than in my body, that allows me, when I hear music and also when I read it, to see inwardly with my mind’s eye, colors that move with the music; and I vividly sense these colors and sometimes I’ve precisely indicated their correspondence in my scores (Berman 6).
As well as Messiaen just being a synaesthete himself, it is important to realize that several of Messiaen’s compositions were also purposely written in order to convey “pictures via sound, writing specific notes to produce specific color sequences and blend” (Day). In this case, he incorporated his synaesthetic response into a combined effort to produce a synaesthetic-like experience for his readers.
In my case, I personally experience one of the particular effects of synaesthesia. I have the form of chromaesthesia that causes a person to see numbers or letters in color; in my case, I see them both in color. The numbers-0 through 9-have distinct colors that I see associated with each individual digit. All of the letters of the alphabet-all twenty-seven-each have their own color.
For example, when I think of the number digit, “7,” I see the number itself in a sort of deep purple. However, when I think of the word, “Seven,” I see it in dark green. It’s not only dark green, it’s yellow-orange and lemon and orange-red as well. This is due to the fact that I see each individual letter in color. In my experience, this reaction has always been purely involuntary. The information that I have found when researching shows that this is quite the normal case:
[W]hen one of the senses is stimulated, it automatically triggers another sense that acts involuntarily. It “just happens” as most synesthetes would say. For example, a color-hearing synesthete, on hearing the sound of his mother’s voice, would automatically “see” purple. Or a synesthete who tastes shapes would feel pointy shapes while tasting a lemon. Synesthetic experiences are always consistent, meaning that the same stimulus always evokes the same reaction (“Synesthesia”).
For me, the number digit, “7” is always purple. Every time I see the number 7, I think of a deep purple. I can’t help it. It always happens no matter what. Seeing a purple 7 in my head is as natural as breathing.
It has occurred ever since I can remember. In fact, I never knew that there was anything odd about it until I was discussing the different colors of numbers while I was around my brother, and he gave me this look that told me he thought I was crazy. He asked me what the heck I was talking about and when I told him that I saw numbers in color, he thought that I was losing it. My reply to that was, “What, don’t you see numbers in color?” I had always thought that it was perfectly normal to see numbers in color. In fact, they help me remember dates and phone numbers better.
There are also many different theories for the causes of synaesthesia and chromaesthesia. I believe partly in the theories of both association and the question of whether this condition is genetically carried and passed on. For me, the proof lies within my own life and experiences.
The theory of association is that there are some synaesthetes who believe that the reactions and pairings that one has with certain stimuli is related to something during childhood or early life (Nold). I believe in the theory of association, because there are certain letters that remind me of certain names that have connections in my past. For example, my dad–his name is Stephen-always used to wear a dark green vest. For me, the letter “S” is a dark green color. Another example is the letter “K.” In my head, K is a dark brown-black. I think that this may be related to the fact that my brother’s name is Kevin. When I was growing up, he was very depressed and would always wear lots of dark colors- such as gray and brown and black. I think that there is a good possibility that somewhere, sometime when I was growing up, the two might have become paired in my brain somehow.
I also believe that synaesthesia/chromaesthesia is genetic, because it tends to run in families (“Synesthesia”). I am not the only one in my family who has this condition. One day when we were talking, I realized that my mother also has chromaesthesia. She doesn’t see letters in color, but she sees the digits 0-9 in very distinct colors. Strangely enough-but what is usually to be expected-our colors didn’t match up very much. Number 1 was white for her-like me-but that was all we had in common. The fact that most people who are synaesthetes don’t see many things in the same colors or ways-such as letters, numbers, notes, etc.-is rather common. This has been one of the main problems with documenting and studying synaesthesia in the past:
This lack of conformity and the rarity of the condition are among the factors that have prevented many twentieth-century scientists from taking synesthesia serious. However, since the sense of hearing and vision are so individualized and personal in the first place, it is not clear why we should assume there would unanimity among synesthetes (Berman 2).
In conclusion, synaesthesia is ever still a very interesting phenomena. Chromaesthesia is by far one of the most interesting forms of it though. This is just another sign of how complex synaesthesia is–in that its sub-category has many different forms as well.
Benitez, Vincent P. “Simultaneous Contrast and Additive Designs in Olivier Messiaen’s Opera, Saint Francois d’Assise.” Music Theory Online 8.2 (2002): 50 pars. 13 April, 2003 .
Berman, Greta. “Synesthesia and the Arts.” 1999. EBSCO Host. 18 March. 2003.
“Bibliography: Synesthesia in Art and Science.” Leonardo On-line. 8 Apr. 2003
< http://mitpress2.mit.edu/e-journals/Leonardo/isast/spec.projects/synesthesiabib.html >.
Campen, Crotien van. “Artistic and Psychological Experiments with Synesthesia.” Leonardo vol. 32, nr. 1. 1999. 13 Apr. 2003 .
“Chromesthesia.” Fast Health. 7 Apr. 2003 .
Day, Sean A. “A Brief History of Synaesthesia and Music.” 21 Feb. 2001. Thereminvox. 15 Apr. 2003 < http://www.thereminvox.com/printstory/28 >.
Horowitz, Mardi Jon. Image Formation and Psychotherapy. New York and London: Jason Aronson, 1983.
Jewanski, Jorg. “Colour and Music.” Grove Music. 13 Apr. 2003 .
“Net Art.” 8 Apr. 2003. < http://www.tate.org.uk/netart/mat3.htm >
Nold, Geraldine M. “Synesthesia and Blindness: A Personal Account and Informal Survey.” Journal of Visual Impairment & Blindness May/June 1997. EBSCO Host. 18 Feb. 2003
“Synesthesia.” 18 Mar. 2003 .
© Valerie H. Hobbs aka “lastcrazyhorn”
*I highly advise you against copying this work without giving me and the authors I cited full credit. There are many reasons for doing so; one of which is that are very few people in the world who know about Chromaesthesia, let alone write about.