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Sound, Synesthesia & Memory

April 2, 2012

At the end of last week’s post about my Seven with Another collaboration with Robert Davidson, I began to muse about what sounds might look like – what colours they may evoke.

Early on in our collaboration, Robert and I talked about Synesthesia, which defined by Wikipedia means, “a neurological condition in which stimulation of one sensory or cognitive pathway leads to automatic, involuntary experiences in a second sensory or cognitive pathway.” One example of this is Colour Synesthesia, where letters or numbers are perceived as having specific colour associations. The person with synesthesia (also known as a synesthete) will automatically see certain numbers in particular colours. Spatial Sequence or Number Synesthesia translates numbers, days of the week etc, into particular spatial locations. A number could appear near or far away or even three-dimensional.

Synesthesia however, is entirely different from memory association. For example, whenever I smell garlic and onions being sautéed, I think of Saturday mornings and my mother cooking spaghetti bolognese in the family kitchen. It’s not as though the word Saturday elicits the smell of garlic and onions sautéing and therefore, cannot be synesthesia, but instead is an example of how sensory perceptions (in this case, smell) can trigger specific memory recollection.

Music brings back memories for me also. Specific songs or pieces of music remind me of either the first time I heard them or an event where the music may have featured in the background, but is completely connected to the emotional memory of that event. Music evokes feelings, creates an atmosphere and I believe, is definitely embodied physically. Music may find me automatically tapping my feet or closing my eyes and breathing deeply.

But, what colours does music evoke? What colour is Beethoven’s ‘5th Symphony’, Madonna’s ‘Like a Virgin’ or the Wiggles’ ‘Hot Potato’. Were the colours and shapes in the film clip for Gotye’s ‘Somebody that I used to know’ (pictured above) a synesthetic perception or simply a creative director’s great idea?

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2 Comments leave one →
  1. April 16, 2012 10:53 AM

    My synasthesia crosses gender and days of the week, also gender and numbers. A common musical synasthesia is pitches (eg. Do Re Mi or C D E) each having a specific colour. This also happens with specific chords. A lot of composers, including Messiaen, Scriabin, Michael Torke and others have had this specific kind of synasthesia.

    • April 16, 2012 11:39 AM

      I’m finding this such an interesting area… The more I talk to people about it, the more people I’m learning have some form of synesthesia… And the more I immerse myself into your music, the easier I am finding the colours in it…

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