Synesthesia and Art: The Big Et Cetera Image from article by Mary M. Conneely, originally published on

For quite awhile, one of the editors here at Spectral Lyre has been nagging (encouraging, to be accurate or generous or both) me to write a piece on synesthesia. I haven’t accommodated, not out of laziness, but because when I ruminate on the topic, I become overwhelmed – which might be fitting, since synesthesia is a crossover of the senses. I quake, “smell” fear, “see” a bottomless pit. Or maybe that sounded good even if it meant nothing. Perhaps meaning nothing is a synesthesiac thing in and of itself, with origins and ramifications I can’t quite flesh out, (with no real adjectival form the computer allows), but which exist, and which (origins/manifestations) constitute the central question of this essay: how are people affected by art? Actually, it is not my purpose here to answer any questions, but rather to whet the appetite for (what I find to be) rather fascinating (pardon the oxymoron) subject matter. I’ll end with posing some questions and posting some links.

Yes, taking on synesthesia and art is daunting. Onomatopoeia would figure in here. It doesn’t make much sense, really, since the letters in “daunting” are really quite tame or lame – magenta to the pink, blue, flesh-pink, warm black, flesh-pink and yellow. It’s really not a threatening word at all, at least in its parts. As a whole, however, the “aw” sound must be considered, which can be like “aw, how cute” (a kitten) – or with a referent of homophone “awe,” which includes terror, at least for me, since I hear “awful.” This is not to mention the “d,” not the hardest sound, but when combined with the vowels, produces a slant-rhyme of “don’t.” All of this is certainly not to say that I lie awake nights flabbergasted that the composer Scriabin, who was one of many who saw notes in color (heard notes in color?) deemed that A, the musical note, is red, when, clearly, – clearly – it is blue, blue as the bluest ocean or clearest summer sky. illustration by Daniel M.N. Turner/NPR, from article Some People Really Can Taste the Rainbow, by Audrey Carlsen:

It may be that so much is written about synesthesia because nowadays we have a way to dessiminate the wealth of the material, ie, via the internet. But when I was young, just after the dinosaurs and a meteor engaged in a fatal union, I had never heard of crossover of the senses. Here is some of what Wikipedia has to say: Synesthesia (also spelled synæsthesia or synaesthesia, from the ancient Greek σύν [syn], “together”, and αἴσθησις [aisthēsis], “sensation”) is a neurological phenomenon in which stimulation of one sensory or cognitive pathway leads to automatic, involuntary experiences in a second sensory or cognitive pathway. People who report such experiences are known as synesthetes. … A more accurate term may be ideasthesia.  Research has demonstrated that synesthetic experiences can have measurable behavioral consequences, and functional neuroimaging studies have identified differences in patterns of brain activation. Many find that synesthesia aids the creative process. Psychologists and neuroscientists study synesthesia not only for its inherent appeal, but also for the insights it may give into cognitive and perceptual processes that occur in synesthetes and non-synesthetes alike.

Now, I’m not here simply out of a fascination with myself as synesthete, but due to an interest in the neurological phenomenon, in general. Probably, or likely, it would not interest me so much were I not affected (read that word however you wish). In 11th grade my friend Pam “diagnosed” me. We were in math class. “What’s synesthesia?” I asked, somewhat nervously. She explained, and then I forgot all about it. Let me back up a bit, about 17 years from pre-calc. As legend would have it (not some unimportant Greek or Roman legend, of course), my parents were at the foot of the steps one day and noticed that I and my crib were about to travel quickly down the steps in a mode of transport heretofore unknown regarding steps. I had rocked myself out of the nursery into the hall and to the staircase. “Oh my God!” one of them exclaimed, (and you’ll see why their identity is minimally protected here): “ She’s musical!” (as an afterthought, it was the same, or it was the other parent who said, “maybe we should get the crib back into the room, even remove its wheels.” And so, presumably, they did, because I am alive, and with no discernable brain injury (although synesthesia is a neurological condition/state of being). The point, and there may not be one, is that I was tagged as musical (having rhythm), and they began me on piano at age six. Probably, I was just bored. But that doesn’t explain why I still rock myself to sleep at night all these (few) decades later. It could have to do with over or under-nurturing. But this is not the place for psychological speculation regarding parenthood. image, NovoTaste

One day shortly after I learned to read music, my mother was playing the piano and I was shouting from the other room, f sharp, SHARP! Every single time I heard that awful F…….. SHARP! I yelled, and she relayed this to my teacher (a story in and of herself), who informed them I had concert pitch, and went on to show me off like a circus monkey every month in our group music sessions. I cannot convey the humiliation of that; it’s odd how children feel such shame and distress over things that really are not threatening (and such thrill and happiness at the prospect of, say, jumping off a cliff in order to fly). Such be childhood, that utter waste of youth.

Fast-forwarding to now, I can tell you all that musical notes, numbers, and letters of the alphabet (beyond the scale) have colors and genders and little personalities. A is blue, B red-orange, C, blue, D magenta, E, green, F, gray, G, yellow. It’s not that I surmise, but rather, know, and of course, that’s ridiculous, because if you google synesthesia, you’ll see all the conflicting “knowings.” That others are wrong has never really bothered me. I’ve grown used to it in this particular life. But seriously, A as red?! Preposterous! There are many interesting articles: if you look at the number of individuals (below chart, which includes letters and numbers) who see A as red, they are the majority. It is speculated that, because red is the first color newborn can see, and A is the first letter of the alphabet and, presumably, the first to be learned, that A and red “go” together. Not for me. Either I saw blue first, or learned B first, or even R (this could be a sort of key to a life of dysfunction. Having said that, I’ll share a mantra: Beverly, the doctor on Star Trek, in horrifically troublesome circumstances, pronounced, after scanning herself/finding herself fine, “well, if there’s nothing wrong with me, then there must be something wrong with the universe!” And there was).

Sean Day’s study of 25 synethetes and how they “see” the alphabet

Synesthesia isn’t only about color (vision), but about hearing/taste/feel/smell, spatial location, and to include things about facial recognizance, music and more. (It is also hypothesized that it’s linked to autism.) I once tested the musical tones. If C is blue, and G, yellow, then the third in the chord – what if it’s not green? And yet, E is green. It couldn’t be otherwise. D chord: same thing: magenta, the fifth (A) blue, and F sharp is deep purple to black, mainly black, but who’s counting? It works for the G chord, but not for a few others, and while this is disturbing, it’s not overly-so.

So, here’s a question regarding art: I have wondered why composers pick the keys they do (aside from instrument capability/best sound according to open strings and so forth). Solo piano (and well-tempered issues come into play here) is easiest to discuss, but I have often considered symphonies. For instance, the middle movement of Beethoven’s 7th – COULD it, WOULD it be as good in any key other than A minor?  And how does this key, vs. D minor, affect the “ordinary” (to be fair – “non-challenged”) listener?(While synesthesia is not, in my experience, a pain, pitch IS). In other words, does A minor have a similar effect on different listeners? If so, choice by the composer would matter. But if you see A as red and I don’t, then what are the chances that we “feel” or “sense” or even “taste” A minor the same? Then one gets into some really heady solipsism: we both adore the music, but are hearing “different” things, just as you and I call grass green, with no idea as to whether we see things the same way (science may have laid this to rest by studying the firing of cones in the eye; I don’t know). You can go from this thought to wondering if there is any, say, empathy in the world, because we cannot, in fact, walk in another’s shoes anymore than we can hear the music in his ears.

 Take a listen:

IS a certain key is perceived by non-synesthetes subconsciously, such that they are moved in the way the creator off the work intends? As for the first part, this seems plausible, because synesthetes, like all others, are on a spectrum. As far as what the writer or composer intends, probably not. Backing up to the Beethoven, I have wondered if the main rhythm, da da da DAH DAH, is some sly kind of Morse code, or even not so sly – though that would be a clever thing, if intentional not synesthesia. I had an “accidental cleverness,” an oxymoron, in composing an elegy for my father (Rest in Poetry, 1988), which I posted recently. For twenty-five years, I had carried around a melody with its harmony. Only some years in, did I realize that the left hand was repeating, in a kind of ostinato, D-A-D, over and over again in this D minor piece. (I do know that minor keys are lower-case, but I have capitalized consistently, due to a confusion that can arise from, say, the key, a minor, with a’s also functioning as an article.}

What about words? Why, for instance, do some of us have favorite words – to include favorite names? My favorites are elegy, also elegie, haven, hope, autumn, solace, and many more. (It took me eleven months to name one of my children). Has it to do with the letters? The color of the letters? The sound of the shapes of the letters? The scent of the ………….? tI’d suppose we all remember Rod McKuen’s “Listen to the Warm.” What a sensation that caused! Now you see synesthesia in poetry all the time. Take the word “elegie,” (green, brown, green, yellow, black, green) with all those e’s. Green is my favorite color. Black/brown – funereal, but “saved” by yellow (like sun) – to me it is beautiful, and I wish I’d named a child Elegie. (I almost named one Ambrosia, but chickened out.) But that statement (green is my favorite color) leads to …..why? (as in, a certain begging of the question). Certainly prose lovers love words, but I’ve never known more of a logophile than a poet, which only makes sense. I know poets who taste, smell, etc., words, to whom words are nearly living entities. How much of what resonates with us – attracts or repels – is due to whatever in life inspired us to like or dislike something? Why are some words like music (and poetry is music) to our ears, on several levels, and others are — also music, but disturbingly so? Do poets subconsciously choose certain words for reasons surpassing the words’ meanings and allusions? Aren’t there places wherein synonyms are used because they just “feel” more accurate? I might say “green,” or I might say “verdure.” It depends. And again, the recipient?

Here is a long-favorite poem of mine by Richard Wilbur: in studying its language, can you articulate at all how certain words move you, and why? I don’t even really care for rhyme in poetry, unless spare, so something is grabbing me – some other sensation – some sense, perhaps, is overriding, the disinclination toward rhyme – perhaps like a brain’s overcompensating by allowing a blind man acute hearing.

Boy at the Window

Seeing the snowman standing all alone
In dusk and cold is more than he can bear.
The small boy weeps to hear the wind prepare
A night of gnashings and enormous moan.
His tearful sight can hardly reach to where
The pale-faced figure with bitumen eyes
Returns him such a God-forsaken stare
As outcast Adam gave to paradise.

The man of snow is, nonetheless, content,
Having no wish to go inside and die.
Still, he is moved to see the youngster cry.
Though frozen water is his element,
He melts enough to drop from one soft eye
A trickle of the purest rain, a tear
For the child at the bright pane surrounded by
Such warmth, such light, such love, and so much fear.

As for visual art, here are two Chagall works. Of course, it may not do to ask questions about abstract representational art vs. strictly representational. But wait! That is exactly the genre to question/ponder. (I suppose the surreal aspect is a bit unfair to throw at you.) Do you think the colors “work” in these paintings?  Why or why not? Overarching all of this, I suppose, is, when the artist creates, is it for him/herself primarily, or an audience?


Marc Chagall - Portrait of Vava


Synesthesia is interesting, and goes way beyond the scope of this post. Below are some links you may enjoy:

Emotion and musical pitch

From What is meant by a “key characteristic?”

The association of certain musical key signatures with a specific subjective quality or emotion. e.g., E major as “bright & piercing.”

Many theoretical works of the eighteenth century explicitly assign certain affectations or emotional characteristics to different keys. Though these writings often contradict each other as to what these characteristics actually are, it is well known that many composers carefully chose keys for similar affectations throughout their lives. To Mattheson, for example, D major was “somewhat shrill and stubborn,” while to Rousseau it was suited to “gaiety or brilliance.”

From Christian Schubart’s Ideen zu einer Aesthetik der Tonkunst (1806) translated by Rita Steblin in A History of Key Characteristics in the 18th and Early 19th Centuries. UMI Research Press (1983).
C major
Completely pure. Its character is: innocence, simplicity, naïvety, children’s talk.
C minor
Declaration of love and at the same time the lament of unhappy love. All languishing, longing, sighing of the love-sick soul lies in this key.
Db major
A leering key, degenerating into grief and rapture. It cannot laugh, but it can smile; it cannot howl, but it can at least grimace its crying.–Consequently only unusual characters and feelings can be brought out in this key.
D major
The key of triumph, of Hallejuahs, of war-cries, of victory-rejoicing. Thus, the inviting symphonies, the marches, holiday songs and heaven-rejoicing choruses are set in this key.
D minor
Melancholy womanliness, the spleen and humours brood.
D# minor
Feelings of the anxiety of the soul’s deepest distress, of brooding despair, of blackest depresssion, of the most gloomy condition of the soul. Every fear, every hesitation of the shuddering heart, breathes out of horrible D# minor. If ghosts could speak, their speech would approximate this key.
Eb major
The key of love, of devotion, of intimate conversation with God.
E major
Noisy shouts of joy, laughing pleasure and not yet complete, full delight lies in E Major.
F major
Complaisance & calm.
F minor
Deep depression, funereal lament, groans of misery and longing for the grave.
F# major
Triumph over difficulty, free sigh of relief utered when hurdles are surmounted; echo of a soul which has fiercely struggled and finally conquered lies in all uses of this key.
F# minor
A gloomy key: it tugs at passion as a dog biting a dress. Resentment and discontent are its language.
G major
Everything rustic, idyllic and lyrical, every calm and satisfied passion, every tender gratitude for true friendship and faithful love,–in a word every gentle and peaceful emotion of the heart is correctly expressed by this key.
G minor
Discontent, uneasiness, worry about a failed scheme; bad-tempered gnashing of teeth; in a word: resentment and dislike.
Ab major
Key of the grave. Death, grave, putrefaction, judgment, eternity lie in its radius.
Ab minor
Grumbler, heart squeezed until it suffocates; wailing lament, difficult struggle; in a word, the color of this key is everything struggling with difficulty.
A major
This key includes declarations of innocent love, satisfaction with one’s state of affairs; hope of seeing one’s beloved again when parting; youthful cheerfulness and trust in God.
A minor
Pious womanliness and tenderness of character.
Bb major
Cheerful love, clear conscience, hope aspiration for a better world.
Bb minor
A quaint creature, often dressed in the garment of night. It is somewhat surly and very seldom takes on a pleasant countenance. Mocking God and the world; discontented with itself and with everything; preparation for suicide sounds in this key.
B major
Strongly coloured, announcing wild passions, composed from the most glaring coulors. Anger, rage, jealousy, fury, despair and every burden of the heart lies in its sphere.
B minor
This is as it were the key of patience, of calm awaiting ones’s fate and of submission to divine dispensation.
(archived version of this site
“Today many musicians claim to hear the different characteristics very clearly, and associate them with the emotional quality of the music. They will tell us that music played in the “open” key of C major—with neither flats nor sharps in the key signature—sounds strong and virile; played in the key of G, with one sharp, it sounds brighter and lighter; in D, with two sharps, even more so; and so on. Every additional sharp in the key signature is supposed to add to the brightness and sparkle of the music, while every flat contributes
Color and musical pitch Pitch, colour, Scriabian, and others by Charles E. H. Lucy
an attempt to make a “connection through mathematics and physics”
He states that in addition to Scriabin, “Berlioz, Debussy and Wagner were also interested in music and colour and Rimsky-Korsakov considered C as white.”


From Frank Popper, Origins and Development of Kinetic Art, 1968:
p. 157-8: Scriabin held that each mode corresponded to a particular shade of colour, and each modulation to a nuance of this shade.
From Tom Douglas Jones, The Art of Light & Color, 1972:
p. 102: Beethoven is said to have called B minor the black key. Schubert likened E minor “unto a maiden robed in white with a rose-red bow on her breast.” One Russion composer said, “Rimsky-Korsakoff and many of us in Russia have felt the connection between colors and sonorities. Surely for everybody sunlight is C major and cold colors are minors. And F-sharp is decidedly strawberry red!” Of his subtle compositions Debussy wrote: “I realized that music is very delicate, and it takes, therefore, the soul at its softest fluttering to catch these violet rays of emotion.”

p. 103: Dr. D.S. Myers, a psychologist who talked with Scriabin, said, “Scriabin’s attention was first seriously drawn to his colored hearing owing to an experience at a concert in Paris, where sitting next to his fellow countryman and composer Rimsky-Korsakoff, he remarked that the piece to which they were listening (in D major) seemed to him yellow; whereupon his neighbor replied that to him, too, the color seemed golden. Scriabin has since compared with his compatriot and with other musicians the color effects of other keys, especially B, C major, and F-sharp major, and believes a general agreement to exist in this respect. He admits, however, that whereas to him the key of F-sharp major appears violet, to Rimsky-Korsakoff it appears green; but this derivation he attributed to an accidental association with the color of leaves and grass arising from the frequent use of this key for pastoral music. He allows that there is some disagreement as to the color effect of the key of G major. Nevertheless, as is so universally the case with the subjects of synesthesia, he believes that the particular colors which he obtains must be shared by all endowed with colored hearing.”
Scriabin’s system of colored musical keys:
C# — Purple
F# — Bright Blue/Violet
B   — Blue
E   — Sky Blue
A   — Green
D   — Yellow
G   — Orange
C   — Red
F   — Deep Red
Bb — Rose/Steel
Eb — Flesh
Ab — Violet
Db — Purple (same as C#)
Gb — Bright Blue/Violet (same as F#)

– Julie Kim Shavin





One thought on “Synesthesia and Art: The Big Et Cetera

  1. Julie, I’m about to scandalize you with a quote from Nabokov, describing his synesthesia, for it is during my reading of his memoir, Speak Memory that I “diagnosed” my own synesthesia. For a man so in love with words–he was deaf to music. I’ve heard an interview with his son on the radio. He is a musician, and a musical synesthete. Without further ado, the brilliant scamp, Nabokov:
    “The confessions of a synesthete must sound tedious and pretentious to those who are protected from such leakings and drafts by more solid walls than mine are. To my mother, though, this all seemed quite normal. The matter came up, one day in my seventh year, as I was using a head of old alphabet blcks to build a tower. I casually remarked to her that the colors were all wrong. We discovered that some of her letters had the same tint as mine, and that, besides, she was optically affected by musical notes. These evoked no chromatisms in me whatsoever. Music, I regret to say, affects me merely as an arbitrary succession of more ore less irritating sounds. Under certain circumstances I can stand the spasms of a rich violin, but the concern piano and wind instruments bore me in small doses and flay me in large ones.”



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