February 28, 2011

LOOKING AT synesthesia and the visualization of music. I see music visually, and so does my daughter. I’ve heard that this is unusually common among sound engineers, and that would make sense: When you see music as well as hear it, you’re probably deploying more neural processing power. That may be the advantage of synesthesia more generally.

UPDATE: A reader asks for a description of what I see. That’s hard, because the more you think about it, the less distinct the effect seems to be, at least for me. But I see sound as light, with texture and color relating to tone, and going up and down with pitch. So a smooth guitar solo (think Carlos Santana) looks kind of like an oscilloscope tracing, while, say, Jimmy Page in Heartbreaker is like a bunch of jagged lines. A drum hit is a flash, whose length depends on resonance. This is useful for judging delays because you can “see” them. Like I say, I think the synesthesia recruits more neural processing power. I don’t know if most people who experience this get the same visualizations.

ANOTHER UPDATE: Reader Adam Jones writes: “From what I understand, there are patterns to the way us synesthetes of the tone-color variety see things. I also see jagged wild lines when listening to Jimmy Page solos, and Santana is made of cleaner lines. And heavy delay/echo/reverb effects are mindblowing when you see the sound spread out like a kaleidoscope. It’s wonderful, and it’s a way of appreciating music that most people don’t have access to – we’re very lucky.” Yes — although the downside may be the migraines I experience from time to time.

And reader Cathy French emails: “I’ve got synesthesia too. For folks without this ‘problem’ (Imagine describing a pain as an orange, high pitched taste (like aluminum) and having your 20 year old son giving you ‘the look’. Heh.), the closest I can come to describing how it is listening to music is to liken it to being a passenger in a car as you move through the mountains with your eyes slightly unfocused. Watch the landscape ‘dance’… it rises and falls, colors fade to the background in a blur, some jump out and ‘pop’. In fact, one of my favorite things to do on a long trip is to listen to music while watching the landscape, since it makes the synesthesia in my head match the reality of what I’m seeing. It’s breathtaking and transcendant. Beautiful. Synesthesia is cool… I quite enjoy it… other than the funny looks I get when I describe something weirdly.”