Synesthesia Corner, Vol. 2: Born to Synesthete
by Rich Bunnell
Amanda recently wrote an excellent blog post about her realization that she experiences synesthesia, a perceptual phenomenon where people’s senses overlap with one another. I’m a synesthete as well, and I wanted to write my own post, both to illustrate that different people experience the phenomenon in remarkably different ways, and because I’ve been aware of my own synesthesia for more than a decade, and this awareness has subtly shaped how I experience the world and especially music for quite a while.
One thing to note about synesthesia is that it’s a very passive mental phenomenon. Synesthetes don’t experience the “sight” of, say, a piece of music or a telephone ringing as a hallucination, which would be extremely frightening and debilitating. It’s more like an automatic association in your mind’s eye, the way one automatically pictures a memory without actively thinking about it. A “violet” song doesn’t force the color violet into your field of vision — it just reflexively makes you think of the color violet.
As Amanda detailed in her post, she experiences chromesthesia, where music is automatically associated with colors. I have spatial sequence synesthesia, where items in sequence like numbers and the alphabet appear as shapes, as well as time-space synesthesia, where days, weeks, months, years, and the broader expanse of history appear as one long ribbon. To quote an excellent Buzzfeed piece, “picture Rainbow Road from Mario Kart, a huge track floating in space.” This synesthesia is often linked with good memory, and while I’m not Marilu Henner levels of remembering what I ate the afternoon of July 18, 1997, I do find that when I can link a memory to a sequence of events, I can redraw it in pretty fine detail.
This has absolutely impacted the way I think about music and the way I discuss it on Discord & Rhyme, where I’ll often leave criticism of an album to my co-hosts in favor of exploring said album as a sort of object in time. When I think about Wild Planet by the B-52’s, I zoom in on where 1980 lies on my mental map and “see” all of the other musical movements like punk, disco, and new wave that intersected with the album. I see the band member’s individual timelines and histories branching out, tragically stopping short in 1985 for Ricky Wilson. I see a group of frustrated bohemians finding their way in life at the end of the awful 1970s, just before the Reagan Revolution they would later react to on Cosmic Thing. I see how each and every song on the album reflected this group of human beings at that point in time.
But wait, there’s more! I don’t often associate sound with colors, and when I do I suspect it’s related to the title, like yellow and “Good Morning Sunshine.” But I do see both music and sound as shapes in a “sequence” of sorts, kind of like the horizontal visualization of the vocal track in Rock Band. In terms of musical analysis, it’s more of a “nice to have,” but I’m also a novice at theory, and the more I’ve learned, the more specific and instructive the shapes have become. This makes me suspect that I should school myself beyond the bits about chord sequences and DJ Khaled that I’ve picked up from Switched On Pop.
Since starting this podcast, I’ve noticed a much more useful variation on this: I “see” podcasts as well, including all of their audio issues. People’s voices appear as their head and upper torso, like an avatar in an RPG. If a host is quieter than another host, they appear smaller. Echo appears as a concentric outline that is farther away from the person the worse the echo is. Background hiss looks like TV static, and when it gets removed via a noise reduction algorithm, I can see little “bristles” of hiss where the program wasn’t quite able to clean up. Perfect dialogue has a warm glow, which increases the “visibility” of a voice when music is playing in the background, and the music itself appears and quickly drapes over dialogue like a curtain, with the speed of a George Lucas scene wipe.
Mike did 100% of the editing for the first 10 or so episodes of Discord & Rhyme, but I decided to take on that duty both to take some work off his plate, and because I realized that the way I visualize podcasts makes working with waveforms really natural to me. I definitely already know what “um” looks like (kind of like Rhode Island), laughter (crinkly fries on a stick) and the sound of a sustained note (those beams in Quick Man’s stage in Mega Man 2). And by the way, once Mike does his magic on the edited WAVs I send him and compiles them all into the podcast you hear, the result looks awesome.
So that’s what Amanda and I are getting at when we mention Synesthesia Corner, and we hope these peeks into our weird music brains have been useful and informative. I went through this detour through my mind because synesthesia is very subtle, and as in Amanda’s case, it can sit in the back of a person’s sense of perception for decades before they realize that it’s out of the ordinary, or that it even exists. Next time you listen to a piece of music, think about what’s going on in your mind’s eye, and whether it feels fully intentional or automatic. Synesthesia isn’t a superpower, but it’s invigorating to learn about it and really harness it, because as a creative and analytical tool it provides a really useful mental framework to guide your life and work, and maybe even push it to new levels.