What is Synesthesia?
If you’re reading this, it’s probably because you already have a vague understanding of what synesthesia is. Perhaps you know someone who has it; an estimated 4% of the world’s population experiences synesthesia in some form or another. Perhaps you’ve seen some of the posts circulating around Facebook about the amazing artwork individual synesthetes have produced as a result of their condition. But for those of you encountering the phenomenon for the first time here, I think it might be helpful to start with a basic introduction. Synesthesia is a perceptual condition of mixed sensations, in which the stimulation of one sense causes the involuntary stimulation of another. This phenomenon can take many forms. Some synesthetes, for example, can taste sound, hear color, or even smell numbers.
I am a synesthete, and my synesthesia influences many different aspects of my life. What I will be focusing on here, however, is the complex sensory layering I experience every time I hear music.
Synesthesia and Music
The first thing to understand is that the experiences of every individual synesthete vary. In that regard, we’re the very specialist of snowflakes; what I experience may be, and probably is, different from what another synesthete experiences under the exact same conditions.
The second thing to understand is that my sensory response to hearing music is layered. For simplicity’s sake, I have explained it to others in the past as “seeing colors when I hear music.” And that statement is technically true. However, my synesthesia also affects my perception of color. More complicated still, the way in which I perceive color is itself layered, and sometimes difficult to explain. It may include components such as taste and smell, but each color also carries its own physical sensation.
(I once tried to describe a particular shade of twilight blue by explaining that it felt like lying on your back in the center of a large bed, watching the light thrown from a candle stretch across the ceiling in the middle of the night. My friend was understandably confused.)
Thirdly, my sensory reactions to music are based more heavily on tonal quality than they are on pitch. I experience the sound of violins; I don’t ‘feel’ F#. Two instruments playing the exact same note do not look or feel the same to me. Pitch can alter my visualizations within an instrument group, making colors more or less saturated, for example – but guitars are always ‘orange’.
Fourthly, I use color adjectives in a more liberal way than you’re probably used to. When I say something is ‘purple’, I mean that it’s everything that goes along with ‘purple’ for me. Which – as I mentioned before – is usually a pretty complex sensory experience.
Finally, I want to take a moment to clarify what I mean in this context when I say that I “see” color. It’s not like wearing tinted glasses. Rather, have you ever been telling a story to a group of friends based on a memory, and while you’re looking at your audience, you’re also seeing that memory play out in your mind? That’s what it’s like. Nothing’s visually overlapping anything else. It’s more like watching two images projected simultaneously on two different screens.
Except that one of those screens is inside your mind, and not really in front of your eyes at all.
There is obviously no shortage of music and concert review blogs on the internet. So why add my hat to the ring?
Music is one of my greatest passions in life, and I feel like my particular situation gives me a unique perspective on the topic, both as someone with synesthesia and as a Western expat attending concerts in Japan. The majority of the lives I attend are for Japanese rock bands, but that doesn’t mean that ‘Jrock’ is the only thing I want to talk about here. Harmonic Distortion is aimed at anyone who is interested in the discussion of art. Through the vehicle of my experiences and perceptions, I want to share the extraordinary power and beauty that music has for me. I want to find a way to explain the inexplicable. Words are music, and music is a dialogue, and my ambition is to bring it all full circle.
I am also hoping that my writings will help provoke discussions about music, art, synesthesia, and expat culture. If you have something to say, please feel free to comment. If you read something here that you find informative and interesting, I implore you to share the link around to your friends and to your social media followers. It just stands to reason that the things I love are beloved to others. And who doesn’t enjoy talking about the things they love?
Music’s the universal language, after all. Let’s start a conversation.
Featured image taken from Wallpaper Safari.