Music and color have a deep connection in the human mind. While music is experienced through hearing and color through vision, there are some fascinating ways that these two sensory experiences can interact and influence each other. Synesthesia is one phenomenon where certain individuals can actually perceive colors when listening to music. But even for non-synesthetes, music can evoke visual imagery and be linked to color associations. Exploring the relationships between music and color can reveal some intriguing insights into human perception and psychology.
What is synesthesia?
Synesthesia is a neurological condition where stimulation of one sense involuntarily triggers another sensory experience. For example, seeing letters or numbers may trigger specific color perceptions. Or hearing sounds may trigger the visualization of colors. An estimated 1 in 2,000 people have some form of synesthesia, with even more having some less intense synesthetic experiences.
For synesthetes who link music and color, listening to a musical piece will automatically evoke vivid visual colors and patterns. These color perceptions are highly consistent, meaning a certain song will always trigger the same colors every time. The music-color synesthesia can involve timbre, specific instruments, certain musical keys, or other elements of the music eliciting particular colors.
Examples of music-color synesthesia
Some examples of how music may automatically trigger color experiences for synesthetes:
- Hearing a C major chord may elicit red colors
- A piano melody may trigger pastel blue and pink visuals
- The rich timbre of a cello may evoke deep purple hues
- Minor key music elicits darker, more muted colors
- High-pitched violin notes lead to visualizations of light green or yellow
The colors triggered are often based on some meaningful association or intuition from each synesthete. Low, booming pitches seem to correlate with darker colors while higher, more energetic pitches elicit lighter colors.
Prevalence of music-color synesthesia
Research indicates music-color synesthesia is one of the most common forms, estimated to occur in 1 in 3 synesthetes. However, the exact prevalence is difficult to determine given that many milder cases likely go unreported.
One study found that more than half of a sample of college music students experienced some degree of color associations with music. A subset of 5-7% had more consistent, automatic music-color perceptions that may indicate true synesthesia.
So while full music-color synesthesia is relatively rare, cross-sensory associations between music and color appear fairly common in the general population.
Psychological basis for music-color associations
Even for those who don’t actually see colors from music, certain songs or keys can still evoke visual color imagery in our mind’s eye. So what explains these more common cross-modal associations?
One theory points to latent psychological correspondences between auditory and visual sensory elements. Research has found correlations between:
- Pitch and lightness – High pitches link to light, pale colors; low pitches to dark, rich colors
- Timbre and saturation – Harsher, duller timbres elicit desaturated, grayish colors; warm, harmonious timbres elicit saturated, vivid hues
- Rhythm and shape – Smooth, flowing rhythms evoke rounded shapes and forms; jagged rhythms elicit sharp, angled shapes
These innate, cross-modal mappings likely stem from our neuroanatomy. For instance, pitch discrimination and processing of vertical visual space (lightness) activate nearby regions of the brain. Analogous neurological correlations exist for other music and color dimensions.
Over time, these implicit associations become reinforced as we’re exposed to real-world stimuli that align with the mappings. For example, observing light colors paired with high-pitched sounds, like birds chirping.
Does genre or culture affect music-color associations?
Some research indicates that culture and musical genres can play a role in the subjective colors we link to music. For instance, classical music may elicit more pastel blue and purple colors (considered more “classical”), while jazz evokes vivid reds, oranges, and yellows.
One study found individuals from different cultural backgrounds often associate different colors to the same piece based on implicit associations in their upbringing. For example, Chinese participants linked piano music to red more often, possibly due to red symbolizing luck and happiness.
So while cross-sensory correspondences in pitch, timbre, etc. do seem universal, learned cultural and genre associations can also influence subjective perceptions.
Musical artists who see music in color
While not necessarily synesthetes, some famous musical artists have described perceiving colors or abstract visuals from music:
- Duke Ellington – Saw specific colors and imagery for each of the 12 musical keys
- Jean Sibelius – Associated certain timbres and harmonies with colors, which influenced his compositions
- Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov – Mapped instrument tones, keys, and harmonies to visual colors and patterns
- Stevie Wonder – Described “music pictures” with distinct shapes, colors, and textures
For these musicians, thinking in music-to-color mappings was an integral part of their creative process and how they composed melodies and harmonies.
Psychological benefits of music-color associations
Beyond just being an interesting perceptual phenomenon, researchers suggest these types of cross-sensory associations may have some psychological upsides:
- Enhances enjoyment and interest in music listening
- Helps strengthen memory and recall of music by providing visual mental imagery
- Creates a richer, multi-sensory experience of the music
- Allows for greater self-expression and creativity when discussing musical elements
So having the ability to visualize colors, textures, or scenery when hearing music can actually deepen people’s connection and engagement with the art form.
Using music-color connections creatively
Intentionally utilizing these music-to-color associations can also open creative possibilities across different mediums. A few examples:
- Creating visual art or animations inspired by qualities of a musical composition
- Illustrating sheet music with specific colors to denote various musical elements
- Pairing particular music and lighting colors for installations or performance arts
- Matching music to “color playlists” for relaxing, energizing, or mood-enhancing effects
Leveraging these multisensory relationships allows music to influence visual art, and vice versa. This interplay can lead to novel ways of blending auditory and visual media.
Research methods on music-color perceptions
Scientists use various creative techniques to study links between music and color:
|Asking participants to match colors with music samples or report imagery
|Measuring neurological responses as participants hear music
|Identifying patterns in large samples of music-color associations
|In-depth studies of synesthetes’ music-color perceptions
|Observing effects of deliberately pairing music and color
This combination of qualitative surveys, neuroimaging, data analysis, and hands-on testing allows researchers to gain a multi-faceted understanding of the music-color relationship from both an objective and subjective standpoint.
Neurological basis of music-color synesthesia
Converging research points to differences in brain connectivity and communication between regions as the neurological basis for synesthesia. Specifically, synesthetes appear to have greater communication between brain areas involved in processing each sensory modality:
- Enhanced connections between auditory (music) and visual (color) brain regions
- Disinhibited feedback between sensory and executive areas
- Increased gray matter density and white matter connectivity
- Differences in serotonin levels which affect neuron communication
So unusually strong cross-talk between the parts of the brain handling music and color gives rise to synesthetic perceptions not experienced by most people.
Music-evoked imagery in the brain
Neuroimaging reveals that even in non-synesthetes, music triggers activity across a wide network of brain regions related to emotion, memory, and multisensory processing:
- Activates auditory cortex and other sound processing areas
- Stimulates regions like the inferior frontal gyrus and posterior cingulate cortex involved in visual and motor imagery
- Engages emotional centers like the amygdala and hippocampus
- May suppress activity in the visual ventral pathway temporarily
So while not necessarily seeing colors, normal brains still conjure up complex imagery and associations when processing music.
Genetic and familial links with synesthesia
Research has uncovered possible genetic components related to development of synesthesia:
- 63% of synesthetes report a first-degree relative with synesthesia
- DNA markers on chromosomes 2, 5, 6, and 12 may be linked
- Might be associated with genes related to serotonin, growth factors, axon guidance
- No single “synesthesia gene” identified yet though
While more research is still needed, these results suggest synesthesia appears to have a hereditary basis and run in families. Genes influencing neuron development and communication seem to play a role.
Can non-synesthetes experience music in color?
With practice and imagination, non-synesthetes can start to experience a bit of music-to-color perception using a few methods:
- Visualization training – Imagine consistent colors to specific songs/keys
- Meditation – Practice sensory awareness to see subtle perceptions
- Sensory immersion – Surround yourself with music and color simultaneously
- mnemonic associations – Create stories linking music to color
While likely not as vivid as a true synesthete, deliberately matching music with color and training mental imagery does appear to strengthen these associations in the mind’s eye for anyone.
While relatively rare, full-fledged music-color synesthesia provides a fascinating glimpse into the depths of human sensory perception and its complexities. But on a more subtle level, associations between music and color do seem innate in all our experiences. Exploring these connections creatively across visual and auditory mediums can lead to beautiful innovations and enhanced enjoyment of both art forms. And anyone can practice conjuring their own inner music-evoked colors. So next time you listen to your favorite song, focus on whether it naturally elicits any specific color visions or not!