Listening to Colors
During the introduction to the bass thumping track, “Time for Some Action” of N.E.R.D.’s third studio album “Seeing Sounds”, front-man Pharrell Williams opened the track reminiscing about a psychedelic experience he had growing up.
“You know when I was a kid growing up, we used to love playing outside,
riding bikes, it was the 80’s, record heat waves,
I mean people were like dying on the side of the road getting heat stokes,
only thing you could do,
was go in the house and you know take a shower couple times a day,
so….I’ll never forget I was like 7 years old,
I closed my eyes and that’s when it started,
I started seeing sounds.”
Pharrell was experiencing a neurological phenomenon shared by some of the world’s most prized artists and scientists, called Synesthesia.
When interviewed by Psychology today in 2012, he described how he was able to channel what he was experiencing into his music.
“It (the music) just always stuck out in my mind. And I could always see it. I don’t know if that makes sense but I could always visualize what I was hearing. It was like…weird colors.”
Mozart, Pythagoras, Rimsky-Korsakov, Duke Ellington, Jimi Hendrix, and Marilyn Monroe are all in the club, and they represent only a portion of a long list of artists who also experienced Synesthesia.
So, what is it?
Synesthesia is defined as, “the production of a sense impression relating to one sense or part of the body by stimulation of another sense or part of the body.” It can be manifested in many ways, such as seeing sounds (chromesthesia), seeing sequences of numbers in space, or even hearing sounds differently. The most common is where people see individual letters or numbers (graphemes) as colors.
In Campen’s The Hidden Sense: Synesthesia in Art and Science, the author discusses how children discovered their synesthesia and how many of them don’t realize that their experiences are unique. Others felt like they were keeping a hidden secret their entire lives. He goes on to describe how many have used their gift to memorize names and do mental arithmetic.
About 1/2000 people have Synesthesia and studies show that it is passed on genetically. According to Neuroscientist Vilayanur Ramachandran out of UCSB, synesthesia is 8 times more common in poets and artists. You can see his TED talk about this subject here.
But what if you have Synesthesia? If you’re not sure, Dr. Ramachandran created a test for the condition that you can take yourself.
Most people see lots of 5’s. If you look longer, you’ll see that some of the 5’s have been reversed and are 2’s. Someone with number –color synesthesia will immediately see a triangle of 2’s – it would stand out because the 2 and the 5 are seen in two different colors. (Courtesy of http://www.youramazingbrain.org/brainchanges/synesthesia.htm)
If you are interested by how music occupies the brain and how it affects the human condition, I’d recommend checking out a book called, “Musicophilia” by Dr. Oliver Sacks. You may know the author from his books “Awakenings” (which later became a movie starring Robin Williams and Robert De Niro) and “The Man Who Mistook His Wife For A Hat”. Both are really cool books about weird brain phenomena.
When admiring the works of artists such as Pharrell Williams and those mentioned above, we should take note of the creative influences in their lives, as well as the hard work and dedication it took for them to succeed.
That said, if you can see sounds, you just might have a competitive advantage as an artist.